SOUTH PORTLAND – His mother was an addict, using drugs to fill an emptiness created by the stresses and grind of raising a family by herself. His friends from the neighborhood? Walking zombies feeling nothing but the need to get high again and again.

“I was put into situations as a child that I had to deal with like I was an adult,” said Glen Davis. “When I was in trouble, I’d get on my knees (and pray.) Or I found people who listened to me and cared. I’m here by the grace of God and the guidance of others.”

He spoke and it seemed like he was looking into the soul of each of the hundreds of listeners in a hotel ballroom Thursday night. Day One, the Maine agency that is in the business of providing guidance to young substance abusers, was holding its 38th annual celebration. Davis was the speaker.

The irrespressible big man for the Boston Celtics spoke without pretense or attitude. He had his audience from the moment he lit up the stage with his smile.

“I just want to give back,” he told me two hours before. “I needed someone to spark me, to give me hope I could become what I wanted to be. If I can provide the spark for someone tonight, it would mean a lot.”

His voice had the ring of sincerity mixed with a little passion. But then, Big Baby plays basketball with a lot of passion. “I have fun and I want everybody to see I’m having fun playing basketball and living life.”

He grew up in a tough Baton Rouge, La., neighborhood. Football and basketball competed for his attention at first. “I never got the opportunity to meet the players I loved who would have given me that spark.”

Barry Sanders, the great running back for Oklahoma State and the Detroit Lions, was the first. Davis was a toddler when Sanders played in college. He was 11 when Sanders had his greatest year in the NFL, rushing for 2,053 yards. Sanders was electric when he had the football. He was subdued when he scored and handed the ball to the referee. For all his heat, Big Baby knows when to be cool.

Davis grew quickly to become a 6-foot-9 bowling ball. There are no running backs that size. Plus he discovered football could hurt, he laughs. And he had to wear a helmet. No one could see his emotions.

He was built for basketball. Shaquille O’Neal became the hero he actually met as a teenager. “Basketball was where I could vent and be me.”

He was introduced to the big audience by Dave Cowens, the former Celtics great who was inducted into basketball’s Hall of Fame in 1991. “All the old guys I played with think he really knows how to play the game.”

Of course there were teenagers in the crowd who had no idea who Cowens is.

Big Baby is very aware of self, but not in terms of ego or narcissism. He visited a prison and met someone serving a life sentence. “He told me his 26-year-old self made the decisions that affected his 36-year-old self, and now he had to live with that for the rest of his life.”

The words hit home. His mother went into rehab again and again. Davis didn’t want that life. “She would come out and say ‘I’m clean’ and the next thing you know (she’s fallen) into the hole again.

“I didn’t have a person in my household (making the right decisions). I was stuck in the cycle of kids raising kids until I found basketball. I didn’t have my mom make me go to school. I made myself go to school. I washed the clothes I wore to school.”

He wasn’t preaching. He was simply telling his story. Not unlike two Day One clients who preceded Davis, talking of their own lives and substance abuse, self-destruction and denial until they found something from within telling them they had to change. With Day One’s help, they did.

After Davis finished talking, there were questions from the audience. What opponents give him his biggest challenge? Amare Stoudamire. “He’s a motor. He just keeps coming and coming.”

Biggest personal satisfaction on the court? “When I don’t worry about points and scoring, the basketball gods reward me all the time.”

The feeling of beating the Lakers for the NBA championship? “Oh my God. I have a championship ring.”

How is his mother? “It’s a journey. She’s a recovering addict.”

She’s working at it, which is the change her son kept waiting to see.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway