PLANT CITY — The game Winston Davis has been observing almost exclusively from his chair isn’t long for this world.
Blake High’s 67-31 trouncing of Plant City has been expedited by a state rule requiring the clock to keep running when a team’s lead hits 35 points. As the final horn mercifully resonates, Davis carefully rises and falls in line behind Blake’s players and two assistants.
He embraces Plant City coach Dale Chambers, then, like the other Yellow Jackets, shakes hands with each Raiders player and staffer. He then slowly walks to the visitors’ locker room where, with a soft voice laced with a mild slur, he offers a brief assessment of what he saw.
“That was a good game, fellas, one of our best games,” says Davis, standing in a narrow aisle separating two sets of lockers as his players undress. “I saw some movement, some ball movement, defense and some rebounding.”
After reminding his players to stay on edge — Blake will play again the next night) — Davis pulls a black ski cap over his shaven head, which sports a light vertical scar down the right side, and walks into the mild east Hillsborough County night.
“I feel good,” Davis tells a reporter. “I’m a little tired but it’s been a long day.”
A 15-hour day to be precise, including 10 minutes in the radiation room at Moffitt Cancer Center. For now, that cancerous brain tumor is toast. Davis’ resolve isn’t.
“I’m very amazed,” Yellow Jackets junior guard Brandon Channer says. “I see him every day in second period; he’s my teacher. If I get sick I know I’m not going to miss school because he’s going through something worse than I am.”
Diagnosis be darned
Winston Cornell Davis, 58-year-old father of two and stepdad of one, spent the previous 33 years — first at East Bay, then at Blake — coaching girls and boys basketball. Not a soul would have begrudged him had he chosen to sit out No. 34.
The Friday before Labor Day, Dr. Marian Lauria-Davis had received a call from Blake informing her that her husband of nearly 23 years wasn’t feeling well and needed to be picked up. She took him to a Brandon hospital, where she says a mass was discovered but surgery wasn’t recommended.
Davis returned to work, but Marian sensed something was still wrong. He was dropping things, leaning to the left a bit when he walked. When you’ve lived with someone nearly a quarter-century, their nuances grow more profound. His grew more peculiar.
“Your wife would know when things aren’t right,” Marian said. “You may not be able to describe it with any clarity because you know your kids and your husband and you just know. It was just something out of sorts.”
The couple sought the opinion of another doctor, and shortly thereafter, Davis was admitted to Tampa General Hospital. On Nov. 4, Davis spent roughly seven hours in an operating room, where doctors removed the tumor — how big, she can’t recall — on the right side of his brain.
“He had no tubes,” Marian recalled of the first post-operative encounter of her husband. “He had this little Band-Aid on. …The next day he was up in the chair eating (by) himself.”
That would be a harbinger of Davis’ stubborn determination to get past this, and quickly.
With potentially the best season of his career looming, Davis — who starred at Blake in the segregation era — was bent on downsizing this whole tumor thing from scare to setback. He’d be there for the Nov. 29 season opener against East Bay even if fatigue and nausea accompanied him.
Davis observed from the bench as Blake dispatched of the Indians 72-60.
“I was just a complete wreck internally, but he has been so positive and steadfast,” said Marian, now retired from the Hillsborough County school district, where she served as a supervisor for teacher recruitment.
“There has not been one moment of self-pity or one moment of feeling sorry for himself. He has just not ever thought of giving up.”
Not that there’s time for surrender.
No cutting back
Davis still logs full work days as a PE teacher, then is driven by Marian to Moffitt for 10- to 15-minute radiation treatments Monday through Friday. Still, the only two games he has missed were a pair of late-December contests in Tallahassee.
“Obviously basketball was the farthest thing from anybody’s mind — except Coach Davis’,” said his nephew, Charles Smith, a Blake assistant who has taken leave from his job as an independent pharmacist to assume a greater role with the team.
“In his mind he was coming back to coach and it was going to be this year. .…As far as he was concerned, there was no doubt.”
After all, he had wallowed in too much mediocrity, toiled in too many gyms with dim lighting and dimmer turnouts, to sit out what loomed as his most prosperous winter. In 33 previous seasons, Davis had experienced only one playoff triumph, notched by last year’s 25-5 team.
This season’s forecast seemed even brighter. The Yellow Jackets were brimming with talented veterans in the backcourt led by point guard Andre Smith, a Winthrop University signee.
With their coach’s physical plight and perseverance serving as an inspirational backdrop, Blake (22-2) has flourished. Subtract a listless three-point loss last week at Riverview, when Smith sat out with an injury, and the Yellow Jackets are undefeated against Florida competition.
“Those guys have worked so hard to accomplish what they’ve accomplished now,” Davis said. “There was no way I wasn’t going to be a part of that. And that’s what motivates me. …The assistant coaches are doing a great job, and I’m just there.”
Smith and fellow assistant Marlin Steward essentially run the team. On days when he can make practice following his radiation treatments, Davis observes and interjects as his assistants put the Jackets through drills.
On game nights, Smith is the coach most frequently on his feet, exhorting, instructing and strategizing in the huddle during timeouts. Davis rises occasionally and confers with kids individually during breaks in the action.
Basketball has evolved into a post-radiation balm, even relaxing him, he says. In a sense, he suggests, the 2010-11 Yellow Jackets — without realizing it — are doing more for their coach than he is for them.
The players beg to differ.
“I think he’s a very strong person, and I see him every game knowing that he’s fighting through it,” junior guard Clarence Peterson said. “So he inspires me to play hard every night.”