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Nelly -- There’s just something about that name: 21st Century's Davis headed to Final Four with FAU

By STEVE HANLON

It was the fall of 2019. The world had changed much for myself.

This sports scribbler of 30-plus years was walking to the office of 21st Century school in Gary. Never finding a gymnasium, football field or spring diamond that caused me to quake, I was now attempting to teach kids how to read, write and think for themselves at the charter school in Glen Park.

As my steps danced into the office, 21st Century basketball coach Rodney Williams was chatting with Florida Atlantic assistant coach Akeem Miskdeen. Williams introduced us, then pointed to a newspaper article framed on the wall.

My byline was underneath the article about Johnell Davis, which was written during Nelly’s freshman season.

“What do you think of him?” said Miskdeen, now an assistant coach at Georgia.

“Well,” I muttered, trying to measure my thoughts and words. “Nelly is great. (pregnant pause here). But I believe his best basketball is ahead of him.”

“That’s what we believe, too,” Miskdeen said with a smile.

Late on Saturday night while scrolling through Twitter, I saw a photograph of Davis and Miskdeen hugging under the lights of Madison Square Garden in New York City. Davis – a 6-foot-4 sophomore at Florida Atlantic – had helped spark the Owls to a 79-76 win over Kansas State to earn a trip to the Final Four.

This isn’t just history. This is are you freaking kidding me, no way in the world, not a chance Francis, what have you been smoking, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious sheet kind of history.

FAU was a severe underdog – + 250,000 – to win the national championship before this college hoops season began. On Jan. 3, the number had dropped to + 45,000. And those numbers kept dropping as coach Dusty May’s team quietly kept winning games at the mid-major level before the NCAA tournament began.

The ninth-seeded Owls (35-3) beat Memphis 66-65 in the opener, with Davis scoring 12 points with five rebounds. Then, a 78-70 win over 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson, with Nelly scoring 29 points, with 12 rebounds, five assists and five steals, a package of numbers that no human had ever done in the NCAAs.

Next was four seed Tennessee, a 62-55 win where Davis scored 15 points with six carroms

And finally against three seed Kansas State, Gary’s finest had 13 points, right rebounds and six assists.

Twice in this run, he played insane defense in the final seconds of a one possession game to secure the W.

May, an Indiana native who was a manager for Bob Knight at IU, told the national audience he saw Davis playing in the high school gym and knew he wanted him to become an Owl in a few moments.

“It was about two seconds,” Williams said with a happy laugh. “He saw him and said he wanted him. It was that quick.”

I had the honor of writing the first local story on Davis in 2016. He was so quiet. But after leaving the dying industry of print journalism, I found myself teaching at 21st Century in 2019. Nelly continued to be softly silent. One day after his Cougars had played at Indianapolis Attucks, I had Williams speak in my Journalism class about what that game meant.

Oscar Robertson was the main focus. We talked about one of the top Indiana players of all time, who had led Attucks to state championships in 1955 and ‘56, becoming the first all-black team to do such a thing.

Davis sat at his desk, taking notes. Once the bell rang and students began leaving, Johnell came up and asked me a question.

“Mr. Hanlon, did you see Oscar play?”

I laughed and tried a little humor in my response.

“Nelly, I’m old but I ain’t that old,” I said, as he chuckled at my joke.

A few months later, no one was laughing. The world was shut down. COVID.

I never saw Davis after a day in March, just after 21st Century had won a sectional title.

Davis and his wonderful teammates were robbed of a sure state title by a pandemic. It honestly broke my heart.

“It broke our heart, too,” said Williams, including his side-kick in building the program, Ricky Haskins, who sadly died a few months after the season was unplugged. “I am sure of one thing. No one would’ve come within 20 points that year. We would’ve won the state championship.”

No doubt, good sir.

Williams has coached some great talent. Eugene German is playing professionally in China. DeAndre Gholston helped lead Missouri onto this same March Madness stage. But Nelly, there’s just something about that name.

“I always knew he’d be the one,” Williams said. “I just knew.”

As FAU prepares to play San Diego State in the national semifinal on Saturday, Williams has a dilemma. He would love to go see Johnell play in front of the brightest lights around in Houston. But he is dealing with lung cancer. He has to see what his doctor tells him.

He said that Kevin Teasley, the president and founder of 21st Century, has offered to get Williams to the game. I hope and pray such a thing was possible.

“Nelly calls me all the time, he called me after the game before last,” Williams said. “I just told him how proud of him I was.”

The entire Region should be proud of our No. 1.

I know for certain I am.


Gary 21st Century graduate Johnell Davis hugs the East Regional champion trophy after ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic edged Kansas State to advance to the Final Four. Davis, a sophomore, posted 13 points, eight rebounds and six assists for the Owls.

(Photo from Florida Atlantic Men's Basketball Twitter)


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