Erykah Davenport always hated being The Tall Girl.
Every class picture, she was in the back row, towering over even the tallest boys. Her feet were so big she would squeeze them into smaller shoes to fit in with her friends. By the start of fifth grade, she stood 6 feet tall, and walked around with her shoulders hunched to try and look smaller.
Then, she discovered basketball. Actually, basketball discovered her.
And University of Miami fans today are grateful. Davenport, a 6-2 senior who will play her final home game for the Hurricanes on Sunday, is a big reason UM has won eight of its past 11 games and is poised to make a postseason run.
It was the summer before fifth grade, and Davenport’s mom took her to the Gresham Park Recreation Center outside Atlanta to sign up for track. Davenport had been fascinated with track and field and wanted to give it a shot. She was crushed to find out there was no track program available that time of year. As she was leaving, she caught the eye of basketball coach Lee Terrell, who assumed she was 13 or 14.
He tracked her mother down through mutual friends and invited Davenport to join the basketball team. She was not interested.
“I didn’t want to play basketball,” Davenport recalled, smiling. “I thought it was so boyish, and I was a girly girl. My mom, who was a pageant girl and won Most Photogenic in the Miss Liberty County Pageant, pulled me to the side, and said, ‘Just try it and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it again.’ I went to the tryout and hated every minute of it. Too much running, too much jumping. I couldn’t catch the ball. It was my worst nightmare. I told my mom, ‘I’m never coming back.’’’
Terrell insisted she go back, and promised to work with her. She did, and grew to love the sport. By the end of her career at Tucker High School, Davenport had led her team to its first state title and was named the 5A Georgia Player of the Year.
She also was voted prom queen, played volleyball, was on student government and graduated with honors. She credits basketball for turning her from a lanky, insecure kid to a confident young woman.
“It’s really hard for any young girl to be so much taller than everyone,” she said. “You want to look like everyone else. Being the outcast, that was the story of my life, my childhood. Everywhere I went, people said, ‘You’re so tall.’ But my mom told me: ‘If you want to be the best, you have to be different from the rest.’
“Once I started playing basketball, I embraced my height. By 12 or 13, I started to build my confidence, sit with my shoulders back instead of slouched over, walking with more of a strut, not dragging my feet.”
Tucker coach Robin Potter noticed Davenport during a middle school game and approached her mother, Quovadis (named after the 1950’s movie) Davenport, a single mom who works as a crew manager with Norfolk Southern Railroad and whose older son, Erus, is in the Air Force.
“Even as a middle schooler, Erykah stood out, and not just because of her height,” Potter said. “She looked older, and carried herself with an air of confidence. She started all four years for me and was a great leader. Her speech after we won the state title was better than mine.”
She chose Miami over other suitors because of head coach Katie Meier and assistant coach Octavia Blue, a former UM player who had recruited Davenport heavily while she was an assistant at Georgia Tech.
“I had a great relationship with Coach Blue, and when I visited, I fell in love with Coach Meier,” Davenport said. “She was the most genuine, authentic person. I was like, ‘Is this woman really a Division I head coach?’ She was so real. That was what got my attention the most. She is like my second mom. I’m really, really close with my mom. And I’m really, really close with Coach Meier.”
Like her mother, Meier has been brutally honest with Davenport from the moment she arrived on campus. Despite her high school accolades, Davenport’s game was not college-ready. Even after her freshman year, Meier questioned Davenport in their postseason meeting, asking her: “Are you as special as I think you are? Or are you a fringe kid? I’m not sure you are 100 percent committed.”
Davenport was frustrated with her limited playing time and was getting an earful from people back home, suggesting maybe she should transfer. But she assured Meier she was as special as the coach had hoped and vowed to work harder.
“Erykah needed some work,” Meier said. “She wasn’t somebody we could have in late-game because her passing and her ball-handling and her free throw shooting were real liabilities for us. And, she traveled all the time.”
Blue added: “A lot of post players are not developed when they get to college because they rely on their height to score in high school. I found a bunch of good drills for her, and we worked very hard to correct her mistakes.”
Davenport’s mother never wavered in her support of the UM coaching staff.
“I told Erykah, ‘If Coach Katie has you on the bench, there’s a reason. It’s not because she doesn’t like you. The solution is not to transfer. It’s to listen to her and do what she says to improve your game. That is how you’ll rise to the top of the pyramid.’’’
This season, she has had seven 20-point games, 10 double-doubles and is a leader on and off the court. She is graduating in May with a broadcast journalism degree.
“She’s had her foot — not her thumb — on this team the entire season, just stomping on them,” Meier said. “We do a huddle with the starters the minute before the game. I don’t talk, she fills that void, puts them right on point. She uses all the right phrases and messaging. She’s constantly a great reinforcer of the coaches.
“If you rated her recruiting class coming in and coming out, there’s no one that came in lower and is coming out higher than Erykah Davenport. She was an under-the-radar recruit and is outperforming people who were top-10 recruits. That’s a celebration of one of the most supportive parents I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with in my entire coaching career, her mother. She’s as special as they come, just a genuine, good woman who was very faithful and very confident, and put all her trust in us.”
UM women vs. Virginia Tech
▪ When: Sunday, 4 p.m.
▪ Where: Watsco Center, UM campus.
▪ Records: UM (19-9, 9-6 ACC), Va Tech (17-11, 6-9 ACC).