Originally published on March 16
Even as a high school freshman, Marcel Davis was good at the assist.
Alley-oops. No-looks. Bounce passes, those old-school precision deliveries that hit teammates in stride and a court vision that reminded his coach of Jason Kidd.
Davis, who turns 21 on March 5, had a stellar freshman year with his dream school, Utah State, averaging 27.3 minutes per game. But Davis, a point guard, transferred to play Utah Valley in the Western Athletic Conference this season.
Athletes transfer all the time, many seeking to play more. But Davis’ transfer had less to do with playing time than driving time. From his hometown of American Fork, it’s two hours to Logan and Utah State. To Utah Valley in Orem, it’s just 10 minutes.
It is in American Fork (pop. 28,000), where scenes from the movies "Footloose" and "The Sandlot" were shot, that Davis is making perhaps his greatest assist.
The second-oldest of Kimberly and Rodney Davis' four children, including brother Marquis, 11 months older, and younger sister Naile, 18, moved mostly to help with his autistic youngest brother Matteo, 13. Davis had a kinship with him from the beginning.
Even as a kid, Davis would offer to take Matteo to give their mom a break. Davis didn’t get embarrassed when Matteo would flap his arms and scream in front of his friends, or when he’d suddenly strip off all his clothes in public or snatch food from a stranger’s plate at a restaurant.
Davis could calm him, and it was Davis’ bed that Matteo would crawl into at night.
“Marcel’s more patient than the other two,” Kimberly Davis said. “He’s always been that way. Always easygoing. He sees how hard life is with an autistic child, so he was just always there to help.”
Which is why Davis can’t forgive himself for what happened seven years ago.
At home one day with his grandmother and Matteo, Davis left Matteo (above) to go downstairs to check on his grandmother, who was recovering from leg surgery. When he returned, he saw a stove burner lit. Matteo was gone. It didn't take long to find him.
“I saw him walking up the stairs in flames, from his knees to his neck,” Davis said.
Matteo never screamed — autistic children can have a high pain tolerance. The scariest part, said Davis, was seeing the fear and confusion in Matteo’s eyes.
“His eyes — you could tell something was wrong,” he said.
Davis remembered the fire lesson taught in school.
“The only thing I could think of was to stop, drop and roll,” he said.
He grabbed Matteo and brought him to the ground, smothering the flames. Matteo had been wearing hoops attire — polyester mesh shorts and shirt. His shirt was in pieces, Davis said. When their grandmother put her hand on Matteo’s shoulder, layers of skin sloughed off.
Davis called 911 and Matteo was air-lifted by medical transport to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. He had third-degree burns on two-thirds of his body — his arms and entire torso from his mid-neck to his knees. Third-degree burns are the most severe, extending deep into the fatty tissue beneath the skin, all the way to the bone.
Kimberly and Rodney lived at the hospital for six months. Matteo was in a coma for two weeks and suffered near-fatal bouts of pneumonia, his damaged skin unable to protect him from common germs.
“There were times we almost lost him,” Kimberly said.
The accident happened even though the family had removed the knobs from the stove, leaving only the metal rods, as a safety precaution.
Since the accident, Kimberly estimates Matteo has undergone 25 to 30 skin-graft surgeries. He will undergo more, because as a teenager, Matteo is literally outgrowing his skin.
Each procedure is complicated by Matteo's autism. Because he pulls out tubes and has a hard time staying still, he has to be sedated. He doesn't react audibly to pain, so medical staff must monitor his heart rate and blood pressure. It's hard to do therapy. Scar tissue has caused so much nerve damage on his right leg that he lost feeling and struggles to walk.
Each stay in the hospital sets back Matteo's progress with social skills, like toilet training.
Normal recovery for this type of surgery is three to five days, Kimberly says. Matteo's takes three to five weeks.
"He'll continue to have surgeries his whole life," said Kimberly.
Davis was sick with guilt. “No matter what you tell me, mom and dad, it was my fault,” he’d tell them.
Davis was in only junior high, but his caretaking instinct kicked in when his parents lived near the hospital. He made sure his younger sister got her lunch and onto the bus for school. Older brother Marquis could drive them places.
"He had to grow up pretty fast," said Davis' wife Paige, 20. The two were high school sweethearts who married at 19. Both Mormon, Davis is one of five married players on Utah Valley's team. Paige got a memorable early introduction to Matteo when he bit her.
The accident forged a deeper bond between Marcel and Matteo. When Matteo’s healing skin was too sensitive for sunlight, Davis would wait until night to play with him on the family trampoline. If Matteo spilled food in Davis’ car, Davis shrugged it off. He'd still take Matteo for strawberry shakes and pepperoni pizza, his favorites.
“Matteo just brightens up every time he sees him,” said Doug Meacham, Davis' high school coach. “You know there’s a special connection there.”
