“Reminds me of Warsaw. That’s why I like it.” Walter Davis growls out through a thick plume of cigarette smoke.
Unsurprisingly, it’s another gloomy day on First Avenue. However, Pike Place is still bustling like usual on a late Saturday morning. The canopy that covers us stretches out over the sidewalk and protects the concrete from the on-again, off-again mist that settles onto the ground. The precipitation slowly creates an ever-dampening rectangle that surrounds the mostly empty wrought iron tables and chairs neatly placed on the patio of Cherry Street Coffee House.
“I can’t believe they allow you to smoke out here.” I begin.
“You kidding?” He spits, “A little smoke never hurt anybody. It’s even good for the system. Gives you something to fight.”
Walter Davis is old school. Like, severe a finger with a rotary saw, tape it back on, finish your shift with the same rotary saw, THEN go to the doctor old school.
That’s not even a metaphor, that’s something that actually happened to Walter. He had the finger reattached, three hours later, and it still functions properly to this day. He refers to the hand that it happened to as “his good hand.”
The legend of the “original Polish Hammer” is well-known in Seattle, especially on campus. (He says that Marcin Gortat stole that from him, and that Gortat is “weak-willed.” Walter likes to derisively say that the Wizards’ big man “likes women with no hair on them.”)
He receives glares from the passersby and potential customers for the smoke, but he seems to not notice, or care.
“Nate Robinson may have been the more exciting player, but boy, that Brandon Roy just had that FEEL, you know?” He gushes about former Huskies the entire time we are together. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of every athlete, and not just the famous ones, beginning from his stay in Seattle back in 1970. His coming-to-Seattle story is an amazing, if not entirely believable, story.
After he and his father immigrated to New York from Poland back in 1960, he found himself abandoned as a young teenager in the heart of the Steel Belt in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The prologue to his trek to Seattle is filled with tragedy. His father had changed his name to Walter Davis (from his birth name “Wojciech”) to Americanize him so he’d hopefully be more employable, but all it made him was a pariah in the Polish neighborhoods in which they lived. The name “Walter Davis” was chosen because it was the name of both his father’s favorite basketball player and favorite blues singer. And they both started with the same letter. The only work him or his father could get in New York was under Donny Guzik, the infamous Chicago mobster Jake Guzik’s grandson. Because of this treacherous line of work, Walter says, his father was the first person ever crushed by a grand piano slipping from its hoist above a crowded city sidewalk. After his father was killed, he began to wandered through the northeast, looking for places to stay. Stops in New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Montpelier, Vermont (“That was an unpleasant few months,” is all Walter would say about it.), and eventually holed up in Pittsburgh.
“Pittsburgh was nice,” Walter says. “But you know what? They didn’t have a basketball team. They had the Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins, but no basketball team. I couldn’t stay there.”
He had heard about a city though. He read in the paper that a city on the west coast that was just granted a new expansion team in the NBA. The Seattle SuperSonics. It was 1967.
“I knew that was the place for me to go. So I left.”
“Wait,” I respond. “If the Sonics were established in 1967, when you saw the article in the paper, and you’ve already said that you got to Seattle in 1970… It took you three years to get from Pittsburgh to Seattle?”
He sits back in the heavy wrought iron chair, takes a long drag from his cigarette, and exhales like a diesel engine. “Boy, I tell ya. I almost didn’t even make it.”
It starts to rain a little heavier.