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Where is Johnell Davis from? How FAU's breakout star went from Gary, Indiana, to March Madness

By Sam Jarden,


Every year, basketball standouts from lesser-known programs make national headlines with their performances in March Madness. One of this year's best examples is Florida Atlantic's Johnell Davis.

Davis was outstanding in FAU's second-round victory over 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson, becoming the first player in NCAA Tournament history to tally 25 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals in a single game. He then led the Owls to an upset of Tennessee in the Elite Eight with a team-high 15 points.

Davis' game helped lead the 9-seeded Owls to the first Elite Eight appearance in program history. They'll now face off against Kansas State on Saturday with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

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In addition to his play on the court, Davis gained attention for his postgame interview. He went viral after accidentally cursing while talking with TruTV's Jamie Erdahl.

Moments later, his strikingly honest answer to a question from Erdahl provided a glimpse into his upbringing — and who he is as a person.

"I'm just trying to feed my family," he said.

Davis has traveled a long and difficult road to get here, but he has officially arrived at March Madness stardom.

Where is Johnell Davis from?

Davis was born and raised in Gary, Ind., a city of about 70,000 people on the shores of Lake Michigan just southeast of Chicago.

Once a major hub of steel manufacturing, Gary has fallen on hard times as steel producers have moved elsewhere. The city's population has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s, when it had nearly 180,000 residents.

Today, Gary is one of the most deprived cities in the country. The formerly bustling streets have become quiet and derelict as more than half of the city's residents have packed up and left within the last 50 years. In 2019, it was ranked as the most miserable city in America by Business Insider .

MORE: Ranking the remaining 16 March Madness teams: Where does FAU stack up?

How did Johnell Davis get to Florida Atlantic?

Davis was a standout player at Gary's 21st Century Charter High School. After averaging 31.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per game as a senior, he committed to play his college ball at FAU, turning down offers from Northern Illinois, Miami (Ohio) and Kent State.

Despite moving to Boca Raton, Fla., Davis still keeps in close contact with many of his friends and former teammates back in Gary.

“I’m really close with all of those guys,” he told the Chicago Tribune . “When I come back home, I get in the gym, work out with them all the time and the high school guys.”

Davis' former high school coach, Larry Upshaw, says Davis' commitment to working in the gym sets him apart as a player.

“I know his work ethic," Upshaw said. "He’s been working towards this his whole life. I watched him work in high school, and it was an extremely high level for a high school kid, and it’s just carried over to college.”

MORE: Who will win March Madness? Betting odds, projections for remaining 16 teams

How Johnell Davis became a March Madness star

Davis, a junior, led the Owls in scoring with 13.9 points per game in the 2022-23 regular season. After a relatively quiet start to the year, he scored a career-high 36 points against UAB in January. He went scored in double digits in 13 of his team's final 17 regular-season games.

FAU qualified for the big dance by winning the Conference USA Tournament. It was seeded ninth in the East region and managed to scrape past 8-seeded Memphis 66-65 in the first round. Davis finished with 12 points in that game.

The Owls were probably as shocked as everyone else when 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson stunned 1-seed Purdue in the first round. Instead of a matchup against the Boilermakers, FAU moved on to face FDU in the second round.

The Knights put up a fight, but Davis was unstoppable. His stat line was enough to power FAU to victory and into the Sweet 16. The big game — and the ensuing interview — turned Davis into an overnight star.

"I've seen it so many times," he said of the accidental swear word he dropped on national television. "Before the tournament even started, I turned my notifications off. I have to get some sleep at night."

MORE: Watch NCAA Tournament games live with Sling TV

“It’s been like a movie, really,” Davis added. “Just living with the guys, my teammates. It’s all been nice. I’m just living in the moment, waiting for the next game."

That next game will come at New York's Madison Square Garden against a Tennessee squad that eliminated Duke in the second round.

After years of hard work and dedication to his craft, Davis will be representing Gary on the hardwood of "The World's Most Famous Arena." It's a journey he hopes will inspire young people from his hometown.

“You can do anything you work for,” he said. “The past couple of years, I wasn’t the man. I’ve been patient, waiting my turn, and everything is going to come to you. If you put in the work consistently, it will come to you.”

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