College Football

‘She missed everything’: Hubert Davis lost his best friend. Her memory fuels him

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Tell me about your mom.

Whoosh. Back to 1985. To the perfect family — Mom, Dad, older brother, younger sister — and their suburban Virginia home. Narrow driveway. Basketball hoop out front. That big window on your right when you walk in the front door, with a little ledge to sit on and peer out.

And the soundtrack to this memory? Maybe an old soap opera, playing in the living room background; “General Hospital” was always Mom’s favorite. Or maybe a Jackson 5 record on the turntable. Or a ball clanking off the driveway rim, then bounce-bouncing across the street. Or, more likely, the soft snap of the net as the boy’s ball fell through.

“Just a loving home,” Hubert Davis says, beaming. “Just … great.”

Until it wasn’t. Until Mom — Bobbie Webb Davis — got that canker sore in her mouth in December 1985. Five trips to the doctor in a month, different medicines to squash the sore. None of ’em worked. Then the sixth trip, and a biopsy.

The one that revealed Mom, the boy’s best friend, had oral cancer.

Hubert doesn’t remember the exact date — sometime around Christmas — but he never forgot the day. Hearing the diagnosis from his parents. Mom settling into her living room chair. Him crawling into her lap, at 15 years old, and just … sobbing. Dad walking straight out the back door and into the woods behind the house. Alone.

The chemo came next, and fast. Dad, the family’s provider, couldn’t take off work to drive Mom to her radiation sessions — so Hubert, with his learner’s permit, did. Mom had been his chauffeur growing up, shuttling him to church (even against his will) or to practice. But these times, when he and Mom would pile into the car — usually his brown Lincoln Town Car, but sometimes her beige Mustang, the one Dad bought her that she called “Betsy” — the roles were reversed.

“Those were some of the — no, the most special times that I ever had with my mom,” Hubert says, “because it was just me and her in the car.”

And they’d just talk, the whole way. About life. Family. Goals. Forever things. Conversations you can’t get back. Once they arrived, Hubert waited outside, only entering the office to walk her back to the car. “He definitely was a soldier,” his father, Hubert Sr., says. “I mean, he cared for her. Attended to her needs. Everything.” Through all the blasts of radiation, the poking and prodding, Mom never missed any of his football or basketball games. Even after her initial operation at Johns Hopkins, riddled with tubes and stuck in a wheelchair,  she was in the stands of some dimly lit gym to watch her son.

“She had a scar here,” Hubert remembers, running a finger down the length of the left side of his neck, “but this is who my mom was.”

Suddenly, from his seat on the couch in his office, Hubert looks up, out of a storytelling trance — one where North Carolina’s 53-year-old head coach, at times, is indistinguishable from his 15-year-old self.

“I mean, everything that I do, I just think about her and I want to make her proud. But, you know, the thing of it is, you think that’s horrible, you move on … but it actually gets worse.”


Tonight, Davis’ ninth-ranked Tar Heels will take on No. 5 Connecticut in Madison Square Garden as part of the 29th annual Jimmy V Classic. The event and the organization it supports — the V Foundation for Cancer Research — are named for legendary NC State coach Jim Valvano, who coached the rival Wolfpack during Hubert’s playing days at UNC. In the final months of Valvano’s battle with adenocarcinoma, back in 1993, he (with the help of ESPN) created the V Foundation in hopes of discovering a cure.

Since its inception, the V Foundation has awarded $353 million in cancer research grants, including a record $43 million this year.

Like most families, North Carolina basketball is keenly aware of the disease’s devastation. ESPN personality and UNC alum Stuart Scott died of appendiceal cancer in 2015, a year after he received the Jimmy V Award. Eric Montross, an All-American center on UNC’s 1993 national championship team, recently stepped away from the program’s radio broadcast crew after his cancer diagnosis. Former head coach Roy Williams — who lost both parents to cancer — organized a benefit breakfast when he returned to the university in 2003.

And then there’s Hubert, and his mom.

He still remembers the first thing she lost.

Her voice.

Hubert can still hear it, faintly, that protective tone, barking out anytime a driveway pickup game between father and son got too physical for her liking. Once, Hubert Sr. remembers, he swatted one of Hubert’s “weak” layup attempts, and there went Mom, screaming out the entryway, scolding her husband from the front porch: You can’t do that to him!

“Loved her son,” Hubert Sr. remembers, chuckling. “Protective of him.”

But that was before the cancer metastasized in her tongue. Mom resorted to note-writing. “Her handwriting was beautiful,” Hubert says of her cursive. “Just beautiful.” Hubert still has the notes, almost all of them, even the ones she wrote to Dad.

Then, as Hubert says, his voice fading off: “It went quick.” Mom grew thin, ravaged by cancer. All that chemo. She dropped to 70 pounds. One day, Hubert called his dad at work and asked why Mom was walking funny. Limping. Hubert Sr. immediately took her to the doctor.

The cancer had metastasized again, now into her legs.

That was June 1986.

Doctors told Hubert Sr. the truth: His wife had six or so weeks left. Maybe. If she was lucky.

To that point, the things Mom loved — volunteering with special needs children at their church, daily 3 p.m. soap opera sessions — had slowly been replaced by car rides. Doctors’ offices. Hospital visits … and less time at home, curled up in her chair. But in June, the ratio flipped back.

