Paul Davis Survived a Drive-By Shooting 14 Years Ago and Now Runs a Youth Basketball Program
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
No one knows the importance of living life to the fullest more than Palisadian Paul Davis. His triumph over tragedy not only inspires the youngsters he teaches, it also reminds him never to take a single moment for granted.
Nearly 14 years have passed since that summer day Davis was at his mother’s house in South Los Angeles when he and his younger brother were victims of a drive-by shooting. It could have killed him. Instead, it made him stronger.
“When I was shot at the age of 16 it opened my eyes and gave me a different perspective on life,” Davis says. “I think about it every day and have therapy once a week to address the trauma I went through as a child. It would take a book, a movie and a documentary to delve into the stories embedded in my fragile mind. I’ve had bad moments and good since then.”
Five days in intensive care were enough to convince Davis that quitting on his teammates—or himself—was not an option. The basketball court became his sanctuary and the 6-foot-2 senior wing relished being captain of the 2006-07 Palisades High varsity squad under Coach James Paleno.
During that season, Davis put his thoughts on paper, painting a vivid illustration of the shooting incident and earning recognition from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
“It was part of the Warehouse Scholastic Hoops All-Star Game and each player had to write an essay on a hardship in his life,” he recalls. “Mine won and the mayor acknowledged it and gave me an award through the city. It was pretty special for people to be able to see what I saw firsthand through my words.”
Basketball has been a driving force in his life since he was a boy and Davis is a beloved coach and youth mentor in the Palisades. He created Program Humble in 2015 with two teams comprised of kids he had trained over the years from families he knew he could trust. The name is also symbolic.
“I chose not to charge for the first couple of months just to show the families that my purpose was bigger than money,” he reveals. “It set a good tone for what we represent. I named the program ‘Humble’ for numerous reasons. Firstly, I came from humble beginnings in a single parent household where I was usually the second adult in the home. We weren’t necessarily financially stable and our community wasn’t consistently safe but we managed. I have four siblings and I never had a father figure until I got to high school where I met Coach Paleno, Mike Sutton, Olin Simplis, Ed Estavan and Torino Johnson. Secondly, I noticed a lot of divide in my community near the Crenshaw District and a lot of divide in the Palisades where kids of all ages had this issue of comparing and competing with one another through social media and in person where money and social status had become the way people accepted one another. I disliked it so I named my program ‘Humble’ to remind everyone to humble themselves using basketball as a bridge to bring multiple ethnicities and backgrounds together.”
Program Humble has grown beyond his wildest imagination. It currently consists of 11 teams and Davis runs numerous clinics and camps all over Los Angeles.
“We have 110 players in our program and over 200 kids who participate in private and group training as well as kids from all over who attend our seasonal camps,” Davis says. “Our mission is to develop youth from all over into successful student-athletes as well as wholesome, well-rounded members of society. Enhancing individual confidence and morals, teaching basketball fundamentals and coaching with profuse positivity, clear instruction and a team approach is what we’re about.”
Last summer, Humble’s 11U Black squad was ranked in the top 10 in Southern California, going unbeaten at the AAU Regionals to qualify for Nationals in Orlando.
Davis donated his team’s trophy from the AAU tournament to Palisades Recreation Center Director Erich Haas as thanks for letting his teams practice and train there for the last five years.
Humble teams are made up of players who attend Palisades Elementary, Marquez Elementary, Village School, Corpus Christi, Seven Arrows and Paul Revere Middle School mixed with scholarship students from the inner city —boys and girls ranging from 7 to 14 years old.
“Palisades was all about baseball and tennis until I showed up,” Davis says. “Now every kid is dribbling a basketball down the street wearing a LeBron jersey or a Humble hoodie. It’s special. My grandmother has lived in the Palisades for over 35 years so I’ve always had exposure to this community. I’ve personally lived here for seven years. I graduated from Pali High and I love how this place has transformed from the “uppity persona” into a down-to-earth place where it’s about raising families. When I started here, there were only two consistent trainers. Olin Simplis with BFT (Basketball’s Finest Training) and then there was a young kid training 12-13 hours a day, seven days a week— me. I earned every ounce of love and respect here and I didn’t want the attention or accolades. I just wanted every kid I worked with to feel important and reach whatever goal they had. I worked for them.”
Davis made the basketball team as a true freshman at Hampton University in Virginia before returning to Southern California to earn his AA degree in Business at El Camino College.
He continued his education at Whittier College from 2009-11, all while serving as a summer camp coach at UCLA, and he spent one season (2012-13) as the head JV coach at his alma mater.