Davis left home to play on scholarship Utah State, his dream school now in the Mountain West. He was so taken with the team that he verbally committed as a high school sophomore. His family would make the four-hour drive for weekend games. His mom and dad, who played college hoops, would even attend away games – they flew free because Kimberly works in reservations for United Airlines. Rodney, who coached Davis through AAU ball, works at a health insurance call center.
But when Davis, cousin to Chicago Bears linebacker D.J. Williams, lost playing time and confidence at Utah State last season, it wasn’t all about basketball. Davis admitted to not working as hard as his freshman year. But in the season’s second half, Davis’ play slumped after Matteo suffered a setback during one of his surgeries. Matteo stopped breathing three or four times after sucking fluid into his lungs. Davis left the team and flew to Salt Lake City.
“We almost lost him,” said Davis’ father Rodney. “That’s the thing that was on (Marcel’s) mind. Is he going to fly in and we tell him his brother is dead?”
As difficult as it was to leave Utah State, Davis is certain he did the right thing. “He just didn’t want to be away from the family anymore,” Rodney said.
His parents live in a second-floor apartment. This past summer, Marcel saw Kimberly put the 5-foot-5, 110-pound Matteo on her back to climb the 20 steps home. He saw the frequent bruises and teeth marks on his mother's arms ("love bites," she calls them). While Matteo has a loving heart, she said, he can hurt.
Davis was able to transfer without having to sit out a year after applying for a family hardship based on Matteo’s condition. Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes wrote a letter of support. “He was really great about the whole thing,” Davis said.
Davis’ laid-back manner belies his passion about the game. As a kid, he was a gym rat. When Davis was a third-grader, Rodney set up garbage cans on the school’s gym floor to have Marcel dribble through. Once, while playing in an AAU tournament, Davis dived for a ball and his face smashed into another player’s knee. He broke his nose, eye socket and cheekbone, requiring surgery.
He couldn’t talk his coach into letting him play the next game, but by the end of the tournament, he convinced him to let him back on the court.
“That’s how much he loves basketball,” Kimberly said.
Davis has permission from Utah Valley coaches to leave practice if there's ever a problem with Matteo. That’s how much he loves his youngest brother.
"The coaches are great," Davis said. "I (am) fortunate to have great teammates."
UVU coach Dick Hunsaker values Davis’ overall skills, that he’s never late, always prepared, a good listener, an unselfish team player. Hunsaker has seen how Matteo responds to Davis, whom the coach describes as “a very compassionate person.”
Some of the skills that make Davis so good with Matteo — an abundance of patience and calm — can run counter to a point guard’s role, part of which is adaptability and pulling the best performances from teammates.
Rodney said he gets after his son to be more aggressive and vocal. A recent game saw Hunsaker calling two timeouts because players didn’t know where to go, he said.
“Marcel, that’s you,” Rodney told him. “'You can’t tell them in your soft, monotone voice.' That’s just his personality. Last year at Utah State, he had some fans on websites thinking he didn’t care about basketball and had checked out. Matteo was in the hospital … that’s the thing that was on his mind.”
Hunsaker is trying to draw out some of Davis’ inner fire.
“He’s a bit reserved,” Hunsaker said. “He’s working in those areas.”
He said Davis needs to regain his confidence and the overall play he showed his first year at Utah State, where the 6-foot-1, 180-pound guard averaged 7.1 points per game, 27.3 minutes and 3.3 assists.
Going into Thursday's WAC conference tournament opener against No. 4-seed UC Bakersfield (13-8, 7-7 WAC), Davis is averaging 8.6 points per game and is second on the team with minutes played (30.2) for the fifth-seeded Wolverines (11-18 overall, 5-9). Davis leads the WAC in assists, averaging 4.1 per game.
Coaches are prodding him to take a bigger role in leadership, scoring, defending and distributing. He is part of a new backcourt for Utah Valley after the graduation of both guards.
Davis, an exercise science major, is considering becoming a pharmacist. First, he wants to see how far hoops will take him -- maybe to pro ball overseas.
The Davis' extended family in American Fork numbers nearly three dozen, including 15 cousins, their spouses and children. They bought about 30 season tickets this year, taking up three rows of seats in the UCCU Center, and create a happy ruckus when Davis is introduced. Davis is playing better, finding his groove now that a lot of stress is gone, Paige said. He matched a season high on Feb. 21, scoring 20 points in a win over Texas-Pan American.
"His priorities are a lot different than other people," Paige said. "He kind of knows what's important."
Matteo's arm-flapping dance is familiar to coaches and players, as is his fondness for the team's post-game pizza. Also familiar are his shrieks, some coming during the lull of a free throw.
Davis doesn't mind. It's a sound Matteo makes when he's happy.