Even for a one-time Harlem Globetrotter, Tony "Bones" Davis has had an unconventional career path.
Starting from a small Catholic high school in eastern Illinois, Davis bounced around junior colleges in the 1950s and became a regular on the playground blacktops, crossing paths with the likes of Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell.
The 6-10 Davis almost attended Seattle University with Baylor before meeting an unexpected Hollywood opportunity.
"I was walking down the street in Los Angeles, on Broadway, and in front of the [Grand Central Market], this guy said, 'Hey, man, do you want to be in the movies?’ I said, ‘Oh, why not?'"
So Metro-Goldwyn Mayer hired Davis for a part in the adventure film Watusi.
"Sometimes I think about if I should have gone to Seattle University and played with Elgin Baylor,” Davis said. "It was a Catholic school, and I could have made the NBA."
Davis missed out on his NBA dream, but his love of basketball has never fallen by the wayside. Now 79, he is still shooting three-point hook shots and has become a fixture at the National Senior Games, which just finished this year's session in Cleveland. He has 25 gold medals and a bronze thanks to the National Senior Games Association, which brings together men and women 50 or older for athletic competition.
The NSGA was founded in St. Louis and the first national tournament took place there in 1987. The national Games occur biennially, but 49 states have regular local tournaments in different districts. The national Games now feature a Olympic-style village, which hosts demonstrations in cooking, fitness and other healthy lifestyle activities that are open to all ages. Around 11,000 athletes competed in this year’s Games, ranging in age from 50 to 101.
Most of Davis' opponents in the Senior Games do not have such decorated athletic backgrounds, according to NSGA CEO Marc Riker.
"There's something for everybody, from novice to elite athletes, and that's the beauty of it," Riker said. "We do have people coming out here who are 75 years old, and it’s the first time they’re really playing a sport. They just picked up a sport last year for the first time and went to a local event and had the opportunity to qualify, and now they’re coming to Nationals. And then we have people who have been playing the sport for all their lives – just like Tony.”
"We know that every one of those athletes has a story in their lifetimes."
Few may be more compelling than that of Davis, who earned the nickname “Bones” from his sister because of his skinny frame. Davis grew up in Danville, Ill., where he was “the only black kid in school for a long, long time.” Sticking out like a sore thumb not only for his skin color but his lanky frame, Davis became accustomed to taunts from opposing fans.
"The priest told me ‘don’t take nothing from nobody.’ They’re going to call you all kinds of names,” Davis said. “I’ve been called everything but Jesus Christ.”
Davis led tiny Schlarman High, with an enrollment of about 240 students, to a fourth-place finish at the Illinois state basketball tournament. He briefly joined the Harlem Globetrotters after graduating high school in 1953. Owner Abe Saperstein gave him the name "Jumpin' Johnny Jones" because he could put his elbows on the basket while dunking.
After his stint with the Globetrotters and multiple junior colleges, Davis attended the University of Hawaii for two years. In 1959, he set the school single-game scoring record of 45 points against Cal State Los Angeles, which still stands today. The New York Knicks selected him in the ninth round of the 1960 draft, bringing him within striking distance of his NBA dream. But the Knicks never invited him to training camp and sent a letter to Hawaii stating that he lacked the necessary experience, Davis said.
The Detroit Pistons had interest bringing in Davis for a tryout. Before the landmark 1970s lawsuit of Oscar Robertson v. National Basketball Association, however, NBA players were severely limited in their bargaining power. Davis needed a waiver from the team with his draft rights to try out with the Pistons, and the Knicks never signed one. To this day, Davis doesn't hold a very high opinion of the organization, which he calls by its original name, the Knickerbockers.
“The New York Knickerbockers -- they have a history of doing things to basketball players,” Davis said, citing their handling of Jeremy Lin’s free agency as another example. Lin scored 45 points in a game this summer at the San Francisco Pro-Am, where Davis has been a regular for 30 years.
After his NBA hopes faded, Davis played professionally in some different leagues before settling down in San Francisco along with some friends from Hawaii. He has worked numerous jobs, from cable car conductor to security guard and juvenile detention center counselor.
Meanwhile, he has taken Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s signature hook shot to the next level, frequently tossing it in from behind the three-point line. Davis’ smaller and less gifted opponents don’t go easy on him at the Senior Games.
“They foul me a lot. Last time I played, they didn't foul me very much because they realized that I could always hit free throws,” he said with a chuckle. "One game, we were so far ahead, I said ‘well, it’s time to shoot underhanded free throws.’ I had three free throws, so I shot one left-handed, one underhanded, one right-handed, and I got lucky – they all went in the basket.”
Davis may be the Michael Phelps of the Senior Games, but many other athletes have dazzled with their accomplishments in advanced age. Riker recalled a conversation he had with a 92-year-old pole vaulter.
"In Texas, we were sitting next to a guy at dinner, and he’s leaning over, and he's going, ‘Hey, Marc, did you know that the world record for the 90 to 95 is a lot less than for the 85 to 89?' ” Riker said. “I was like ‘well Hans, what’s the record?’ He [says], '5-3.' I’ve been practicing at 5-6. I’m going to break the record.' ”
Though aging may be the greatest fear of most athletes, Davis and thousands of others are finding their personal fountains of youth.
-- Follow Alex Leichenger on Twitter @AlexLeich.