“I was thrilled to be hired at Palisades and I wanted to be the coach for years to come,” Davis confesses. “That entire group became my first AAU team. I named my first program TWE (Team Work Ethic). Every kid had an agenda and a goal and I fell in love with that group that consisted of Will Johnson (now at Oregon), Joe Robinson who still plays in college now and many others who have gone on to have great lives. I learned that I could coach any age and any skill level that year. I learned I could coach my style while still learning under someone else. I also learned that nothing is ever set in stone because I was bummed to not be rehired the following year. I wanted to be part of the culture that I played for but now I’m blessed to be the boys assistant varsity coach at Crossroads School in Santa Monica with some of the best basketball junkies in LA.”
Davis does not take shortcuts. He built TWE from the ground up, a program consisting of three high school teams with primarily inner city kids who were under the radar and overlooked by prep and college coaches.
“Most of them couldn’t afford to pay me so I didn’t charge them and I trained on the side to fund their tournaments,” he notes. “I also did fundraising and got lucky to get us through four fun years of great exposure and they were able to play in front of tons of college coaches over the years.”
Using his TWE experience as a springboard, Davis interviewed for the head coach position for a Palisades-based All-Star team headed by Claire Haas that they named PHD (Pali Hoop Dreams).
“I brought my vision and passion to the table,” he says. “My goal was to grow into a huge program of two or three teams per age group and to train, run camps, mentor, do community service and give scholarships to kids from my old neighborhood so they could play for me. It grew, I moved into my first apartment in the Palisades and I hit the ground running.”
After PHD had run its course Davis sought to create something that suited his own vision more and Program Humble was it.
“I took a couple of months off to develop the concept of Humble and we started with two teams and grew to 13 within four years but we’re now at 11,” he says. “My older players have moved on to high school and college but our program goes from ages 7-8 all the way up to college age. We want to develop them all the way through and we have lots of talent and kids who aspire to play varsity, college and professional basketball and it’s going to happen. Our kids are insanely dedicated and so are our parents and families.”
One example of how much his players and their parents appreciate Davis came in 2014 when then Canyon Charter Elementary fifth-grader Charlie Goetz was applying to be a Junior Reporter for the Palisadian-Post and had to write an article about someone he thought made a difference in the community.
“Paul Davis, also known as Coach PD, is making a difference in the Palisades every second of the day,” Goetz wrote. “He coaches basketball to boys and girls of all ages. He gives private lessons and coaches teams in leagues all over the Palisades. His players say he is very positive and brings good energy to games. At almost any moment of the day you are sure to find Coach PD on a court somewhere in the Palisades. His work ethic sets a great example. He says he actually enjoys missing sleep and missing meals knowing he is working so hard. Basketball is Coach PD’s life.”
Another example of the outpouring of love and support from the community occurred four summers ago when Davis tore his Achilles in practice—an injury that required surgery.
A group of local parents headed by Amy Saxon immediately organized a fundraiser online that brought in more than $5,500 to cover his medical expenses.
“Whether you’re on Humble, or work out with him at the park or even just say ‘hi’ to him at Cafe Vida, we’ve all been touched by Paul Davis,” Saxon wrote in her pledge pitch. “He’s more than just a coach. He’s a friend, confidant and mentor. He gives way beyond the gym and all of our kids have benefited from his coaching, his wisdom, his tenacity and most of all, his story. In this latest chapter, he needs our help.”
Davis has kept in touch with very few of his former teammates, but the one he remains closest to is Brian Barner, who is also one of his Humble coaches.
“Brian’s been one of my best friends since the moment we were named varsity co-captains at Pali High,” Davis says. “He’s the head coach of my 14/15U team and our 11U teams as well. There’s no way Humble could operate with out his expertise and knowledge of the game.”
Barner also reflects fondly on the days he shared the court with Davis wearing the blue and white.
“Having Paul as a co-captain and teammate was a lot of fun,” Barner says. “I knew I could count on him to give his all and to hold me accountable. He was always talking, always positive, always motivating. I had someone to push me. By our senior year we were a solid unit. Most of us played on the same travel ball team. That familiarity on the court was evident.
We shared the ball, we competed at a high level and we were hilarious! In 2014, Paul reached out to me about coaching with him. I wanted to be part of Program Humble because I felt we worked well together and were successful at it, so let’s keep a good thing going. There isn’t really too much difference in styles of coaching. We both like to play fast when we can, we both know when we need to slow it down, we both like to pressure up on defense. It’s more our personalities that are different.”
