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Sky may not be her limit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Where do you begin? With helmets and helicopters? With posters of point guards? Or, with that sad September day in 2001?

There are so many different ways to tell Courtney Davidson's story, and not one of them is wrong. Athlete. Soldier. Scholar. Daredevil. Dreamer. She's a little of each. She's a foreign policy wonk who spends half her day in high-top sneakers, and she can beat a zone defense and lecture about national defense without hesitation.

And though she's about to put the finishing touches on a career that will certainly go down as one of the best in the history of Navy's women's basketball - she's averaging 18 points and needs a total of just 18 in the Mids' final three games to break the academy's career scoring mark - it could easily end up as a footnote many years from now, when she has traveled the world and her brown hair has streaks of gray.

"She could end up in the Oval Office someday," said Navy coach Tom Marryott, with no hint of hyperbole. "I think, with Courtney, anything is possible."

Hearing this, of course, makes her squirm. She can't absorb a compliment like that without nervous laughter and eye-rolling. But she won't dismiss it, either. If there is one thing you should know about Courtney Davidson, it's that she does not believe in dreaming small.

Even when she was tiny, she was impossible to ignore. In her hometown of New Oxford, Pa., her father was the boys high school basketball coach, and she was the team's designated rebounder.

Before games, and at halftime, Davidson would sprint across the floor fetching errant shots, her small legs churning as she wove between the towering post players to avoid being trampled. It wasn't long before she was riding the bus on road trips and practicing her dribbling at the far end of the court while her father, Jeffrey, taught 17-year-old boys how to set screens and play defense.

"As soon as she was old enough, she wanted to jump in and do drills with the kids," said her father. "She wanted to be John Stockton. That's really who she modeled herself after. I think she knew more about who was who [in the NBA] than I did."

In time, posters of Stockton wallpapered her room, and Davidson would put down her basketball only to pick up a bat and a glove.

"No matter what I was doing, I was always playing with the guys," Davidson said. "When I was 10 years old, I made the all-star team for baseball. It was all boys. They'd make fun of me sometimes for being a girl. I think that was where I really got my competitive spirit from. I always wanted to ... show them that I was just as good."

And she did. After a few practices, the doubters were silenced. The teasing stopped. But the next day, so did her season.

"I went home and fell out of a tree and broke my arm," Davidson said. "After that, I couldn't play anymore."

Still, there is some satisfaction that it was the broken arm, not the boys, who kept her from playing.

Basketball was No. 1

In high school, she joined every club, captained every team and nearly aced every test. She was a member of the marching band, the student council, the National Honor Society and the Girl Scouts. But her love for basketball surpassed all. On a trip to France, she missed it so much, she slipped away from friends to find a pickup game.

"In baseball, you can pitch a perfect game or you can throw a shutout," Davidson said. "But in basketball, you never achieve perfection. I think that's why I love it so much. I love just trying to get as close to perfection as possible."

She was the best player in a small town, but its Amateur Athletic Union program wasn't prominent enough to give her great exposure. "I got recruited by a lot of schools with good academic reputations because they saw that I had pretty decent grades," she said. "Patriot League schools, Ivy League schools mostly. I heard from a few Big East schools a little, but that never panned out."

When Navy called, she was hesitant. She had attended a basketball camp at the academy before her senior year, during the heart of plebe summer. First impressions of life on The Yard can be negative.

"All the plebes were running around with shaved heads and everyone was just yelling constantly," Davidson said. She recalls telling a friend, "There is no way I could ever go to school here. This is insane. Why would you do this to yourself?"

Meeting a challenge

But a second visit, and then a third, made her ask: Wasn't this just another challenge? When had she ever been afraid of a challenge? Never. Where do I sign?

When she became a plebe, it felt like she had walked into a tornado. That first year was a blur. There was always somewhere to be, something to memorize, some chore to complete. Even her sleep was restless because days began at 5:30 a.m. Her only peace came during basketball practice.

"When I was in high school, I didn't think basketball could ever mean more than it did," she said. "But when I got here, I was like, 'Thank goodness. Three hours of basketball. I can just think about that. I don't have to think about my next chemistry test or what I need to know for the upperclassmen. I can just think basketball.' That made me love it even more, I guess."

And it showed. She became the second freshman in Navy history to lead the team in scoring, averaging 11.6 points. And to the delight of the entire brigade, she was at her best against Army, scoring 21, 20 and 21 points in three games against the Black Knights.