Not because Bobbie Webb was improving. Because she wasn’t.

Doctors warned Hubert Sr. that his wife’s cancer was, essentially, a wildfire. By the end of summer, it was nipping at an artery — and no one needed to see what happened if it got any closer. Certainly not Hubert, or his younger sister.

So, hospice.

An ambulance came. Hubert sat on the ledge at the front window, watching Mom leave the house. They made eye contact through the pane. “I looked at her and she looked at me, and we didn’t say anything,” he remembers. “And it was almost like, this is the last time I’m going to see her.” Dad went to stay with her. Hubert, barely 16 then, had to be the adult for his sister, still only 10. And then Dad came home, after only a week away.

Hubert Sr.’s voice drops to a whisper: “She was gone.”

It was a Sunday. Aug. 31, 1986. Two days before the start of Hubert’s junior year.

“I just lost it,” Hubert says.

He went upstairs to his bedroom, and punched a wall until the knuckles on his shooting hand were bloody.


The wake was that week. One last chance to see Mom. But when Hubert touched her hand, “I cannot explain the jolt that went through my body,” he says. “I never want to feel that again. Never.” The funeral was the next weekend, in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she’d grown up … but Hubert couldn’t bring himself to go.

He stayed with his coach instead, and played in a game that Friday.

“I didn’t want her to go underground,” he mutters. “I didn’t want to see that.”

Then came the armor. Resentment, doubt and hatred make for potent ingredients. “Hubert was really, really, really bitter,” his dad says. “He just couldn’t understand why God would do something like that.” Mom had taken him to church as a child, taught him the Lord’s Prayer. But what reason did he have now to believe? To pray?

“I hated God for so long,” Hubert says. “What kind of God does that? Why would you take my mom away? What kind of plan and purpose is that crap?”

Dad begged him to go to church. Hubert refused. Instead, he poured himself into basketball. “It was an escape,” he says. “That was my place where I could take a deep breath.” More shots in the driveway. Fewer clanks off the rim. The net whistled, over and over, Hubert perfecting the jump shot for which he’d later be known.

“It hardened me,” Hubert says. “Some people ask, do you think I would have made it to the NBA without my mom dying? And I answer them: I don’t know. I dove into the gym even more.”

UNC, his forever dream school, eventually came calling. He was offered a scholarship, but without any promise he’d ever play. Good enough. Hubert leaped at the chance — and even when he rode the bench, when he doubted whether he belonged, he thought back to his mom and rededicated himself. Basketball adversity? Please. His minutes, his shooting percentage, all small potatoes.

The pain never faded. But it softened, some. Before Hubert’s junior season at North Carolina, he went to church one morning with his coach, Dean Smith, and was asked if he’d like to chat more about Christianity on campus. Tears, immediately, uncontrollable. He remembered his dad’s message, right after Mom passed: “Don’t dwell on the fact that she’s gone; dwell on the fact that you had her for 16 years.” He became a Christian again, right then, even tattooing a cross on his left bicep, with JESUS written inside it.

And tattooed on his other bicep?

Also all caps: BOBBIE.


UNC head coach Hubert Davis says of his mother’s death: ‘It hardened me.’ (Grant Halverson / Getty Images)

Eventually Hubert’s NBA dreams came true. He married, had three kids of his own. His oldest son? Elijah Webb Davis. And his daughter? Bobbie Grace.

“I got it all over the place,” Hubert says of his mother’s memory.

But for the longest time, decades, that’s all Mom was: a memory. He didn’t speak about her, or how her death fueled him, publicly. Then, in 2008, Williams — who helped recruit Hubert to UNC, as part of Smith’s staff — asked Hubert if he’d be the guest speaker at his annual cancer breakfast.

Hubert was inclined to say no. Armor. “Why am I gonna raise money? Why am I going to bring awareness?” he thought. “Like, honestly, I don’t care. Not in a mean way, but, like — I care about my mom being here. I don’t care about that. I want my mom.”

But he knew Williams. Trusted there was a good reason he, of all people, was being invited to speak. He relented — and finally dropped the armor.

“Why I did that — and it changed me — is because two things,” Hubert says. “One, it’s not about a cure. It could give somebody, maybe, a couple of extra months. And if this can give a cure — where somebody doesn’t have to go through what I went through — or I can give them a couple extra months to have more moments and memories, then I lay down every day for that.

“So that’s why I’ve been vocal about it, and support the Jimmy V Foundation, Stuart Scott, everything: Because it will help — maybe not cure — but help people have a little bit more time. And that gives me great joy: that somebody would have a little bit more time than I did.”

It’s hard to balance. That love, those happy ideals, where Mom would fit into the life he’s built for himself. Where she’d sit in the Dean Smith Center to watch him coach.

That’s what he never got past. What no one does.

“She wasn’t there to see me play here,” he says. “She wasn’t there when I got drafted. She wasn’t there when I got married. She wasn’t there for the birth of my three kids. My kids don’t have a grandmother. She’s not here now. You know, like, she missed everything. And so you think: She’s gone at 16, this sucks. Yes — but it actually gets worse. And that’s the thing that people, you know, don’t realize. That pain never …”

Pause. Deep breath. He’s fighting.

“You manage and move on,” Hubert finally settles on, “but that mourning absolutely never goes away.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

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(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos: Grant Halverson / Getty Images, Courtesy of the Davis family)

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