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The incredible story of how a Mizzou women's basketball jersey connected two generations

Former Mizzou scoring leader Joni Davis, left, didn't hesitate to say yes when Tigers coach Robin Pingeton asked if freshman Aijha Blackwell, right, could wear Davis' retired No. 33 jersey. Hunter Dyke/Missouri Athletics

COLUMBIA, Missouri -- Joni Davis took another glance toward the ceiling at Mizzou Arena, looking for her retired No. 33. Whoops ... wrong direction.

"There it is," she said, grinning as her eyes locked on the banner. "I get a little turned around in here."

The building didn't exist in 1985 when she finished her career as Missouri women's basketball's all-time leading scorer. She played down the street at the Hearnes Center. Last season, as Sophie Cunningham closed in on the record, Davis reached out with encouragement. Her conversations with Missouri coach Robin Pingeton eventually led to another big topic.

"I wanted to handle it with kid gloves. Because how do you ask someone that?" Pingeton said. "Someone who busted their tail to have a jersey retired."

The question: Would Davis be OK with incoming freshman Aijha Blackwell wearing No. 33?

Blackwell's father, Ernest, wore No. 33 when he played football at Mizzou in the 1990s. Aijha had an emotional link to the number, one that represented both the terrible tragedy of her father's life and her own desire to, as she put it, "Try to transform his legacy into more of a positive thing."

Davis answered "yes" before she had heard the whole story from Pingeton. When she heard more details, both were in tears.

"How cool that a number could intertwine two different lives like this?" Pingeton said. "And also bring back some history of our program."

Blackwell's journey

Davis grew up in the Midwest, a small-town kid with big-time basketball talent. At Mizzou from 1981-1985, she scored 2,126 points. It would have been more had the 3-point line existed -- the multidimensional 6-foot guard made many shots from beyond that distance.

Davis, a relationship and family therapist who has lived in California since 1990, has thought a lot about Blackwell since hearing her story.

"I thought, 'Wow, this kid has been through so much," Davis said. "How is she holding things together?"

Blackwell, who grew up in St. Louis, was not yet 4 years old in August 2004 when her father shot her 9-year-old half-sister and then severely beat a neighbor and her teenage daughter. The victims all survived, but Ernest -- it was speculated that agitated delirium led to the violent outburst -- died that day after a battle with law enforcement in which he was shot twice with a stun gun and then sedated. He was 29.

Ernest had a difficult life. When he was 6, his father was killed in a homicide. He was in an orphanage until he was adopted by an aunt. His football talent got him to Mizzou, and he was drafted into the NFL by the Kansas City Chiefs. But his pro football career never happened.

Aijha was at home when her father began his rampage; she doesn't remember much of it.

"Just little pieces and little flashes of things," she said. "I ask questions of my family, like my dad's sister, about things that are more positive. She says our smile is the same, our humor. And athletic-wise ... my mom put two videos together of him running down the field, and me running down the court. It was very similar."

Aijha matured into a standout basketball player, ranked ninth overall in the Class of 2019. As a junior at Whitfield School in St. Louis, she averaged 24.2 points., 8.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.0 steals in 2017-18. But her senior year was derailed. In the summer of 2018 she played for USA Basketball and mistakenly received a reimbursement check that most high school players are not allowed to accept. It was a situation similar to that of Maori Davenport, now a Rutgers freshman, whose battle with the Alabama high school federation over eligibility because of the USA Basketball check received nationwide publicity last season.

Blackwell's predicament was more complicated. She also transferred to a different high school for 2019, but her eligibility was never approved. Ultimately, she played in just one game at the start of Whitfield's season and then in an all-star contest in March.

"I felt really empty without the sport, I was heartbroken by it," Blackwell said. "I felt something was taken away, my identity. I was pretty much lost.

"I even sat around for like a month, and my mom was like, 'You can't mope all day.' So I got a membership from the YMCA down the street from my house and started working out every day, realizing I was not giving up on my dreams. And there was somewhere I had to be in June."

"It has great meaning to me, but I felt so happy that I had something to give that meant so much to somebody else." Joni Davis on saying yes to Aijha Blackwell wearing her retired No. 33 jersey

That was Mizzou, where she had committed despite knowing she would have to face head-on questions about her father. Blackwell attended a Mizzou camp in the summer of 2018 and sought Pingeton. The Tigers were recruiting her, but they hadn't talked much. That day, Blackwell opened up.

