A’Jah Davis wears a simple gold necklace sporting the number 25 on it.
It serves as a reminder of why she’s back in DeKalb as a freshman on the Northern Illinois women’s basketball team, wearing that number. The necklace is a symbol of what her family, one of mutual support through and through, means to her.
“Twenty-five is a family number,” Davis said. “All of my cousins wear it. That was a big factor; I needed to get 25 as well.”
The number also signifies a major reason why she came home to DeKalb.
“It was a lot of different factors,” Davis said. “First off, it was the fact that I was able to come back home. I think a big part of that was for my mom to be able to see me play, since she didn’t in high school that much.”
After playing her freshman year at DeKalb High School, Davis relocated to Montverde, Florida, to attend school and play basketball for the past three years.
The decision to go to Florida wasn’t by some hail-mary chance.
Storied Huskies great on the basketball court E.C. Hill, now an assistant coach for the Towson women’s basketball team, had interviewed for the job of head girls’ basketball coach job at Montverde Academy after leaving the University of Arizona as an assistant coach in March 2016. Hill was in a period of transition back in Chicago soon after, and ran into Davis and Herilanda Thigpen, Davis’ mother.
“I had just interviewed for the job in Florida, so I talked to them about it,” Hill said, as she went on to take the job at Montverde in July.
Not that Hill and Davis’ family were ever too far separated. When Hill was back in DeKalb as an assistant with the Huskies women’s basketball team for six seasons from 2005-2011, Davis’ older sister, Chasidy, baby-sat Hill’s daughter, named Asia.
Discussions with Hill convinced her that the idea of leaving DeKalb High School after her freshman year was the best choice for her collegiate sports future.
“She knows what it takes to be a D-I athlete, and she knows she can prepare me for it,” Davis said.
The relationsip between Hill and Thigpen dates back to their days playing each other on the hardwood, when Hill played for Whitney Young and Thigpen played for John Marshall, both in Chicago.
A’Jah Davis’ mother, Herilanda “Noopie” Thigpen, was a leader on the court for the Huskies in the mid-1990s. She didn’t wear No. 25 at NIU but wore it in her collegiate career, which also included Illinois State and Southwest Michigan University.
A’Jah Davis’ father, Luke Davis Jr., now a high boys basketball coach in Malibu, California, was an NIU Huskie on the gridiron.
A’Jah’s Davis’ brother, Luke Davis III, a standout at Kishwaukee College the past few years, is now at Dubuque University and wore the number 25 as a DeKalb Barb.
All of the collective athletic success in A’Jah Davis’ family was enough to make her feel at an early age that she had to be good on the court. She grew from just going along with it to relishing the challege.
“It’s a family thing,” A’Jah Davis said. “Everyone in my family has played at some point, so I felt like even if I didn’t love it, I had to love it. Over time I found love for it and still do.”
A’Jah Davis said she knew she wanted to play at high level and felt a move was necessary to play against top-notch competition and be pushed by coaching.
“I just felt like I knew that I’d probably be recruited by a D-I school, but I still wanted to improve my game before going,” A’Jah Davis said. “I knew DeKalb [High School] wasn’t really serious about it.”
The now-freshman looked back at her high school years as a sitution that was “college-like” and introduced her to people of many different backgrounds. It also taught her time management as she traveled much for the powerhouse girls basketball program.
While coaches from other programs recruited A’Jah Davis, the Huskies staff, Lisa Carlsen and Adam Tandez in particular, paid the most mind to what was happening with A’Jah Davis’ off-court life, showing that they cared enough to make her family.
“They really care about me just outside basketball,” A’Jah Davis said. “Every time I ever talked to coach Carlsen or Adam, it was, ‘How’s your family? How’s everyone doing?’ And that, if you know me, you know my family is really important. They really took the time.”
It was always a chance for the coaching staff to bring a recruit home, one they had watched when she was a freshman at DeKalb and one they kept tabs on for her three years in Florida.
“We’re really excited to have her back home,” Carlsen said. “I know she’s excited to be back home. There’s a lot of people that are going to have a lot of energy and a lot of excitement to watch her in a Huskies uniform. She’s got great upside.”
When the 6-foot-1 freshman forward came in for summer practice, the Huskies’ coaches realized early on some things about her game that hadn’t clearly translated when they watched her on the AAU circuit.
“We didn’t know how good her hands were,” said Tandez, the associate head coach. “We’re talking snatching bad passes, we’re talking sealing deep and putting her defender into the paint and being able to make awkward catches with one hand and then grabbing rebounds out of her area because not necessarily quickness of foot being able to get to the ball, but more so because she’s able to reach with her long wingspan and bring the ball to her, which is huge for us.”
A’Jah said she used to be a “butterfingers,” but now, her ballhandling and touch is something that her coaches are most impressed by.
Redshirt senior Courtney Woods echoes a similar line of thinking as Tandez about A’Jah Davis and said that she’s the hardest person on the team to box out.
“I think that’s so rare, and to have someone like her that has as good of hands as she has,” Woods said. “I think she’s very surprising. She’s very multifaceted, she can score the ball with either hand, can catch with either hand, which is rare with a player of her size.”
Woods has seen enough Mid-American Conference basketball to identify who has potential.
“She’ll be an all-conference player for sure in her four years here,” Woods said.
Tandez said that the new Huskie doesn’t seem fazed by the thought of what her mother had done at NIU. Instead, she’s embracing the challenge. She does, after all, still exchange some friendly smack talk over the phone with older brother Luke.
“I’m definitely trying to go after what [my mother] did and do it better,” the youngest in a familial line of athletic Huskies said. “I feel like she left her legacy here, so I’m back, and I want to do it as well.”