LEXINGTON, Ky. — Anthony Davis hadn’t played. They called him a coach, but he did precious little coaching, either.
And so, not an hour removed from sitting on the bench for a charity basketball game between former Kentucky and North Carolina players, the Pelicans forward settled into the back of a Ford Expedition bound for Blue Grass Airport and tried to explain why the crowd roared as loud and long for him as for any of the other NBA players participating at Rupp Arena.
“The (Kentucky) fan base is the best in college basketball, the best that I’ve been around so far — probably beside Golden State (in the NBA),” Davis said. “But I think winning definitely plays a huge part.”
Davis’ superstardom was born here, and it has lived on long after his move to New Orleans. His face greets you from the window of Kennedy’s bookstore, selling textbooks to UK students since 1950. And a black-and-white poster of Davis in a Wildcats uniform, arms outstretched over a row of 10 basketballs, seems to hang on the wall of every campus-area business.
It’s common for former Kentucky greats to remain beloved, and Davis is. But more than any individual accolade — and he won most all of them in his one year at Kentucky — or his trademark unibrow, Davis is best remembered here as a winner.
And now, as his fourth NBA season nears, it seems more important than ever to Davis that he be remembered the same way in New Orleans.
“Winning kind of — I don’t want to say it defines greatness, but it’s, like, 80 percent of it,” Davis said. “At the end of the day, I want to win a ring — multiple rings — and I think that helps you if they do have a debate whether you’re great or not.”
There has been no debate about Davis’ career trajectory. He has improved each of his three years in New Orleans, peaking last season when he averaged 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocked shots and finished fifth in MVP voting.
The 6-foot-10, 253-pound Davis is a statistical marvel who led the league in Player Efficiency Rating, a measure of total on-court impact, at 30.89. Only Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and LeBron James have posted a higher PER in a season.
Davis’ development resulted in a five-year, $145 million contract extension. But the Pelicans’ trip to the playoffs last season — swept in the first round by eventual champion Golden State — was Davis’ first foray to the NBA postseason.
“He killed, of course,” NBA.com analyst Sekou Smith said. “He wore the Warriors out. But now the next hurdle is, do you take that next logical step in your evolution? And that’s taking a team from just making the playoffs to making the conference semifinals or pushing deeper and deeper.”
Davis — who besides a college championship has won gold medals at the 2012 Olympics as a reserve and the 2014 FIBA World Cup as a major contributor — said he’s driven by the chance to add an NBA ring to his resume, to become a rare Triple Crown championship winner.
That comes as no surprise to John Calipari, who coached Davis at Kentucky and said that during their first recruiting visit Davis told him, “All I want to do is win.”
“The great ones in (the NBA), first of all they need to establish who they are,” Calipari said. “They want to win, but they want to establish themselves. The minute they’re established — and Anthony’s established — they don’t care about anything except winning a championship. They know that’s how they’re gonna be judged.”
And Davis will be judged that way. For three seasons, Davis has been defined by eye-popping plays and spectacular statistics. Now, Smith said, the key is elevating his team, and “we get to all watch and see if he really smashes it, or does he struggle to live up to those expectations?”
Smith was in the Smoothie King Center last season to see Davis lead the Pelicans past San Antonio in the regular-season finale, a win that clinched a playoff bid. He saw in that performance a hint of where Davis can take the franchise.
“He played like a dude who was possessed,” Smith said. “He understood exactly what was on the line, which tells you he’s a guy who’s cognizant of his legacy and his standing in the league.”
Winning will define that legacy for Davis. His hope is to solidify in the NBA what he did at Kentucky, what he has done in international competition.
“It’s only a few who haven’t won that are (considered) great,” Davis said, not long before he left the SUV for a private flight bound for New Orleans. “I think part of being great is doing great things, and not everybody can say they won an NBA championship. At the end (if you win), they’re gonna say, ‘How was Anthony Davis as a player? Oh, he was great.’
“A lot of people have told me there’s a lot of good players in the league, but not a lot of great players. I want to be in that category.”