Davidson Day’s Mercer draws strength – and gives it – with powerful story of loss and perseverance
by Chris Hunt
For the first time in his life, Gabe Mercer was ready to open up.
Davidson Day coach Ron Johnson had arranged a two-day preseason retreat for the boys basketball team in the school gym. There, the players were scheduled to spend the night on the hardwood, where they’d sweat and sometimes bleed for the next five months. Johnson asked his players to use the time to get to know each other better before the 2010-11 season. At the coach’s request, each senior was to address the team on the last day.
Mercer took Johnson’s words to heart.
After the first day of the retreat, Mercer decided it was important for his teammates to finally know who he was inside. Last year, he’d kept them at bay, hiding behind a smile off the court or a scowl on it.
But not this year. Not his senior season. This time, he would show his team the wounds of a difficult past to express the importance of the upcoming season. Only then would his teammates and coaches understand why he is the way he is. Why he takes school and practice so seriously. Why he plays every basketball game like it’s his last.
Later that night, while his teammates slept in sleeping bags and comforters on the gym floor, Mercer slipped into the locker room with a pen and pad to write the speech he would present to his team. The following morning, a nervous Mercer told his teammates and coaching staff everything.
Mercer faced Davidson Day’s junior varsity and varsity basketball players eye-to-eye and told them about growing up in a troubled neighborhood and seeing things children should not see. He didn’t exactly live a country club lifestyle.
Then, as tears rolled down his face, he told them about his mother, Stephanie Mercer, slowly losing her battle with breast cancer. He watched as chemotherapy took her hair. He saw doctors pump her with morphine to take away her pain. He was there when cancer took her life.
Stephanie Mercer died in 2001, when Mercer was only 8 years old.
Mercer continued in front of teammates and coaches, talking about the challenges of raising his younger brother, Caleb – a Davidson Day junior varsity player in the audience that night – from the time he was 6 because his father, Isaiah, was a single parent forced to work two jobs at the hospital to make ends meet. He explained how, still just a child, he made sure Caleb was ready for school, ate dinner and took a bath every night. How he was forced to grow up quicker than most kids.
Mercer wasn’t finished until he confessed how he used basketball as a healthy channel for his anger when family therapy sessions weren’t enough. Basketball helped control the rage from having his mother taken away from him at such a young age. Basketball helped him accept his role as a child raising a another child. Basketball was an avenue for Mercer, his brother and their father – a former basketball player at Texas College in the 1970s – to talk, laugh and heal.
Then he told his teammates and coaches that he wanted to win a state title so he could take his championship ring to his mother’s grave. He finished by dedicating the 2010-11 season to her.
When Mercer was done, it was hard to find a dry eye in the gym. After Mercer’s six-minute speech, he left the pages on the floor in front of his teammates, his coaches, his friends and his brother as a symbolic gesture that meant he was giving them a piece of himself.
“Growing up with the life I lived, I’ve always been more to myself because it’s always been me, my brother and my dad,” said Mercer. “Coming to Davidson Day, it was more of a family atmosphere, and I began to trust people more. At the retreat, it was time for me to open up to the team – give a piece of myself. It would go a long way to them truly trusting me, as well as me trusting them. They would understand where I come from and how basketball has been my vehicle to maneuver my way to where I am now.”
After hearing Mercer’s life story, it’s easy to understand why he plays with such passion. Hardship has sharpened his killer instinct on the court. Mercer attacks opponents with a relentless style that never backs down. The 6-foot guard is a self-proclaimed floor general ready to take a charge, fearlessly score in traffic or lock down an opponent’s top scorer.
Johnson hopes Mercer’s self-starting drive infects the Patriots’ talented team this season. The coach needs a roster full of intense competitors to play his high-octane brand of basketball. That’s probably why he pushes Mercer to become more of a leader – especially when times are tough.
With Johnson’s encouragement, Mercer has taken a leadership role on a star-studded team that includes Division I college recruits Bernard Sullivan (Clemson) and Keith Belfield (Furman), and junior point guard Rashun Davis. Mercer has taken the challenge to heart, even feeling personally responsible for the Patriots’ 0-2 start to the season.
