Baron of Industry: How Baron Davis made entrepreneurship his own

FanSided Features, NBA

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Baron Davis accomplished so much in his decorated NBA career. But his most lasting impact may be in what he’s done off the court.

The terms “robber baron” and “captain of industry” refer to the same phenomenon, but differ in connotation.

In the 19th century, wealthy, powerful industrialists amassed unforeseen wealth in the United States through unethical business practices. The pejorative term is “robber baron”, indicating a thief operating as an aristocrat in a democratic society. The benevolent term would be “captain of industry.”

Baron Davis is a baron in name, but his methods of amassing and spreading wealth are wholeheartedly good-natured. Considered the “Godfather of Los Angeles basketball”, the 42-year-old Davis remains a fixture in NBA circles.

But Davis, like the industrialists who dominated their respective fields, forged an innovative path as one of the first NBA entrepreneurs of his generation. Michael Jordan made more than a billion on sneakers, but Baron did something different. He researched. He invested. He fostered growth in budding companies.

And he did it all because when he came into the NBA, someone robbed him.

“I really had no choice,” Davis told FanSided last month, speaking to what piqued his interest in entrepreneurial endeavors. “When I got into basketball, when I signed my NBA contract, I signed with business managers, and they stole some money. And then, luckily enough, I had some good people around to catch them red-handed and so I was like, you know, ‘Put my money back, and I don’t need a business manager.’ And then when I had an agent, in terms of my agent, after three years when our deal was over, I was like, ‘I don’t think I need an agent.’”

“And so it was more so just trying to learn and trying to grow and trying to live in real-time and figure out who I wanted to be, how do I invest in myself? How do I try to create something that’s gonna leave a long-lasting legacy? And don’t be apologetic for not conforming to the system. You know, try and bend the rules trying to find the cracks. And then at that point, if you keep walking along, you’ll wind up helping other people that come behind you.”

Davis began walking that path back in 1999, when he was the No. 3 overall pick in the NBA Draft. The native Angeleno forged his game in the streets of South Central, sharpening his skills against his older cousins as they dunked in a wooden hoop his grandfather built. Davis then went to play for the prestigious Crossroads, a private school in Santa Monica. Then, the accolades came. By the time he graduated in 1997, Davis was a Gatorade National Player of the Year, a Parade All-American, a selection for the McDonald’s All-American High School Basketball Game, and the MVP of the Beach Ball Classic Tournament.

As one of the nation’s top recruits, Davis received offers from the best college basketball has to offer. Kansas, Georgia Tech, and Duke all knocked on his door, but he only answered to one school: UCLA. Davis’ decision to stay in Los Angeles and play in front of his family and friends was a rooted one, utilizing his collegiate platform to build an NBA-caliber resume. Davis was named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, then Third-Team All-America his sophomore year.

At 20 years old, Davis was ready to go pro.

“The key word to describe Baron Davis is explosive,” reads a scouting report by Jay Bilas ahead of the 1999 NBA Draft. “Davis has great open court skills and is a fearless player… He attacks the basket and is a good open court passer with an above-average handle. I believe that Davis’ ball skills are underrated, and have been somewhat devalued because of his wildness at times and his inability to harness his emotions.”

“He has a good work ethic and can run all day,” Bilas continued. “The questions: Can Davis shoot the ball from the perimeter? Can he do the simple things needed of a lead guard, or will he always be looking to accomplish the spectacular?”

Davis proved to be more than spectacular, transforming fledgling franchises to playoff contenders with a golden touch. Of the six NBA teams Davis joined in his 15-year career, he led four of them to the playoffs: the Charlotte Hornets, the New Orleans Hornets, the Golden State Warriors, and the New York Knicks. Early in his career, Davis led teams on back-to-back playoff appearances from 2000 to 2004: first with the Charlotte Hornets, then with the New Orleans Hornets.

