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Basketball legend Walter Davis remembered for his smooth shot, endearing character

Davis_Walter-drive on UNLV.jpg
Walter Davis dribbles the ball at a game against UNLV. Photo Courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications.

With the broken index finger of his shooting hand taped to his middle one, Walter Davis wrapped his arm around a sobbing Mike O'Koren. UNC had just lost the 1977 national championship to Marquette.

The image of Walter consoling O’Koren stands out to Mitch Kupchak to this day. 

"He’s caring for his teammate," Kupchak, a former teammate and close friend of Walter, said. "It's a big loss and, probably, you should have your head in your own lap, but he’s got his arm around O'Koren."

That’s just who "Sweet D" was. 

Walter, a UNC basketball legend and the uncle of current North Carolina coach Hubert Davis, died at the age of 69 on Thursday due to natural causes. Walter was an Olympic gold medalist and six-time NBA All-Star. But, above all else, he is remembered by his family, friends and former teammates for his kind demeanor.

"[Walter] would give you the coat off his back," former UNC teammate Phil Ford said. "It didn’t matter who you were, your status or anything. He was just a great person that cared about everybody. There wasn't a single ounce of jealousy or hatred in his body."

Before Monday’s game against Radford, the crowd in the Dean E. Smith Center paused for a moment of silence to honor Walter. During warmups, the Tar Heels wore long sleeve shirts with "Davis" and Walter's number, 24, on the back. 

Hubert said that upon seeing the tribute it was hard not to get emotional.

"I told the team that the reason I'm here is because of Uncle Walt," Hubert said. "I don't get a scholarship, I don't get a chance to go here without Uncle Walt being here. Because of that, everything significant in my life has happened here because of Uncle Walt."

While Walter was "Uncle Walt" to Hubert, he was known to the masses as "Sweet D," a nickname earned primarily because of his silky-smooth shot, famously displayed in his iconic buzzer-beater against Duke in 1974. Former UNC coach Roy Williams noted that in the four corners offense, which is primarily used to create high-percentage layups, Walter was the only player whom coach Dean Smith allowed to shoot jump shots.

"Sometimes he'd go past you, and you'd find yourself going, 'Wow, that was really good,'" said Dan Bonner, a former Virginia Cavalier who played against Walter as a senior in 1975. "And then you'd realize, 'Wait, a minute, I’m supposed to be stopping him.' He played intensely without being a jackass about it."

While "Sweet D" was emblematic of Walter's elegant playing style, it also represented his character. 

Walter helped Ford get comfortable during his first year at UNC. Ford said Walter acted as an "older brother," helping him get registered, showing him where his classes were and settling Ford into his dorm.

This friendship extended roughly 50 years, well beyond their playing days. Walter was the best man at Ford's wedding, and vice versa.

"I loved him and he loved me," Ford said.

When Walter broke his finger in the 1977 ACC Tournament, the team doctor tried to drain some blood from his digit before the conference championship game, Ford recallsWalter hated needles. He cried, so the whole team cried. That's how much his teammates loved him. 

Nearly two weeks later in the Sweet 16, UNC fans in the crowd at Cole Field House wore blue ribbons wrapped around their fingers in honor of Walter. That's how much fans adored him.

And with that same broken finger, Walter nearly led the Tar Heels to a national championship in 1977. 

When his 20 points in the title game weren't enough, he didn't sulk. Instead, he comforted his teammate, because that's exactly who "Sweet D" was.

"I remember Walter as a person, and the kind soul he was and how he was all-in, 100 percent on North Carolina," Williams said. "Walter Davis is one of those guys that, when you cut him, everyone thinks it's going to come out red, but it's going to come out Carolina Blue."


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Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.