"She actually read me before I even spoke," Blackwell said. "She was like, 'I know it's hard to trust people due to your past.' That conversation was about trust being a two-way street. We shared some things -- her talking about her life, and me talking about mine. It was just awesome to realize I had someone there for me."

Blackwell said her mother, Amy, initially opposed her attending Missouri.

"She didn't think I should take on my dad's legacy that way," Blackwell said. "I had to tell her I was going to do it. And she started to understand."

Dealing with the past

As Davis thought more about Blackwell's story, she related parts of it to her own life.

"I don't want to speak for Aijha, but I had the realization that perhaps her father and my father were both our greatest inspiration and our greatest disappointments," Davis said. "And we both had to make peace with that."

Davis' father, Frank, played college basketball and became a coach and teacher. He taught Joni the game. He and Joni's mother, Donna, divorced when Joni was at Mizzou. She said she felt torn between the two, always trying to play mediator. And she felt her dad never dealt with his feelings, something she has struggled with as well.

"My father just let his insides eat him up," Davis said. "He turned into a bitter man. He would never tell me, or anyone, about his family growing up. All he would say was, 'They're bad people.' My little-girl interpretation of this was, 'I come from bad people.'"

Davis now realizes this impacted her ability to trust and be open with teammates when she was at Mizzou. Still, she had success as the Tigers went 96-30 in her four seasons, making the NCAA tournament each year and winning the Big Eight regular-season and tournament titles her senior season.

But it was at a low point her last year (1985), with 9-8 Missouri coming off a 14-point loss at Nebraska, that Davis had a breakthrough. In a meeting with teammates, one of them told her, "We depend on you. We need you to depend on us."

Blackwell is now at that place, figuring out team dynamics and the trust that's needed. Losing three starters, including Cunningham, the Tigers have struggled (5-14, 2-4 in the SEC). When Davis visited Mizzou Arena on Jan. 16, the Tigers lost 78-45 to No. 1 South Carolina.

But Blackwell has been finding her footing. She's averaging a team-best 12.7 points and 5.7 rebounds. She's coming off a 20-point, eight-rebound, four-assist performance in a 71-57 victory at Ole Miss on Sunday.

"She's had to deal with some of those pressures of being a top-10 recruit," Mizzou senior Jordan Roundtree said. "She has a lot of high expectations, with media and fans. She has shown great maturity and resilience, and I think she's started to come into her own."

Roundtree is also from St. Louis. Her father, Bill, played basketball at Mizzou, overlapping with Davis' career. Roundtree knows Blackwell's story and she cried along with the rest of the team when the coaches surprised Blackwell with the No. 33 jersey.

"That was awesome," Roundtree said. "It meant a lot to Aijha. For someone who hasn't had to deal with the death of a parent, that number might be just a number. But for her, it carried a lot more weight."

A basketball homecoming

Davis' Mizzou career ended when the Tigers were eliminated in the second round of the 1985 NCAA tournament. With knee issues and limited pro opportunities, she had to find her life path.

She tried coaching as a graduate assistant, but found the transition from top player to what felt like glorified gopher to be unfulfilling. Davis became interested in acting, and was a stand-in for Sigourney Weaver, dunking a basketball in one of the "Aliens" sequels.

But when her father died in 2000, she saw a counselor for the first time. And found her true calling.

Davis has returned to Mizzou for ceremonies. But Cunningham's quest for the Mizzou scoring record -- which she set in the SEC tournament last season -- and then Blackwell's story -- brought Davis closer to her alma mater in many ways.

"It's about going back to trying to love the game and play for the moment," Davis said. "Also being open to learning -- about yourself, not just basketball, not just other people. But how you get in your own way, being able to receive feedback in a way that actually feels good, instead of as criticism.

"I came in my freshman year, and I was a complete question mark. You just don't know what can come out of a person when they put their mind to something."

That is what Blackwell is figuring out.

"Just the idea of remembering your past, but using it to make a brighter future," Blackwell said. "Not just thinking about the negative things, or losing someone, and the traumatic events. But moving forward and using that toward your success."

Davis shared a memory that made her smile: When she came in as a freshman in 1981, the number she had previously worn and wanted was actually No. 32. But it was taken. So she got No. 33 and it became symbolic of all she accomplished. She cherishes it.

"It has great meaning to me, but I felt so happy that I had something to give that meant so much to somebody else," Davis said. "I was like, 'Of course she can wear it.' Because I'm not using it; nobody is using it. It probably wants to be used again."