All the Right Moves

The career path of Kery Davis ’79 led from law school to Broadway to HBO Boxing. Now, as athletic director at Howard University, he hopes to inject a dose of Ivy League into “The Mecca.”

From fans and spectators to executives and administrators, major sports events are all relative. Kery Davis understands that as well as anyone. “Big time” for him nowadays is the Nation’s Football Classic pitting Howard University against Hampton University—a.k.a. the “Battle for the Real HU”—in Washington, D.C. There’s no network TV coverage, and attendance hovers around 15,000. That’s a far cry from the bright lights of Las Vegas and pay-per-view prizefights beamed around the world. Davis used to be a fixture at those bouts, hobnobbing with rich and famous celebrities in ringside seats that cost thousands of dollars.

But he’s no longer the HBO executive who helped negotiate some of boxing’s biggest fights, featuring the likes of Floyd Mayweather, Oscar De La Hoya and Mike Tyson. Now he’s athletic director at Howard University—one of the nation’s premier historically black colleges and universities—and his new circle includes school officials, advertisers, boosters, fans, sponsors, coaches and student-athletes.

This has been Davis’ reality since September 2015, about 27 months after he left HBO, where he spent 16 years. Previously situated in a plush New York City corporate office one block from Times Square, he now works from a pedestrian space in 54-year-old Burr Gymnasium on Howard’s Washington, D.C., campus. The contrast in his surroundings, resources and responsibilities is stark—as is the change in the size of his direct deposits. “The difference economically was drastic compared to what I was making at HBO and what I could’ve made if I had taken the other position I was going to take before I left,” says Davis. “But this called to me.”

“This” has brought Davis full circle in a journey that began in the Bronx, where he played point guard at Cardinal Hayes High School. He was plucked for membership in the Archbishop’s Leadership Project, a Harlem program in the 1970s that identified black boys from Catholic schools to develop their potential and eventually lead them to the priesthood.

The program’s director, Father John Meehan, didn’t resist when the boys showed more interest in black history and civil rights than the church and Communion. He introduced them to books such as Before the Mayflower, The Invisible Man and The Autobiography of Malcom X. Meehan also brought in leaders as diverse as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Minister Louis Farrakhan to speak to the group. Education was stressed and embraced as the young men embarked on wildly divergent paths. One earned an engineering degree from MIT and later became a member of its board of trustees. Another became a Muslim and served as Farrakhan’s right-hand man for years.

When a mentor left to play basketball at Dartmouth, Davis followed a few years later, with thoughts of becoming a world-changing social activist. “I was a little Malcolm X when I got there,” he says. “I had the whole thing: big Afro, dashiki, goatee.” Not surprisingly for a young man with little life experience outside the Bronx, life on Dartmouth’s campus was mind-blowing. He met black folks who didn’t fit the inner-city stereotype. He met white people who weren’t simply middle class; some drove Porsches. The basketball team became his family, half black and half white, a smaller hodgepodge of upbringings, cultures and hometowns.

“We were looking for people who had a great acumen about business,” says Howard’s President of hiring Davis.

This was back in the day when the Ivy League could really ball: Princeton won the 1975 National Invitation Tournament championship a couple of years before Davis’ freshman season. Columbia had three high school All-America players. A fellow Bronx player, Tony Rice, took Penn to the Final Four when Davis was a junior. An offseason knee injury robbed Davis of his senior season, leaving him to choose between law and athletics as a career path. It was a tough decision for the hoops-loving gym rat whose civil-rights appetite was whetted by a National Urban League internship under Vernon Jordan and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown. “I talked to a mentor [Dartmouth coach Gary Walters] about coaching and civil-rights activism, becoming a lawyer,” Davis says. “He said there were a lot of African-American basketball coaches, but very few people who would have the opportunity to do the things I could do if I went to law school. That’s what I did. He got me a graduate assistant job [at Cornell] to feed my basketball desire.”

