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THE LINE snaked around the block, 75 families, many with kids in tow, waiting for the doors to open. On a chilly Sunday afternoon in South Central Los Angeles, they had massed in front of Urban Legends Stadium, a shoe store that sells Nikes and hoodies but also Booker T. Washington biographies and a full complement of Barack Obama T-shirts. The folks in line talked about church and sports and movies and tried like hell to avoid the topic of the economy. � Sirens wailed in the background, and police kept a wary eye on the crowd, but the people were there only for a giveaway of holiday food—turkeys, cans of vegetables, biscuits, pies, crates of bottled water—paid for and distributed by Baron Davis, the Los Angeles Clippers point guard. Davis had returned from an East Coast road trip earlier that morning yet arrived at Urban Legends in high spirits, flashing a smile, framed by a thick beard, that puffed out his cheeks. This was no pro forma goodwill appearance by an athlete; Davis was greeted not as a celebrity but as a familiar figure in the community. No one wanted his autograph or photo. They just wanted to catch up. The crowd of onlookers included his sisters, aunts, nephews and grandmother. They chided him for everything from his tardiness to his attire. (At an aunt's behest, Davis quickly removed a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words TYSON VS. GIVENS.)
Davis grew up a few hundred yards away, in a two-bedroom house on 85th Street. Today, as they did then, gangs and drugs pollute the neighborhood, and iron bars barricade most buildings, even the storefront churches. Davis and his sister Lisa were raised by their maternal grandparents, Luke and Lela Nicholson. While Davis didn't necessarily feel poor relative to his friends and neighbors, he remembers his sixth-grade trip to see Cirque du Soleil at the Santa Monica Pier. "The acrobats were cool, but what was really cool was running around in the sand," he says. "We lived in L.A., but for a lot of us it was the first time we'd ever been to the beach." Under Lela's roof there was one overriding rule: There had to be more to life than sports. "My grandma would always say the same thing," says Davis, "If I take that ball away, who are you?"
Davis would go on to become an opulently talented basketball star, arguably the best player ever to come out of Los Angeles, an NBA All-Star with a $13 million annual salary. And for all the fatuous talk of athletes "crossing over" into other fields—which too often means losing one's shirt producing a vanity album or making a forgettable cameo on a forgettable sitcom—Davis, perhaps more than any other athlete, successfully pulls it off. Here's B. Diddy, the politically active, socially committed, entrepreneurial, movie-producing basketball player. "Every time I talk to him, he has something different going on," says New Orleans Hornets center Tyson Chandler, a longtime friend. "It's like, I can't keep up!"
The 6'3" Davis has put a twist on the familiar deliverance-through-hoops narrative. Basketball is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The sport is less who he is than what he does. But is that a good thing?
DAVIS SAYS he can pinpoint the precise moment that his life changed. Before his seventh-grade year he was approached by Daryl Roper, the basketball coach at Crossroads School, an overwhelmingly wealthy, overwhelmingly white private institution in Santa Monica, peopled mostly by the offspring of the Hollywoodocracy. With its chess club and its student parking lot filled with imported sports cars, Crossroads could scarcely have been further removed from the public schools—"typically overcrowded and underfunded," he says—in Davis's neighborhood. Roper, who also grew up in South Central, says that he "saw Baron's amazing charisma" (as well as his ball handling skills) and encouraged him to interview at Crossroads. When Davis was offered a place and a waiver of tuition, which approached $20,000 a year, the decision to attend was no decision at all. "Grandma was like, 'You're going. Period. Let's get a bus map,'" he says.
After a few months of adjustment Davis fit in fine, moving easily between the struggles of South Central and the comfort of Crossroads, where he counted Kate Hudson and sons of Denzel Washington and Dustin Hoffman among his classmates. "I called it Disney World; I saw that there was a better way of life [than the inner city]," he says.
Davis's interest in activism was piqued during his two years at UCLA, where he met Jim Brown and took a class on actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. As a rookie with the Hornets, then based in Charlotte, Davis befriended Marshall Rauch, an entrepreneur and longtime North Carolina state senator. "On a lot of Sundays he'd come over and bombard me with questions about politics and economics," recalls Rauch, now in his mid-80s. "He absorbed everything, and you knew he was going to use it someday."
In the summer of 2006 Davis, who was then with the Golden State Warriors, addressed the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., about health issues and the obesity crisis affecting minorities. He also attended the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City that September. During the trip he met with the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. Davis spoke with him about life in the inner city. "There's just this lack—lack of education, lack of safety, lack of opportunity, lack of health care," he says. " Barack really listened and engaged. He told me, 'If you're serious about restructuring the inner city, use your platform.'?"
When Obama announced his candidacy for president, Davis was quick to volunteer, hosting fund-raisers and cutting checks. (He and Obama aide Reggie Love texted each other congratulations on election night.) "Our country is at a tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell would put it," says Davis. "I feel like this [election result] is a new beginning, for the U.S. and even for the world. It feels good to say you were part of something bigger than yourself."
Davis's other significant nonbasketball pursuit is his production company, Verso Entertainment, which he founded with Cash Warren, his friend and Crossroads classmate (who is perhaps best known as Jessica Alba's husband). The company's maiden project, Crips and Bloods: Made in America , is a full-length documentary directed by acclaimed filmmaker Stacy Peralta (Dogtown and Z-Boys), tracing the history of the gang culture in South Central. "I think Baron was particularly taken with it because this was his community," says Peralta. "He was like, 'If I had made a few different choices, that could have been me.'"