It was the Charlotte Hornets who initially entrusted Davis with their offense, drafting him in June of 1999. It was the right move for Charlotte, as the young Carolina franchise made a name for itself with three successive playoff runs from 2000 to 2002.

In his first playoff debut, Davis set a record that has yet to be broken: he holds the title for the longest shot ever made in NBA history. With 0.7 seconds left in the third quarter of a Milwaukee Bucks game, Davis buried a one-handed shot that traveled 89 feet into the basket, all while he was being closely covered by a defender.

Davis continued to see the playoffs as a New Orleans Hornet, making the postseason in 2003 and 2004. Before the Warriors drafted Steph Curry in 2009, they had Baron Davis leading the charge at point from 2005 to 2008. And before the Warriors had Steve Kerr as their head coach, the then-television analyst remarked on Davis’ ability to command the court. Kerr called Davis’ performance during the 2007 playoffs “outrageous…stunningly athletic and creative and explosive.” Then, it was time for Davis to return home.

Davis played opposite Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles as a Clipper, aspiring to bring the underdog L.A. team to their first division and conference title. Davis was traded to Cleveland before that could come to fruition, then traded to the Knicks as he took over after peak Linsanity. Davis was injured during Game 4 of the first round of playoffs against the Miami Heat. MRI scans later revealed that Davis underwent an ACL and MCL tear in addition to a partial tear of the patellar tendon.

The ending of Davis’ career — playing it up in the playoffs before injuring his knee — replicates exactly what happened to Davis at 18 years old. Back in 1998, Davis blew out his knee in the 1998 NCAA Tournament, but his miraculous recovery allowed him to finish strong as a Bruin and still command a top draft spot. At 33, the body does not rebound from injury in the same way.

Even though his exit was unprecedented, Davis maximized his NBA career to the fullest. Being cheated at 20 years old forced him to manage himself like a business, exacting his value from NBA teams and owners as he offered promise with his play. Over the course of his NBA career, Davis made over $147 million through six NBA contracts. As a rookie, Davis had little leverage in the late 1990s, making $8 million total in his early years in Charlotte. Then, Davis negotiated for contracts averaging $9 million per year. Then $15 million, then $11 million, then $13 million. Davis may have played his last NBA game at 33, but he made enough wealth to sustain generations. But Davis made more than basketball money. In learning to assess and advocate his own value, Davis learned how to champion the ideas of others.

Davis has said that his motivation to support burgeoning businesses is to become an “agent of change”, which is why the athlete entrepreneur leveraged his own success to fund the aspirations of others.

“An agent of change is just somebody who is really trying to promote someone else in their superpowers,” Davis explained.

“I would say by investing,” Davis responded when asked how he’s been an agent of change on and off the court.

“I founded a company called Business Inside The Game, and with Business Inside The Game, our goal was to invest, amplify, strategically connect and help entrepreneurs who are underserved, underprivileged — that are Black, brown, women, LGBTQ+ — and really turn the minority into the majority and let them know that they have the access and the power to do it, and really stand at the forefront and the epicenter of connecting culture within culture and cultures to cultures in order for us to grow.

And so, being a celebrity, being an ambassador, you know, you could sit back and you can make a lot of money for yourself and try and ‘build my brand’ and try and be more famous, but I think where I’m at, I need to meet people in the middle of the road and help them and be that trampoline for them to success.”

Former NBA player Baron Davis reads poetry onstage during the Poetic Justice 2015 Fundraiser for Coalition for Engaged Education at Herb Alpert Educational Village on May 7, 2015 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)

Baron Davis has always been an agent of change

During his third NBA season, Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings was the one who knighted Baron “the Godfather of Los Angeles basketball.”

“I’d have to say to Baron Davis,” Jennings said when asked which L.A. native came to mind in terms of NBA style. “He’s probably the Godfather of Los Angeles basketball for us, because everybody grew up looking at BD and he was the one who made it out. He was the one that always came back to Los Angeles and kind of took care of everybody. [Davis] is the first thing that comes to my mind when you mention L.A.”