But a funny thing happened to Davis en route to becoming the next Thurgood Marshall or Vernon Jordan. Everyone else at Cornell Law School was talking about which big law firm they would work for and how much money they would make. The competitor in Davis kicked in. One of four African-Americans in his class, he knew he was as smart and capable as his peers. And the student loans for his two Ivy League degrees began to scare him. Like many of his classmates, he accepted a job at a big Wall Street firm.

“It definitely wasn’t for me,” he says. “I remember the day I said I couldn’t do it. Jesse Jackson spoke at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, and black people were so proud. But the next day, my supervisor asked if I was embarrassed by the speech because of Jesse’s broken English. ‘He’s not like you,’ he said. ‘Why can’t they have a black person like you run for office?’ I called a headhunter the next day to get me out of there.”

Davis accepted a pay cut for his new job. “This called to me,” he says. Photo by James Kegley

Davis’ career arc bent again, detoured by a family project. His mother’s sister, Doris Troy, was the R&B star who cowrote and recorded “Just One Look,” a No. 1 hit in the 1960s. The Hollies, Anne Murray and Linda Ronstadt later recorded versions of the song, and it was the soundtrack for a Cindy Crawford Pepsi commercial. But Troy had signed a bad deal and wasn’t receiving her royalties. “That motivated me to right that wrong,” Davis says. “I took a job with an entertainment firm and asked my partner to help me with the case. That was my first assignment, trying to recapture some of my aunt’s royalties.”

The next thing he knew, another aunt—Vy Higginsen, a pioneering disc jockey on New York’s WBLS-FM—was writing and producing a musical about Troy’s life. Higginsen recruited her nephew to be the lawyer for 1983’s Mama I Want to Sing, which eventually became the longest-running black off-Broadway musical in history. Davis took a leave of absence from his law firm to become the play’s general manager on a national tour. “I thought it would be 10 weeks,” he says. “The tour ended up lasting three years, and I never went back.”

The play spawned two sequels. Talents such as Tisha Campbell (who beat out Whitney Houston), Stephanie Mills, Desiree Coleman and D’atra Hicks worked on the productions, which took Davis around the country and to London. Along the way Higginsen and Davis formed a music division of their play-production company to sign and manage some of the young stars they were uncovering. “We had a number of artists and deals with record labels,” he says.

They signed to bring the “Mama” trilogy to the Madison Square Garden (MSG) Paramount Theatre in 1994. Within a few years Higginsen was ready to slow down and shift toward the nonprofit world. Davis happened to have dinner with an MSG executive who mentioned an opening at HBO Sports. The executive recommended Davis, who was hired as director of programming in 1997. “It was a step back because I wasn’t used to not being in the room with all of the decision-makers,” Davis says. “But I really wanted to get into sports. That was the passion that drove everything in me, and this was an opportunity to do something different.”

HBO represented a culture shock for someone coming from a small, black production company. Now Davis was at a company that could fix problems by throwing money at them. “Now it’s the art of possible,” he says. “What can you dream up? Let’s do a fight at Radio City. Let’s do a concert on the Intrepid. It’s all in the realm of the possible. That’s how they thought, and it gave me an opportunity to expand my experiences. I was always amazed at how smart and creative the people were.” He was promoted to vice president after two years and to senior vice president in 2000. Boxing was enjoying a heyday, in part because of Davis’ business acumen. He brought his sense of “event” to the productions, stressing that A-listers needed to be seen in their ringside seats for big bouts. “Celebrity was becoming a big thing in the country, and it was important to show them,” he says. “If Leonardo DiCaprio is there and Denzel Washington is there and Jack Nicholson is in the audience, then that must be the place to be.”

Davis says football or men’s basketball has to be competitive to really make a difference.

In June 2013, 16 months after a former executive from rival Showtime Sports took over at HBO Sports, Davis left the network. He had planned to let his non-compete clause expire and then move into an entrepreneurial role involving TV and sports, but he began reflecting on how far off course he had strayed after Dartmouth. He loved the experience at HBO but told his wife, Samantha, he didn’t want to re-enter TV sports because he felt no passion for it. She asked what made him passionate. “I didn’t know, but I had a feeling,” he says. “It was too late for me to be a coach, but I thought about maybe starting an AAU program. I love young people and sports, especially basketball. Then I was having dinner with a friend who was on Howard’s search committee for a new athletic director. He mentioned some of the names they were looking at, nontraditional names, including an NBA Hall of Famer. I went home and told Samantha that might’ve been my aha moment. If that same job had been mentioned for Loyola Marymount or some other school it wouldn’t have interested me as much. But this was Howard.”

