To understand the juxtaposition facing Austin Davis, start with the trees in Tipton, Michigan. 

It’s still dark in the morning when Davis, his large frame draped in camouflage, slips out a back door and onto his family’s 200-acre farm. He tip-toes his way into the heart of the sprawling, tree-covered property before hoisting himself up a ladder and into a tree stand. There he waits, weapon in tow, for five, six hours at a time, seeking potential prey — deer, turkey, squirrel. 

For Davis, hunting is a life-long passion, one passed down through generations. It also makes for an escape. Suspended high in the trees, alone, Davis is granted a reprieve from the everyday fame that accompanies him. 

“You’re sitting out there, just kind of hearing the woods come alive,” Davis said on Nov. 16. “I love that. The level of solitude, being able to sit and think, really get deep into my thoughts, that’s a tremendous experience.” 

The family hunting ground in Tipton lies on the outskirts of Davis’ hometown of Onsted, a remote village in Lenawee County, 40 miles southwest of Ann Arbor. It’s a small working-class town, home to roughly 900 residents. The downtown — one blinking stop light, a gas station and a restaurant — takes a back seat to the series of farms, lakes and hills that dot the landscape. 

A close-knit community, Onsted rallies around its school and athletics, though sports are by no means its strong suit. Athletic careers tend to start and end in Onsted; just 14 basketball players from Lenawee County have gone on to play at the DI level, with Davis being the only to do so in the last 22 years. As Onsted superintendent Steve Head puts it, “You don’t have a lot of Austin Davis’s that come through here.” 

Davis is, by and large, Onsted’s most famous export. 

“The whole county essentially shuts down to watch him play,” Brian Gemalsky, Davis’ math teacher at Onsted Community High, said. “When he’s playing, everybody wants to go see what he’s gonna do on the court. And all the younger kids, in particular, are just so in awe of him. He’s ‘the famous guy we see on TV’ and all those things.” 

Davis’ status as a public icon, though, foils his self-effacing personality. While 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, Davis doesn’t command attention. 

“For Austin, a good day for him would be to get up at 5:30 in the morning, go out to the deer blind or to get out on the boat and go fishing with his little brother,” Head said. 

At the notion of his fame, Davis bristles. 

“I don’t want to say I’m a big deal in Onsted,” Davis said, hunching forward and fidgeting in his chair. “I don’t like hearing that exactly. Everybody has their things that they’re a star at in their own sense.” 

But he is on a pedestal. When Davis was in high school, fans packed the gym hours before tipoff, sitting through earlier junior varsity games in order to score seats to watch him play in the varsity contest that followed. Head often received frantic calls from the fire department when the swelling crowds exceed occupancy limits, creating fire hazards. 

When Davis committed to Michigan in 2015, the school held an assembly so the student body could watch him sign his letter of intent. Over the past four years, Onsted residents flocked to Crisler Center, sometimes filling entire sections in the upper bowl. Those who can’t make the trip revert to hosting watch parties. 

“I think initially, earlier on, it was a little bit of a shock,” Davis said. “Like, ‘Oh, wow, these kids know who I am, they kinda recognize me a little bit.’ ” 

For three seasons at Michigan, Davis was largely an unknown commodity to anyone outside of Onsted. Lenawee County isn’t your typical breeding ground for Big Ten-caliber talent, which spurred skepticism among Michigan fans regarding Davis’ on-court capabilities. Critics were soon validated. After redshirting his freshman year, Davis rode the bench the following two seasons, averaging 1.1 points per game. 

Even as he fell short of expectations, the support from Onsted seldom wavered. 

“People were watching the games, of course,” Gemalsky said. “The whole community is behind him, ready to watch him perform. We were just waiting for the right time and soon enough it was, ‘Oh, here he is. This is the Austin Davis that we’ve known to grow and love.’ ”

Last season, Davis at last found his footing, emerging as a key contributor off the bench. The prolonged spotlight has granted him opportunities he’s come to relish; namely, the ability to mentor those who look up to him. 

“I love to be that role model,” Davis said. “It’s an awesome opportunity. I’m very thankful for that. It goes to show that, coming from a small town, coming from a community like Onsted, you really have the possibility to do great things.”

Davis first grew conscious of his stature as a high school sophomore when he spotted then-Michigan assistant coach LaVall Jordan scouting him from the Onsted bleachers. Since then, his perception of his own notoriety has evolved.

On visits back home, Davis stops by the elementary school to have lunch with his Mom, Marsha, who is the school principal. The door to her office is papered with students’ artwork — a range of watercolors to hand-drawn stick figures. Many are drawings of Davis himself. 

“Seeing the impact and how it trickles down to those younger kids and could possibly inspire them or encourage them to give them confidence to chase after the dreams that they may have is really great,” Davis said. “I love that.” 

In a town of just 900 people, each face is a familiar one. So while Davis may stand out — for both his physical measurements and revered presence — so does everyone else. Though introverted, he makes himself approachable as a role model, eliminating that pedestal. 

“You walk by him on the street, you wouldn’t even know it,” Gemalsky said. “To this day, when he comes around and people see him, he’s just one of the normal guys. He’s got three minutes to be somewhere, and he’ll spend 25 minutes with the kids, make sure everybody’s got their picture, shaking hands and things like that.” 

Added Davis: “Little things like that go a long way. It’s really the least I can do.”

There is still a great deal of pressure to all of this. All small town exports experience a burden to some degree, but Davis lies at the highest end of the scale. He plays with the weight of an entire village on his shoulders. 

Yet for Davis, the pride of playing for Onsted pushes him forward. 

“With your family, your friends and your community, you should have a little bit of pressure to be able to perform well to show what you’re made of and to do that for them,” Davis said. “That drive should always be there to be successful, not only for yourself but for the ones around you.” 

When he talks, Davis stresses that the journey is a shared one. “I” is often replaced with “We.” In passing, he praises former teammates, coaches, teachers and his entire high school class. Addressing Onsted, he expresses thanks for the “success you allowed me to have.” 

“Knowing that the community behind me is of such a high grade and shows that support continuously and somewhat unconditionally, it helps that they’ve got my back if I fall short at something,” Davis said. 

Davis’ standing in Onsted renders him a projection of the community and its people. And his career arc — one confided in dedication, persistence and gratitude — embodies the small town ideals the village stands for. 

“It’s not hard to root for him,” Brad Maska, Davis’ coach at Onsted Community High, said. “He’s one of those one-in-a-million kids with regards to his attitude and his work ethic and everything. He’s one of the top kids, if I ever had a choice to represent our small community, he would definitely be at the top of the list.”

Added Head: “You just mention Austin’s name around here, it’s going to put a smile on everyone’s face.” 

Three games into the 2020-21 season, Davis has contributed in a similar manner to last season. He’s started each game — the first starts of his collegiate career — but freshman Hunter Dickinson has taken the lion’s share of the minutes at center. It likely won’t be long before Davis is again relegated to a backup role. 

Though he may never attain the same level of fame at Michigan as he did in high school, that’s perfectly fine with Davis. He knows he always has the support of Onsted in his corner. 

“And the support, it means the world to me,” Davis said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.