After the setbacks, Mercer addressed his team again, albeit sans tears. Since then, Davidson Day has won seven straight. To put Mercer’s value on the team in perspective, he isn’t exactly Davidson Day’s Kobe Bryant; he’s more like its Derek Fisher.
“I told them we had to get it together,” said Mercer. “I felt like I was responsible because I feel like I’m in touch with the heartbeat of this team. I am the person who focuses on what we need to get done as a team. I don’t have a big name but I am comfortable with that. I think those guys respect the way I come to work every day.”
Mercer isn’t just tooting his own horn. He has his teammates’ respect. The Davidson Day players were so moved by his honesty that night, they also decided to dedicate the season to Stephanie Mercer. If you look closely at each player’s right foot this season, you’ll see the words “RIP Stephanie P. Mercer 1969-2001.”
Big man on campus
Mercer’s story is quite unique. Unlike most high school athletes, Davidson Day students of all ages know Mercer more as a leader in the hallways than a starting guard on the basketball team. It didn’t take him long to establish his lofty reputation, either. A year after transferring from Lake Norman High School, Mercer was voted senior class president.
Even more telling of his impact on the private school: Mercer was one of four students chosen to interview candidates for the vacant Head of Upper School position last winter. Michael Smith, who eventually accepted the job, said he was immediately impressed by Mercer’s ability to handle a public forum.
“What Gabe brings to Davidson Day transcends what he does in the basketball gym,” said Smith. “He’s someone who has influence on students, on faculty, on policies. He was selected to interview me when I was a candidate for Head of the Upper School. This would have probably been early February of last year, so he was actually new to the school. But I would have thought, based on the way he welcomed me, questioned who I was and what I was bringing to the school, that Gabe had been here since kindergarten.”
Mercer isn’t ashamed to say that money motivates him in the classroom and in life. It’s no doubt a product of his upbringing, when his family could only afford necessities with few luxuries. He’s already tested his entrepreneurial spirit by marketing a drink he created called “The Mercer,” which is a combination of lemonade and lemon-lime.
Last year, at the encouragement of a teacher, he created a business plan, branded his drink, put together a marketing team and created viral videos to drum up awareness. He didn’t sell the drink but merchandising efforts sold about 60 T-shirts boasting his drink’s logo at Davidson Day’s prom and Summer Fest. When questioned, just like any mega-soft drink company protecting its secret recipe, Mercer slyly refused to divulge the ratio of ingredients that make up his product.
“I like money – it motivates me,” laughed Mercer. “I’ve had financial challenges throughout my life. (Rapper) Kanye West once said, ‘Having money isn’t everything, but not having it is.’”
Mercer hopes one day, after a long basketball career, to own his own business. He’s not sure what industry he will pursue, but the one he chooses will somehow help high-risk children, such as himself. It’s his way of giving back.
“I want to play professional basketball, maybe overseas somewhere, but I hope to take (basketball) just past that,” he said. “I actually remember a quote that (former NBA player) Isiah Thomas said a couple years ago. I’ll paraphrase: If people remember me for a stupid game of basketball, then I haven’t done my job.
“I thought about it for a while and said, ‘Why would he call basketball stupid? Then I realized he used basketball to (reach) people. He used it as a platform or a stage to propel him to achieve higher things past basketball. That’s what I want to do because I’m not going to play basketball forever.”
Years from now, long after Mercer’s left Davidson Day, there’s a good chance his teammates and coaches will remember him for more than basketball. The first thing that likely will come to their minds is that emotional night, when Mercer shared what few have the courage to talk about openly.
One questions that remains, though, is: What happened to the pages left on the floor – the papers with Mercer’s speech? When asked, Mercer said he didn’t know. He left them on the floor and never saw them again.
Fortunately, someone else knows where they are.
“I have (them),” Johnson, his coach, said. “It was a powerful speech. I asked the seniors to talk at the retreat and express to the team who they were and why the season was so important to them. Our seniors did a great job, but I didn’t expect that from Gabe.
“He took it to a different level.”