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“I’m Not Happy. I Want to be Happy:” Anthony Davis reflects on his time in New Orleans two years after fateful trade demand

Davis opens up about his last days with the Pelicans and the power of happiness leading to success

This photo courtesy of Michelob Ultra
Michelob Ultra

On January 28th, 2019, Anthony Davis’ public trade request shook the very fabric of the NBA.

No two organizations bore the brunt of that shockwave more fully than the New Orleans Pelicans and the Los Angeles Lakers. Soon gone in the aftermath were executives Magic Johnson and Dell Demps. And likely some playoff hopes.

L.A.’s carefully crafted young core of potential stars were dangled for months on end, plummeting the confidence levels of, and perhaps also in, the players involved. That untidy scenario won the Pelicans what appeared a fair prize in Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and extensive draft capital that following summer.

Acquiescing to superstars is fast becoming normalized as Paul George and James Harden have followed in the footsteps of Davis, each dictating a preemptive end to their tenures in Oklahoma City and Houston, respectively. However, Davis’ instance was particularly messy as national news outlets continued to unapologetically jockey for his move to Los Angeles. One well-known ESPN analyst even suggested that the Pelicans’ organization wouldn’t trade the superstar due to his agent’s race.

LeBron James himself appeared to have wooed Davis following a contest on December 22, 2018, just two days after head coach Alvin Gentry vowed Davis wouldn’t be moved under any circumstances.

“We’re not trading him,” Alvin Gentry reiterated on December 20th, 2018. “I can say that to the world. We’re not gonna trade him, no matter what. That’s not an option. It doesn’t matter what anybody says or does. We’re not trading Anthony Davis.”

Klutch agent Rich Paul promised a short stay if another suitor entered and won the AD sweepstakes, like the Boston Celtics. Danny Ainge’s team arguably made for the most alluring trade partner for the Pelicans thanks to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward and a bevy of draft assets. That warning may have stifled other teams for challenging the Lakers trade package, too.

Then, as the final nail in the coffin, New Orleans’ superstar took a playful jab at the franchise that had so heavily invested in him for seven seasons in the final game of the 2018-19 season.

“Every night,” AD said courtesy of the Jump and Julie Boudwin. “Bigshot lays out what I’m going to wear in the game. I have no control in that. I just put it on.”

The scars an organization and its fanbase seek to heal from still remain visible as newfound stars in Brandon Ingram and Zion have yet to establish that winning culture. We can’t soon forget that Jrue Holiday could not take ownership of the franchise in the way that executive vice president David Griffin had publicly lobbied. Plus, Derrick Favors never unlocked his “untapped offensive potential,” Lonzo Ball has failed to live up to the investment of his draft position and even the ever-reliable J.J. Redick has watched production slip.

On the other side of the fence, though, sit the Los Angeles Lakers, fresh off a championship campaign in the bubble. They once again top the NBA standings with a 13-4 record. Davis seemingly has everything he’s ever wanted, from the winning he so desperately craved to a freshly filmed Super Bowl commercial, featuring Michelob Ultra and a number of other prominent athletes such as Serena Williams and Peyton Manning.

Here is a first look courtesy of Michelob Ultra.

Given the nature of his departure, having unusual feelings about AD’s success in L.A. is understandable for Pelicans’ fans. Fansided’s Pelicans Debrief even laid out “Why it’s okay to ‘hate’ AD.”

Despite the theatrics surrounding Davis during his final days in New Orleans, a fanbase was riddled with questions like, “Why couldn’t he have waited until the offseason?”

I spoke to Davis on December 3rd, 2020, and received some rare insight as to what drove his actions two seasons ago. Davis was in the process of filming his Michelob commercial with one pointed message, “Joy is what ultimately leads to success because it’s only worth it if you enjoy it.”

“It’s a true fact,” Davis told me. “Most people think success is determined by dedication, hard work, grit, grind, which is very true, but if you’re not happy, it’s hard to be successful.”

He went on to share a private story from his first day in the NBA under then head coach Monty Williams, who stressed the importance of keeping perspective in a world dictated by couch-bound critics and social media disparagers.

“I had a coach my rookie year, Monty Williams, who always told me, ‘Never let anyone steal the joy from you. Never let anyone steal your joy for the game from you.’”

Then freshly hired assistant coach Jamelle McMillan traced back the conversation and the effect it placed on the locker room.

“That’s something Coach Williams lives by,” McMillan recalled. “When he said it, it registered for all of us in so many different ways.”

Though the franchise continued its plight with an unfortunate rash of injuries, Davis got a taste of success in 2015, before being handily dismissed by the Golden State Warriors.

“Getting swept by Golden State {was a positive experience}, but there was something that triggered in him with that success,” McMillan said.

We know the history thereafter. The Pelicans won just 64 combined games the next two seasons, and then acquired DeMarcus Cousins, who tore his Achilles just as it seemed the Pelicans may finally present a challenge to the Western Conference. Davis continued to emerge despite the unfortunate set of circumstances, but not without cost.

“When you’re losing, you don’t realize that you’re not happy,” Davis said. “You made a ton of money. You can do whatever you want. You can live this lifestyle, quote-unquote ‘The American Dream,’ but losing sucks. I {realized that} I’m not happy. I want to be happy. And you kind of go through these times where it’s like, do I really want to play basketball? Am I really good enough? You start doubting yourself because you’re not happy. Or it might be stuff in your personal life where you’re not happy. Whether it’s in a relationship or family, whatever it may be. I had some of those things where it’s like I’m going through something off the court. I’m not happy and it’s reflecting my game. It starts leading to minor injuries, you’re not playing hard enough, things like that.”