When Jennings was asked why people gravitated towards Davis, his response foretold Davis’ future: Davis has always wanted to give back, especially in his hometown community.

“I think the fact that he’s always in the community, always doing something positive and always comes back to his hometown. You can text BD right now, he’ll pick up the phone. [On the court], pound for pound, a healthy Baron Davis, he’s one of the top-five players in the NBA. He can do it all. He can rebound. He can shoot. He can score. He can pass. He can run a team. He can play defense. He just has the total package.”

Davis acquired this package because his dynamic upbringing embodied the city he calls home. “Davis’ L.A. story reflects the multicultural, eclectic nature of the city and his everlasting connection to it,” surmised The Kamenetzky Brothers when they profiled Davis for their Los Angeles basketball series, “The L.A. In My Game.”

Davis grew up in South Central Los Angeles and was raised by his grandparents after life with his parents became “very rocky and unstable.”

“I was so young, they [older people in the neighborhood] weren’t trying to influence me to do wrong. It was all about basketball,” Davis said in the Kamenetzky brothers’ profile. “I always had my basketball. So when I showed up at the playground, everybody knew what I wanted to do. Even though my cousins were in gangs and people in my family were in gangs, they knew, ‘This kid is off-limits, don’t touch him. All he cares about is playing basketball.’”

While Davis sought to get better and better at the local courts, his grandmother pondered not what he would grow up to become, but who. Those philosophical questions embedded a sense of purpose in young Baron’s mind. Basketball only lasts so long, but the identity that stretches beyond its limits lasts a lifetime.

“I used to get in trouble, because she’d be like, ‘You can’t just be dribbling that ball,’” Davis said. “I’d be like, ‘When I get older, I’m gonna have maids. I’m gonna have you a nice car.’ She used to get so mad because I used to say that. But then she’d say, ‘Who are you gonna be? What type of person? Who are you? What do you want to be? What happens if you get hurt? What happens if that ball doesn’t turn out for you?’”

“From that point, it was more about being presentable, being respectful and being a gentleman. Those are the things she taught me to do. Be respectful to people. Be respectful to myself. Always be a gentleman and be intelligent. She used to always tell me that ball can only last temporarily, but you’re gonna need your brain to function for life. So whatever you’re doing with that ball, you better make sure your brain is right.”

Davis lived by her words, but he saw how a simple rubber ball could break down barriers, generate generational wealth, and bring peace to the community. More than anything, it was a magical respite from daily life.

The NBA has a reputation for making hoop dreams come alive, with kids like Baron sharpening their skills on city courts as they work relentlessly to advance in the sport. As appealing as the bootstrap narrative is in American culture, it’s untrue in American sports. The athletes who have worked their way out of poverty are not the norm, but the exception.

ESPN’s Peter Keating summarized the findings of a ten-year sociological study on NBA players.

“Among African-Americans, a child from a low-income family has 37 percent lower odds of making the NBA than a child from a middle- or upper-income family,” Keating wrote. “Poor white athletes are 75 percent less likely to become NBA players than middle-class or well-off whites.”

“Economics and family boost or drag an athlete, like in other professions,” said Keating.

“Among African-Americans, a child from a low-income family has 37 percent lower odds of making the NBA than a child from a middle- or upper-income family,” Keating wrote. “Poor white athletes are 75 percent less likely to become NBA players than middle-class or well-off whites.”

“Economics and family boost or drag an athlete, like in other professions,” said Keating.

That wasn’t always the case, but what’s changed in recent decades is how sponsorship makes the playing field more unequal than ever. Davis is a part of that story: he was naturally talented, but it was joining the roster at Santa Monica’s Crossroads that put him among the Hollywood elite and showcased his playing ability. Davis was built on the streets of South Central, but he shined in the Gold Coast League that currently hosts Sierra Canyon’s Bronny James.

