Rarefied air: Davis’ high jump career soars into hall-of-fame status

Published 11:56 pm Saturday, January 9, 2016

Hillary Feltman and her siblings started to learn a little more about their father Walt “Buddy” Davis when he represented the 1955-56 Philadelphia Warriors at the Golden State Warriors’ championship ring ceremony in October.

“Daddy has a drawer full of clippings from Nederland High School, through college and his All-American honors,” she said.

She didn’t mention her father’s Olympic high jumping victory from 1952.

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But Davis, 85, who starred in both basketball and track and field at Nederland and Texas A&M, was honored for his track success along with big names including Carl Lewis and Sanya Richards-Ross at the Texas Track & Field Hall of Fame on Friday in Addison.

“Daddy has been floating on air and encouraged us to do a bit of research as well,” said Feltman, one of Davis’ four children.

The past three months have taken Davis back in time.

“It’s kind of like old times,” he said before going to the ceremony. “It’s like when I was younger and in my prime.”

Davis wasn’t the only local going into the hall. Port Arthur-born and Beaumont High School alumnus Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who also excelled in basketball and golf, was posthumously inducted. She won gold in the javelin throw and 80-meter hurdles and took silver in the high jump at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Other living inductees included Jeremy Wariner, Fred Hansen, Jim Hines, Darrow Hooper, Rafer Johnson and Bobby Morrow. Other posthumous inductees were Frank Anderson, Emmett Brunson, Oliver Jackson, Clyde Littlefield, Earle Meadows, Jack Patterson, Jerry Thompson and Fred Wolcott.

Davis fought polio as a child and grew to his current 6-foot-8 height by his senior year at Nederland, when he won district and regional high jump championships for the second year in a row. He won the 1952 national championship for Texas A&M, a year after coming in second, and jumped an AAU-record 6-10 ½.

“Everything I did in track and field was so easy,” Davis said. “I didn’t work hard or do anything. When I got through with the basketball season at A&M, I was in the best shape of any person on the track team. Everything came so easy to me.”

Davis recalled trying to perform a jumping maneuver of the time called the barrel roll, studying that of a teammate from Beaumont High.

“He had the most beautiful form,” Davis said. “I was trying to do the barrel roll after him, but I kept knocking the bar off. So, I tried the Western roll.”

In the Western roll, Davis described, the jumper initiates a “semi-dive” over the bar, curling over the bar with the hip and “rolling over” on the hip. 

“You hit the sand in a three-point hit, your feet and one hand,” he said. “On the takeoff, take your left foot and put it under the right hip.”

Today, the standard high jump method is the Fosbury Flop, a back-first approach named after 1968 Olympic gold medalist Dick Fosbury.

In the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Davis cleared 2.04 meters, or 6 feet, 8.32 inches, setting an Olympic record at the time. The silver medalist, fellow American Ken Wiesner, came in second at 2.01 meters, or 6-7.13.

For all of his track success, Davis said he was a basketball player by trade.

He was drafted in the second round by the Warriors in 1952 but did not enter the league until the next year to remain eligible for Helsinki. To support his family in the meantime, the Aggie earned $50 a month as a salesman for Phillips 66.

In the NBA, Davis averaged 4.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game in more than four seasons with the Warriors and St. Louis (now Atlanta) Hawks. He won championships with the Warriors in 1956 and the Hawks in 1958.

The championship ring ceremony in Oakland, California, celebrated each of the Warriors franchise’s world titles. The team won the first NBA title in 1947 and again with Davis in 1956, with Rick Barry in 1975 and with Stephen Curry last June.

But on Friday night, Davis’ track career took center stage.

“I just went out for the track and field so I didn’t have to go through the spring training for basketball,” Davis said.

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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