“I think people assume that the dollar factor overshadows the human being,” McMillan told me. “Because it’s a really high dollar figure that these guys don’t have family issues or it just take care of itself. They don’t have relationship issues. They just take care of themselves because the money is so great it can’t be that bad. And that’s not true. At all.”

As fans of the game, there stands an invisible wall between the gladiator and the crowd that prevents real tangible access to what these humans may need to overcome on a daily basis. How could we identify with something we have not experienced? We can speculate and consume information from any number of sources that dictate our opinions, such as the following conversation shared between Richard Jefferson and LeBron James that gave an interesting perspective.

“I watched him in New Orleans,” LeBron told Richard Jefferson on Road Trippin. “He would get these nagging injuries and be out multiple games. He would get the shoulder or the ankle and he would sit out. This year, no matter what injury he had, his ass came back on the floor.”

I’d imagine LeBron in hindsight would have crafted his words a bit more carefully. Given his delivery, it seems as if he is suggesting that Davis did not give his all to the city of New Orleans and instead withheld his best efforts. There were a few hints of this, including an interaction shared between he and DeMarcus Cousins in 2018.

Clearly said a jest, but taking a conversation such as this one with Caron Butler and twisting it is a natural reaction given the events of the past 18 months.

“I know Anthony was a little self-conscious at one point because of his injuries,” McMillan said. “Fingers, shoulders, it just always seemed to be something.”

However, it cannot be argued that the kid originally destined for Cleveland State was coachable in New Orleans. He dramatically improved during his time there, highlighted by the thrilling playoff performances in May of 2018.

“That kid, he did show up everyday,” McMillan said. “{He} did everything that was expected of him. I will say he did buy-in and he was very coachable for a high-level guy. I know in between the lines, regardless of what people said, he wanted to be there and he wanted to do well for this city.”

Lakers assistant coach Mike Penberthy echoed this same sentiment, proving that Davis is driven by an insatiable desire to not only improve but also to please.

“AD is always wanting to grow and improve,” Penberthy told me via Instagram. “He wants to get better daily. In order to get better, you have to be willing to coached. AD is incredibly coachable.”

“He’s a nice guy,” McMillan reiterated. “He’s a people-pleasing guy.”

Less than two months after the sweep of the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, the Pelicans failed to re-sign Rajon Rondo, whose presence had an immeasurable effect on Davis. Alongside Rondo, Davis experienced his best season to date in New Orleans. The duo would continue their on-court chemistry later with Los Angeles en route to the NBA Finals.

Gone also was friend DeMarcus Cousins. Nikola Mirotic and Elfrid Payton were then slowed by injuries as the 2018-19 season had just begun. The 2018-19 starting unit posted a remarkable +30.2 net rating — yet only managed to play a combined 71 minutes together.

“I didn’t want to go to practice, I didn’t want to play,” Davis recalled from 2019. “There was just a lot going on because I didn’t have that joy with me anymore. Getting into it with the fans, the media, it was just a lot. I wasn’t in a great frame of mind — a great space for me to be joyful.

“Every day was like, ‘Ugh, here’s another day. I can’t wait until the season is over.’ Things like that. You’d see people say, ‘AD, you traitor!’ and I’d think, ‘What? You don’t understand what I’m going through.’ It was all wearing down on me at one time, but I had a great team around me, from my agency to my family to my friends, ‘Nah, forget what they’re saying. You’re doing what’s best for you and your family.’”

There is a thinly veiled line between what was perceived as player entitlement and the quest for emotional well-being. Much attention was drawn over Dennis Rodman’s vacation in “The Last Dance;” however, no one seems to mention LeBron’s break in 2015. Or what about Kyrie’s break just this month? Because of the nature of their stature and salaries, in many ways we hold athletes to standards we’d never enforce on ourselves.

“He’s able to associate with the front office and upper management just as well as he does the ticket sales and community relations team,” McMillan continued. “Everyone is the same to that guy every single day. He’s very consistent in who he is. He shows you how genuine he is every single day. There’s no way he can fake it. He’s getting everything he deserves.”

“He’s one of the best human beings we have in this league,” McMillan said.

No one expects the New Orleans’ fans, or even the organization itself, to appreciate the manner in which agent Rich Paul and Anthony Davis dictated a transaction that ultimately damned any chance for the Pelicans or Lakers to enjoy success in 2019. In many ways, it could have been handled better, from the cartoon T-shirt to this strange interview.

“He was going to go to Cleveland State and then to number one pick,” McMillan said. “And he’s just trying to provide some hope for basketball here (New Orleans). It was a lot. It was a lot for a kid like him who’s more of an introvert. He’s more about his family than some of these other guys who like the attention.”

As fans, we don’t have to like the decisions that professional athletes make because of the effect that they can have on organizations.

At the same time, we also can’t pretend to truly understand it.

“I want to enjoy life,” Davis said. “I want to be happy. No one can live your life. You live your life the way you want to. Now people can help you and direct you in a way that they think is best for you, but at the end of the day, it’s what you want to do. It’s your life. So I have to make changes and decisions that are going to benefit me and make me happy.”

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @PrestonEllis.