While Crossroads offered connections to anyone interested in acting (Gwyneth Paltrow is a graduate, and Kate Hudson was Baron’s friend and classmate), it still wasn’t easy for athletes to make a name for themselves at the school. Despite the academic prestige and social privilege, only Davis and Austin Croshere made it to the NBA by the mid-2000s.

A new generation of NBA prospects may change that legacy, but these two candidates differ vastly from Davis. Bronny James went to Crossroads in 2018 before transferring to Sierra Canyon, and Shareef O’Neal followed his father’s footsteps to LSU. The sons of LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal were born of basketball legends and know the perks of being NBA royalty.

Davis started at Crossroads in seventh grade, but it took years for Davis to own the duality of who he was: a South Central kid in a wealthy, predominantly white school in Santa Monica.

“It took me a while. It took me a long time to get comfortable,” Davis said. “My junior or senior year in high school. When I really knew, this is who I am. I’m a basketball player. And I’m accepting everything that’s coming into my life. Before then, it was just a struggle to figure [everything] out. Who was I? Who am I? I definitely don’t fit in here. There’s no one in this school like me. But at the same time, I’d pay every day to go to a school like this, because I knew what would happen if I went to a school in my neighborhood.”

Davis went on to win a state championship with Crossroads, then a scholarship at UCLA, then three years with the Clippers to stay close to his roots on 85th Street.

Davis has taken all the lessons from his 42 years and is giving back to underserved communities, especially the Black community, all over the United States. But in the Twin Cities, Davis took his giving to another level. Rather than just donating his wealth, he advised Black entrepreneurs as they face unique challenges in post-2020 Minneapolis.

Photo Credit: Deluxe

Baron Davis is helping foster a black-owned small business revolution

The Small Business Revolution has been a movement since 2015 when Deluxe was looking to celebrate its centennial with an expansive rebrand.

Deluxe has been supporting small businesses since 1915 when founder W.R. Hotchkiss secured a $300 loan and began printing checks for businesses. One hundred years later, the St. Paul outfit continues its check-printing operations, but the digital age has prompted the company to grow beyond its initial purpose. Today, Deluxe produces echecks and cloud-based financial services, as well as web development, web hosting, marketing strategies and fraud protection.

In 2015, they sought to tell the stories of small businesses across America, and a revolution was born.

Seeing that “small businesses in small towns were facing similar challenges,” Deluxe created “an Emmy-nominated original series featuring marketing makeovers for one small town and a handful of its small businesses each season.”

Now in its sixth season, Deluxe brought the revolution home to their Twin City roots with the intention of “celebrating and sharing the stories of Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs in some of the most important neighborhoods in our community.” After 2020, Black-owned businesses in the area needed more support, visibility and patronage than ever.

Davis glows alongside his co-host, Deluxe’s Chief Brand Officer Amanda K. Brinkman, as the two employ every available resource to guide each enterprise to widespread success. Even though Brinkman has been present throughout the six-year Small Business Revolution journey, she notes that Black entrepreneurs face distinct challenges that require an attentive solution: heavily investing in Black-owned businesses.

“I think we’ve faced systematic systemic barriers for entrepreneurs of color,” Brinkman said. “Access to capital is certainly not equal, access to business training and resources, thinking of entrepreneurship as a potential career path forward — these are things that are not equal, and there isn’t equity across our nation or the world. And so as a society, we have to actually be disproportionately now investing in Black-owned businesses, if we ever hope to close that gap. If we just keep spending the same levels and invest in the same levels, that’s never going to close.”

“And so now we need to see that disproportionate investment. It’s one of the fastest ways to reinvest within a community. You can think about things as “place investing” — you can make over a park — or you can go and invest in people, and then just watch and see what happens and that ripple effect within their community.”

“That next generation of entrepreneurs is inspired. They can see themselves in an entrepreneur story. That entrepreneur is creating first generational wealth instantly. It’s just you know, when we talk about having a seat at the table, what I love about entrepreneurship is it’s building your own dang table.”