Barner went from Pali High to Cal State Northridge, where he hoped to play for the Matadors. He tried out but didn’t make the team. Still wanting to play basketball he left CSUN and played for Cerritos City College in 2008-2009. He returned to Northridge and graduated with his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology in 2012.
“Coaching is something I thought about in high school but really decided to do in college,” Barner adds. “Just the importance of getting a message across to a player and also motivating someone to go beyond their limits stood out to me. I liked doing drills and working out, often people would want to get shots up with me, so I’d come up with the workouts. In 2008 I worked at a basketball camp for a weekend and loved it.”
Though both are competitive by nature, Barner believes his business partnership with Davis has strengthened their friendship.
“Coaching together definitely gets us to see more of the other’s personal life,” he adds. “I see his sons and family more now that we coach together than if we didn’t. We get to learn and grow together everyday basically. Paul is one of the few friends I have that I can say I see or talk to everyday.”
Barner’s coaching philosophy is simple: “Getting better starts with you. No one can get better for you. No one can want it for you. Your teammates and coaches can only help to push you but being part of a team is special and some of those teammates are going to be people that you know for the rest of your life.”
Not only is Davis coaching with one of his best friends, but his staff also includes his little brother LeBre Merritt, who captained Palisade’s varsity team as a sophomore in 2008-09.
“When I started Humble, my brother LeBre was my first hire,” Davis proudly proclaims. “He’s my right-hand man and one of the best trainers and coaches in youth basketball. He’s just unreal. I talk to him everyday and before this lockdown, I’d see him every single day for practices, games and Humble events. My brother was also a victim of the shooting that night. I always tell the story of how the bullet went through my neck and hit him in the mouth, slowing the bullet down when it hit him. The doctor said if it hadn’t gone through my neck it would’ve killed him instantly. We’ve been inseparable ever since.”
Merritt is glad to be a part of Program Humble, especially alongside his big brother.
“It’s amazing to be able to do what I love with the people I love the most,” he says. “Humble is bigger than just basketball. I’m glad to be a part of something so genuine. Growing up, myself and my brother didn’t have the same opportunities most children have in their early years. We were forced to grow up fast and appreciate one another through good and bad times. Our bond can never be broken just based off the trials and tribulations we’ve overcome over the years. It took awhile to figure out my next move after high school. I wasn’t able to play college basketball due to injuries. I was lost and going through the motions. I always knew I wanted to be involved with basketball, whether I was playing or not and I was 20 years old when I made the decision to pursue a career in coaching. At that time, my true passion was player development. I loved seeing players improve and that same love carried over to coaching. We took a leap of faith and my brother and I haven’t looked back since.”
Like his older brother, Merritt has not forgotten his roots. Back then, it was survival of the fittest.
“I grew up in South Central LA… Crenshaw and Adams to be exact,” reminisces Merritt, who lives in Hawthorne but wants to move to the Westside in the next year to be closer to Davis. “That neighborhood raised me. It made me into the man I am today. That neighborhood nearly took my life. My brother PD and I lived in the same household and had to overcome a lot of different challenges. I wouldn’t change our upbringing because it made us into the hardworking men we are today. Whenever we’re in the same room or on the court we’re going to compete. We always made each other better by pushing one another out of our comfort zone. Being the younger brother I had to work that much harder when we went out to play because we’re three years apart. I never played with kids my age, I always played with my brother’s age group. Ultimately that helped my confidence on the court.”
The “Palisades Connection” is the crux of Program Humble, but Davis has three other coaches, all of whom played for him and two of whom he coached at Pali High. Their names are Christian Morataya, Raheem Brumfield and Robert “RJ” Howard.
“This is really a family-oriented program,” Davis says. “These guys are my family. That’s why the program is in its fifth year and is built for generations to come.”
Besides his own programs, Davis has been an assistant coach under David Galley at Venice High, a skills trainer at West LA College, head varsity coach at Washington High and a coach for Michael Jordan’s basketball camp in Santa Barbara. He has also been a partner of the largest AAU program in the world, West Coast Elite, has been a coach and player of multiple semi-pro basketball teams and a former business partner with NBA champion and former Laker Metta World Peace.
Davis has many memories of his Pali High days: “Playing with my friends and traveling to Santa Barbara every year was the best. Also eating at IHOP and playing pranks on each other.”
Davis also enjoyed his chance to go one-on-one with his cousin Rodney Hudson of LA Jordan High—a memory turned bittersweet when Hudson was shot and killed last summer at age 29.
