Ed Davender, arguably the most under-appreciated star player in University of Kentucky basketball history, died late Thursday night. He was 49.
Davender suffered a massive heart attack on Tuesday, former UK teammate Kenny Walker said. He was kept on life support until his mother, Juanita, could come Wednesday night and be with her son.
Davender’s organs were to be donated. The funeral will be held in Lexington but arrangements are not yet complete.
Walker and past Kentucky coaches remembered Davender as an ultra-competitive player for the Wildcats from the 1984-85 season through 1987-88.
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“The only thing he knew was one way: all his heart and all his soul,” said Leonard Hamilton, the assistant coach who led the effort to recruit Davender out of Brooklyn, N.Y. “That’s how he operated.”
Joe B. Hall, the UK head coach in Davender’s freshman season, remembered a player blessed with basketball intelligence and skill.
“He was a real heady basketball player,” Hall said. “A good team man. He always gave his most every game (and) every practice.”
With Hall’s retirement in the spring of 1985, Eddie Sutton was Kentucky coach for Davender’s final three seasons. One of Sutton’s assistants, Doug Barnes, also recalled Davender’s on-court desire.
“He was one of the best competitors I ever coached,” Barnes said. “And he was one of the best defensive players I ever coached, and also one of the favorite players I ever coached.”
Coaches are partial to players who are willing to defend, Barnes said with a chuckle.
As Davender liked to point out, he also was productive on offense. He remains the only Kentucky player with more than 1,500 points and 400 assists. He ranks 11th on UK’s career scoring list with 1,637 points, eighth in assists (436) and fourth in steals (191).
No guard in UK basketball history has shot more free throws than Davender, who took 553. And only three players (Walker, Dan Issel and Cotton Nash) got to the foul line more often.
Yet, Davender was overshadowed throughout his Kentucky career, first by Walker, then by Rex Chapman.
A book produced by The Sporting News, Big Blue: 100 Years of Kentucky Wildcats, said, “Davender’s name doesn’t roll off the tongues of Kentucky fans when they discuss UK’s foremost players. But there’s no denying the guard’s significant contributions to the program.”
The Kentucky Basketball Encyclopedia said Davender was “arguably, the most under-rated, under-appreciated guard in UK history.”
When asked if he agreed that Davender’s contributions had been under-appreciated, Hamilton said, “Absolutely. No doubt about it.”
Hall and Hamilton said that Davender learned how to play basketball on the playgrounds of New York City. His family’s apartment, which he shared with his mother and grandmother, was only a block or so from a playground, Hall recalled.
Davender, a 6-foot-2 guard, averaged 29 points as a senior at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. He averaged 31 points as a junior for Alexander Hamilton High School. He was twice named all-New York City and was a McDonald’s All-American.
Hamilton described Davender’s recruitment as a case of “love at first sight.” The mutual attraction had Davender seeing UK as a place to further his pro ambitions and UK seeing a standout backcourt player who could excel at both ends of the court.
“He came as a freshman as one of the best defensive guards Kentucky ever had in the history of the program,” Hamilton said. “Even when he didn’t have great technique, his effort and quickness and speed was at such a level that he wanted every defensive challenge you gave him.”
Challenges abounded in the Southeastern Conference at that time. For instance, opposing guards included Vernon Maxwell and Andrew Moten at Florida, Tony White at Tennessee, Phil Cox at Vanderbilt, Terry Coner at Alabama and Rod Barnes at Ole Miss.
In the inaugural Big Four Classic, Davender led Kentucky to an 82-76 victory over Indiana. He scored a team-high 22 points and held IU’s Keith Smart to 2-for-9 shooting and five points.
Davender started 12 games and averaged 23.4 minutes as a freshman. He played an unusually prominent role at a time when coaches typically eased freshmen into the rotation.
From the beginning, Davender seemed unfazed by the responsibility and the unblinking Kentucky basketball spotlight.
Barnes said that Davender was “probably a lot wiser and smarter than his years.”
Hamilton recalled Davender playing with a determination.
“He was just a confident, hard-nosed, tough New York City type of guard,” Hamilton said. Davender “really never showed a whole lot of emotion one way or the other. He was the epitome of consistency.”
After his college career, Davender faced hardship and downturns, some self-inflicted.
A heart murmur contributed to Davender’s decision not to pursue a pro career after being drafted in the third round by the Washington Bullets in 1988. An ill-considered decision not to report to the team’s rookie camp until after it had started did not help his chances of making the team.
Later, while working in Kentucky, Davender was convicted of committing a series of college basketball ticket scams in Fayette and other counties, including Harrison and Fleming. Victims lost tens of thousands of dollars in some of the cases.
Davender pledged in court to “pay every penny” of what he owed, his public defender, Dennis Shepperd, said in 2011.
Chapman also vouched for Davender paying back victims for their losses.
“I am positive that anybody Eddie D harmed or wronged in this whole deal will be repaid what they are owed,” Chapman said at the time. “It’s the kind of guy he is. It may take him some time, but I know he’ll make it right. It’s who he’s always been.”
More recently, Davender worked for Lexington’s Parks and Recreation Department. One of his co-workers, Madden Miller Jr., said Davender did not like to relive his glory days.
“Very humble,’ Miller said. “I’d bring up basketball. I’m a diehard fan. He didn’t want to talk about it. He’d say it was in the past. Let’s leave it there.”