"She's the most competitive, the most disciplined person I've ever met," said Alison Luchsinger, Davidson's best friend on the team. "Everything she does makes you want to work harder and get better."

But when the games ended, and conversation turned to the future, everything blurred again.

The plan was to "five and dive" - serve her five-year commitment on a ship somewhere, just get it over with, then walk away from the military. Or, get out sooner, if possible.

"I remember joking around in the gym with Ali [Luchsinger], saying, 'OK, we've got to get really good so we can go pro out of here," Davidson said. "We've got to get so good we don't have to be in the Navy anymore."

Then came Sept. 11

How many lives were altered by what happened on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001? A billion? Two billion? It's impossible to say. But for this story, what matters is that Davidson, then a sophomore, was one of them.

When word swept across The Yard that day that two planes had hit the World Trade Center and that another had hit the Pentagon, there were some Mids who questioned their decision to come to the academy. Davidson wasn't one of them.

"For a lot of people, it sort of reasserted things," Davidson said. "It was like, 'Hey, we're here for a reason. ... We're not here to get a college degree. We're here to become military officers.'

"Though you might not realize the full potential of that when you agree to come here as a 17-year-old, you definitely get a sense of purpose. If you're not here to lead our country in times of war, then I don't think you should be here at all."

She buried herself in political science books, her chosen major, soaking up everything she could about globalization and foreign policy. Both semesters that year, she earned a 4.0 grade point average. Basketball was still her first love, and you still had to practically drag her out of the gym - as a sophomore she averaged 17.7 points and was named first-team All-Patriot League - but now there were new passions in her life.

"I picked political science because I'm really interested in it," Davidson said. "I like reading about our political institutions and our foreign policy. I think even though I might not be able to figure out the dynamics of why a plane flies, I can see why we might make policy decisions to have planes fly in places around the world where I might be stationed."

No love for attention

She hates the spotlight - can't stand it, in fact. In December 2002, when she scored her 1,000th point, Navy wanted to hold a small ceremony for her at center court and present her with the ball. Davidson jogged - OK, sprinted - out to midcourt, grabbed the basketball, and was back on the bench before the photographer waiting to capture the moment knew what had happened.

"Honestly, I think that stuff means more to my teammates than it does to me," Davidson said. "They're constantly like, 'Hey, good job!' But it's a team thing for me. I'm glad that it means something to people around me."

Still, the honors and awards have piled up. The 530 points she scored as a junior are a single-season record at Navy. She's the only Navy player to score 30 points in back-to-back games. It's almost certain she'll be named first-team All-Patriot League for the third straight year.

In 2003, she was the league's choice for scholar-athlete of the year in women's basketball. She holds a 3.71 GPA, and was the 2003 Spring Semester Brigade Sergeant-Major, a tremendous honor at the academy.

Even now, she splits her days between Annapolis and College Park, where she's enrolled in a one-year graduate program at the University of Maryland, studying government and policy.

But for all her personal accolades, the 5-foot-10 guard has played on Navy teams that have fallen short. It would mean the world to her if she could carry the Mids to the NCAA tournament.

Navy (12-14) has had an up-and-down season, losing more often than it's won, but three near-perfect games in March at the Patriot League tournament could change all that.

There's one more thing, though. Mention it, and you need a yardstick to measure the grin on her face. Come graduation, Davidson is joining the Marines. She intends to fly AH-1 Cobra helicopters. When she told her family, they could hardly believe it. Was this the same little girl that was scared to ride the roller coaster at Hersheypark?

Well, yes and no. But one thing is certain: It was the one job the scholar, the soldier, the daredevil and the dreamer can agree on.

"I think once I start flying, I'm going to want to do that for a while," Davidson says. "I want to become the best pilot I can. I'll get to see the world. ...

"I don't want to go too fast. I don't want to fly jets or anything. But as a woman, if you're an attack pilot, that's probably the closest you can get to combat. I've always wanted to be in the middle of everything. It's like at the end of a game, I want to be the one shooting free throws. I like everything to be on my shoulders. I like knowing I've got the job and I'm going to get it done."

Climbing the charts

Navy senior guard Courtney Davidson is closing in on the Midshipmen's career scoring record. Where she ranks all time at the academy:

Points: 1,800 (2nd)

Three-pointers: 237 (1st)

Three-point percentage: .393 (2nd)

Free throws made: 409 (4th)

Free throw percentage: .835 (1st)

Assists: 185 (15th)

Steals: 157 (6th)

Games: 109 (4th)

Starts: 103 (tied-2nd)

20-point games: 43 (1st)

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