No. 23 is returning to Chicago on Saturday night.
No, not that No. 23.
Anthony Davis still has a long way to go to reach the status of that other No. 23, but he already has a Michael Jordan-like following by some of those anticipating his return home Saturday when the New Orleans Pelicans visit the Chicago Bulls at United Center.
Just ask Vinay Mullick, athletic director at Perspectives Charter School in Chicago, where Davis starred just a few years ago before blossoming into one of the NBA’s elite players in what seems like the blink of an eye.
“There’s not a day that goes by that the name Anthony Davis doesn’t come up,” Mullick said. “He graduated from us in 2011, and now he is in talks about being the MVP of the NBA. How crazy is that? His story gives a lot of our kids hope. Just the idea if you work hard at something and put your mind to it, good things will happen.”
And for Davis, good things have happened since his high school days in the Windy City.
NCAA championship at Kentucky. No. 1 pick in the draft. An NBA all-star appearance. And more recently, an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And, as of Thursday, he was the leading vote-getter among Western Conference frontcourt players in balloting for this season’s All-Star game.
Now he gets a chance to perhaps pick up a few more all-star fan votes from the folks in his hometown.
“It feels great to go back home anytime,” Davis said. “I don’t get that much time back home with Chicago being in the Eastern Conference.”
Although Davis is in his third season, it’ll be his first time playing against the Bulls in the United Center. (He played there this summer with Team USA on its way to winning the FIBA World Cup.)
In his rookie season, he suffered a concussion against Utah on the night before the Bulls game. Last season, it was a hand injury suffered against New York the night before the trip to Chicago that sidelined Davis.
Surprisingly, New Orleans won both of those games without him. But everybody knows the Pelicans’ chances are much better with him.
He was averaging 24.5 points (fourth in the league), 10.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks (tops in the league) heading into Friday’s 97-90 victory against San Antonio. He can add to that against the team that plays in the town he grew up in, although he admits he wasn’t a diehard Bulls fan, like many other kids in Chicago.
“I didn’t have a team,” he said. “I was a LeBron fan. And Kevin Garnett. It was more about the player.”
Yeah, you heard him right.
Davis grew up on LeBron, not MJ.
Sounds funny, right? Especially considering James doesn’t turn 30 until Tuesday.
But, remember, Davis won’t turn 22 until March.
He was just 3 months old when Jordan and the Bulls capped their first three-peat in 1993. He was only 5 when they three-peated again in 1998.
The banners from those six NBA titles hang in the rafters of the United Center. Also in the rafters hangs the No. 23 worn by Jordan. About 4½ miles away, another No. 23 is on display in the hallway at Perspective Charter School.
“It’s the first thing they see when they walk into the school and look to the right,” said Waybon McConnell, the current coach at Perspectives. “It’s a reminder to them that anything is possible.”
Manuel Whitfield, who now attends Babson College in Massachusetts, was one of Davis’ high school teammates.
“He worked his butt off,” Whitfield said while giving his second interview about his former teammate. “He had the opportunity, and he took it.”
His first interview came a few weeks ago, when he got a call from Sports Illustrated.
“Everybody isn’t going to make it to the NBA,” Whitfield said, “but his story gives you hope that, if you work hard in anything in life, you can achieve whatever you want.”
Davis’ path to the NBA from Chicago, including his growth spurt, is well-documented.
His school had no gym. As a freshman, he had just six players on his team by season’s end. A year later, there were just five players at season’s end.
The school itself has about 350 students in grades 6-12, so Davis could’ve left and went to one of Chicago’s more well-known powerhouses.
“If you’re in Chicago and not playing at Simeon where Derrick Rose or Jabari Parker went or at Whitney Young where (Duke standout Jahlil) Okafor was from, there isn’t so much hype,” McConnell said. “So the kids love seeing what he is doing. It pushes them a lot.”
Mullick recalls a contingent of about 50 people from Perspectives who went to see Davis when New Orleans visited Chicago in Davis’ rookie season. He isn’t sure how many will be there Saturday.
“It’s huge when he comes back,” Mullick said. “Even though he is far away from us geographically, his impact still resonates here on a daily basis. The athletes in all of our programs are very aware of what he is doing and how he carries himself on and off the court. He has become a grown-up right before our eyes, so we couldn’t be prouder.”
Davis said he doesn’t know how many of his old friends will be there.
“I told them, ‘Don’t bother me with that. Call my parents,’ ” he said. “They take care of that. I just worry about playing basketball.”
But Saturday, he’ll play not only for the Pelicans but also for some of the folks in Chi-Town, especially his former teammates and friends at his old high school.
He still remembers what they would always tell him back then.
“They always said it, ‘You are going to go the NBA one day, and you’re going to be big,’ ” Davis said. “Now that it’s starting to come around, it’s real special to see.”