“That was one of my highest scoring games and his too,” Davis says, fighting off tears. “We grew up in the same neighborhood and we both went through a lot with our dads. He really took a part of my soul with him when he died.”
Davis has a special relationship with Torino Johnson, who coached Palisades’ girls team to four City titles and now heads the Cal State LA women’s program.
“I never played for Coach T,” he says. “He was the girls coach while I was on the boys team, but he took LeBre and I home when my mom couldn’t. He was always traveling to a conference or reading a book. That’s where I learned how to connect with others despite being an introvert at times.”
The respect is mutual.
“Paul’s like my little brother,” Johnson says. “He’s passionate about coaching and about the people he loves. Paul played basketball with his heart on his sleeve and you couldn’t help but love his energy. I watched him put in the extra work as he was determined to be great. He and I have a unique bond. We discuss life, race, politics, religion, finances and sports. I’m honored that Paul thinks so highly of me and he’s one of the reasons I’ve been so successful. Anytime I’m tired mentally, he gets me motivated. He has a bright future ahead of him!”
Off the court, Davis dedicates himself entirely to his family.
“My girlfriend and I spend a lot of time together and our five combined kids keep us occupied,” says Davis, who lives at the bottom of the Highlands near Sunset and Pacific Coast Highway. “They all love basketball and they all have huge personalities! My sons are with me part-time and with my ex-wife the other half. They go to school in Lancaster.”
Davis enjoys short stories, creative writing, rap music and singing. He rarely watches TV outside of Shark Tank, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. He likes commentating, sports analysis, public speaking and fashion. He goes to the beach or the gym to relax. He even collects shoes.
“As a kid I used to save my allowance to buy my own basketball sneakers,” he remembers. “That was usually three to six months of saving but well worth it. I train my kids as much as I can with basketball since they all aspire to be pros. With no force, I follow their lead and listen to their wishes.”
Davis attended Westchester High his freshman year and witnessed excessive gang violence.
“I used my grandmother’s address to get into Pali and that decision probably saved me from even more trouble. When I got to Pali I loved my teachers and my teammates. As a sophomore walking to Robeks in the Village I remember older women switching their purses from one arm to the other as they walked past me. That made me feel some type of way. Each experience molded me into the man I am and the mentor I try to be for these kids and the families.”
Davis has loved basketball ever since he started dribbling: “I played football for one season and I was good but I knew my father played. He was an alcoholic and notorious gang member and I didn’t want to be like him in any way so I stopped. I took a basketball to the airport, to class, to the grocery store, I even slept with it. It’s been my best friend and refuge from Day One. It saved my life in all honesty.”
Faith plays a huge role in his life: “My mother raised us in a Christian home. Through my experiences I became more spiritual but my faith in God is firm. I’ve attended Calvary Christian church because I love Pastor Ramin Razavi but I’m not a churchgoer as much as I was as a child. I prefer to read my Bible and listen to music at home on Sundays and I pray maybe 15 times a day.”
Davis certtainly hasn’t missed his calling: “I knew I was a coach from the moment I started seriously playing ball when I was 8. I was always vocal and passionate and I wanted to compete at a high level. I was a coach on the court. It was a natural transition for me. I don’t believe in buying things to make you look great and I don’t understand why everyone wants to be the best ever for pretend. I believe in every kid being the best he or she can be by having a tough mindset. A video post on Instagram isn’t what defines you. The work you do daily is what’s going to define you. I’ve been a coach and I honestly feel like I’m still a player and a student of the game as well as life.”
Davis has passed his hoops IQ to his niece Demonnie Lagway, who earned All-City and All-State honors as a sophomore and lead Palisades’ girls team to the SoCal Regional championship in March.
“I wish I could take full credit for her skill set but LeBre has been her anchor,” Davis admits. “I train Demonnie over the summer and she played on my Humble girls team. She’s a future WNBA star. I’m proud to be her uncle.”
Regarding Humble, Davis is grateful the program is surviving despite the pandemic: “Covid has affected us all tremendously. My coaches rely on me for their rent and to pay bills. The first month I used all my savings to stay afloat. I was under stress but I created a curriculum for each team. We have weekly Zoom sessions and I assign homework to keep them engaged, the kids turned in great essays and we got a lot of ‘A’ grades. We’ve been able to get from month to month and I pray we can continue to do so somehow.”
Parents interested in signing a child up for Program Humble can email Davis: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 310-422-3397.
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