Brinkman exudes strength and sentimentality both in the show and in real life, living by her philosophy of “Do Well By Doing Good.” While contemporary activism can be frequently limited to online forums, Brinkman used her position and know-how to directly improve the lives of small business owners across the nation. It was Brinkman and her dynamic “rockstar” persona that made Baron plead to become a part of SBR’s sixth season.

“For me, it was this young lady right here — she’s a rockstar,” Davis explained as to why he teamed up with Brinkman. “I want people to know that Amanda creating this show is revolutionary as far as, in my eyes, seeing someone that actually did the work. The media matched it, the production value was great, the storylines are incredible, and the leave-behind actually was the things that’s needed.”

“And so when you talk about rockstars, superstars, all-stars, you know, the Michael Jordans, Steph Currys, people that I put up… Like, Amanda is the Steph Curry to small business creation, small business content creation and this show is really just a way that every brand, every celebrity should be thinking about activating their community.”

“And I harassed her,” Davis joked as Brinkman laughed. “Like, ‘How can I be on this show? I’m a big fan!’ And that’s kind of how it went.”

As of June 2021, one-third of American small businesses were shuttered at some point during the pandemic, with nearly 40 percent of California small businesses having to close at some point during that timespan. Surviving the pandemic as a local business proved impossible for some, but for others, it provided an opportunity to create from home. That’s how Tameka Jones founded Lip Esteem in July 2020.

Jones, who has 20 years of experience as a makeup artist, utilized her knowledge and eye for style to craft plant-based, gluten-free lipstick pigments. Recently, Jones reflected on her humble beginnings back in August 2020, before she met the SBR team.

“19 months later, I am about to open a storefront,” Jones wrote on Instagram. “If I would have never started, I would not be where I am today.”

Jones’ GoFundMe will allow her to build out her retail space in Historic Rondo, the neighborhood that Jones says “reared her.” Rondo was once the epicenter of the Black community in the Twin Cities until the construction of the I-94 freeway intentionally dissected it, destroying 700 family homes, 300 Black-owned businesses, and creating a $270 million home ownership equity gap.

Today, Black St. Paul residents honor the memory of the community, and plans are in the works to create a landbridge to connect the community once again. As residents anticipate the realization of that dream, they can enjoy A Taste of Rondo, a purveyor of authentic soul food in the Rondo neighborhood.

A Taste of Rondo was started in 2020 by Charles and Kasara Carter, a couple from different backgrounds united in their passion for the neighborhood and their love of food. Hailing from Mississippi, Charles met and married Kasara, a local to the area, and the two honor their respective heritages with Southern-inspired recipes. “Authentic soul food finds its soul here, where old family dishes are shared among family and the Cajun Catfish is always the catch of the day,” the restaurant’s website reads. The two now share a budding family and restaurant as they tackle the hurdles of first-time business owners — a journey that SBR came to share with them.

Unfortunately, the mistreatment of Black Minnesotans extends before the destruction of Rondo, and it has persisted throughout the pandemic era. In 2016, Philando Castile was killed at a traffic stop as he reached for his license and registration. In 2020, George Floyd suffocated for nine minutes and 29 seconds as Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck. Floyd couldn’t breathe and died of a heart attack, and his blatant murder sparked international outrage.

In Minneapolis, Floyd’s death echoed the Black history etched deep into the city’s history. Floyd was killed on the corner of Chicago Street and E. 38th Street, although this intersection is now George Floyd Square, and Chicago Street is now renamed as George Perry Floyd Jr. Pl.