Suddenly, everything Davis once envisioned was right in front of him. Activism. Coaching. Teaching. He was familiar with Howard in a general sense, aware that a mentor (Jordan) and an idol (Marshall) were among scores of impressive graduates. Davis believed that such pioneers paved the way for him to experience the Ivy League and Wall Street. “I felt like Howard was a special place even though I didn’t go here,” he says. “I had no Howard relationships and friends. But it speaks for itself. And it spoke to me.”

His search-committee friend was surprised to hear of Davis’ interest. Davis spoke with Jordan, who chaired Howard’s presidential search committee in 2014 and served on the board of trustees from 1993 to 2014. Soon, the former HBO executive had reached the attention of Howard president Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick.

“We were looking for people who had a great acumen about business,” Frederick says. “College athletics is getting more and more complicated around compliance and business. I think folks with that kind of background in entertainment and sports are ideal candidates.” Davis was announced as Howard’s new athletic director on September 9, 2015. He prepared for his new job by reaching out to two people from Dartmouth: teammate and close friend Peter Roby ’79, the A.D. at Northeastern University since 2007, and Coach Walters, who left the College to spend 20 years as Princeton’s A.D. before retiring in 2014. Davis is intent on bringing an Ivy-like emphasis on academics to “The Mecca” of black education, as Howard is known.

“We will never be a place where you’re an athlete-student,” he says. “We don’t want that to be our culture and it’s okay. You can still be competitive. Look at the schools that are like that: Duke, Stanford, Georgetown, Michigan. They’re like that because athletics and academics help each other. They support each other and feed off each other. We have the opportunity to do that.”

He points to Harvard under men’s hoops coach Tommy Amaker. The Crimson was terrible when Davis was at Dartmouth, almost a guaranteed W for the Big Green. Now Harvard has reached the NCAA tournament in four of the last six years and advanced twice. It boasted a Top-10 recruiting class last year. “In a short period of time, Harvard has developed the reputation where it’s not just a great academic institution, it’s also a basketball school,” Davis says. “That has to be our sell as a terrific academic school: If you don’t go to the NBA, you’ve got this great degree from Howard and the network of Howard alums behind you.”

He says football or men’s basketball has to be competitive to really make a difference. The football program, 3-19 the last two seasons, is improving thanks to former Virginia head coach Mike London and freshman quarterback Caylin Newton (younger brother of NFL star Cam), who pulled off one of college football’s biggest upsets ever when Howard beat University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), September 2. The basketball program, undone by injuries last year, is close to contending regularly with a few more recruits such as R.J. Cole, a highly touted New Jersey point guard from powerhouse St. Anthony’s High School.

Despite the national acclaim generated by the football win over UNLV, Davis sees the path to success through a big dance. “Imagine Howard in the NCAA tournament,” Davis says, mentioning a destination the school has reached just twice, in 1981 and 1992. “You know how TV always shows Ashley Judd when Kentucky is in the tournament? Suppose it’s Howard? There’s P. Diddy and Taraji on one side of the arena, Anthony Anderson on the other. Gus Johnson is calling the game and Stan Verrett is reporting on it for ESPN. Debbie Allen and her sister are in the stands. We’re getting tweets from California Sen. Kamala Harris. Elijah Cummings and Gregory Meeks are talking about it in Congress. Maybe the game is in Atlanta and Mayor Kasim Reed is hosting it. Maybe the program starts with something written by Ta-Nehisi Coates or Toni Morrison. What I’m saying is Howard people are everywhere. We have a culture of resources that no one really knows about. Suppose that was the story when CBS came on that day? That would change everything.”

Everything has changed for Davis since he began working at Howard. He wants to return the favor.                                                               

Deron Snyder is a veteran journalist based in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Howard University.

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