An eight-minute walk down E. 38th Street, a century-long chronicler of Black history in the Twin Cities reflects on rebranding and reaching a new audience in Floyd’s wake. In Minneapolis, Tracey Williams-Dillard carries the tradition of telling local Black stories through the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, or MSR, was founded by Cecil E. Newman in 1934 and is run today by Tracey, Cecil’s granddaughter. Deluxe revamped the aging building, coating the walls with new paint, a new branded color palette, a new logo, and new office furniture and technology. “Giving a voice to the stories that matter since 1934” reads a t-shirt that the Small Business Revolution team helped to design. When SBR gave Tracey a $5,000 gift to “pay it forward” to someone else, the dedicated editor gave it to The Prison Mirror, a Minnesota newspaper that is produced by prison inmates.

“To be able to go back and to find that talent, nurture that talent, and bring them back into society and highlight their superpower, that’s bigger than a second chance,” Davis beamed as Tracey shared her intentions.

If Brinkman is the Steph Curry of small business creation, then Baron Davis could translate his NBA All-Star status to his investment portfolio. While 50 Cent is famous for investing early in Vitamin Water, so did Baron Davis. Davis’ investment portfolio is as diverse as it is lucrative, accurately predicting which sectors would grow to reflect societal change. Thrive Market has grown exponentially in the post-pandemic era, TrackLib allows for easily-cleared music samples in the time of Soundcloud rappers, and the Sleeper fantasy sports app combines the fantastical with the statistical through a whimsical interface. In the beverage sector, Davis was asked to sit on the advisory board for Tinley Beverage Company, a Long Beach-based company offering cannabis-infused adult beverages. Like many forward-thinking athletes, Davis is an investor in cryptocurrencies as he looks to create his own metaverse.

Davis’ investments span the entrepreneurial landscape, but his own projects reflect a prominent theme: uplifting and inspiring the Black community. Davis found a joyous, family-friendly way of bringing warmth to the Christmas season with Black Santa.

“Just having Black Santa is to show that Santa Claus can be in any shape, form or fashion, and through the eyes of this Santa Claus who’s Black, we finally get to see a character that exudes positivity, that exudes giving, that brings cheer and joy and always has a smile on their face,” Davis told the Boston Globe this Christmas. “The depiction of Black men in America has been the total opposite. So, that was the goal of Black Santa, is looking at Walt Disney and studying how he built Mickey Mouse, and was thinking this character has to have so much purpose and all of us as a people can actually gravitate and feel like we can be a part of this and we can share what our heritage is through our inclusive eye and our look at the world.”

A man of the future, Davis designed Black Santa for the digital age, revealing premier NFT drops this holiday season. Davis even hinted at a Black History Month NFT drop set for this February.

Davis is actively building a world for Black heroes, Black representation and Black entrepreneurs, and it starts young with financial literacy. Davis is launching apps like U-Nest and Goalsetter to give kids in urban communities accessibility to a wealth of knowledge.

“Sometimes words can be barbed wire,” Davis told LinkedIn News. “We need to think about the way we invite people to learn about finance, to learn about the education of finance and what it means.”

“I think what Goalsetter and U-Nest are doing is for us to start to create language that can be an inviting language to people in the urban community. The way that we think is that we have to remove that barbed wire.”

The barbed wire designed to exclude minorities mired in poverty takes a multitude of forms. It could be an interstate in St. Paul, a small business loan denied to a Black-owned business, or the disconnection kids in urban areas have to financial literacy.

But there is someone looking to champion his community, from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. With people like Brinkman and Davis giving back, six Black entrepreneurial teams in the Twin Cities have a leg up as they chase success. Whether it was revitalizing a family business or supporting a startup, Baron and Amanda gave these entrepreneurs a wealth of knowledge on how to sustain their small business dreams indefinitely.

“Baron” connotes a rank of nobility; a powerful industry leader. Baron Davis wields the entrepreneurial empire he’s built over a lifetime, investing in ideas that change the way we live and people who need a chance.

He is no robber baron, but he is a Robin Hood.

To learn more about the new season of Small Business Revolution and to watch previous seasons, visit www.sbr.org, Hulu or Prime Video. Learn more about how Deluxe can help your small business by visiting www.deluxe.com.

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