What he did: During a major transition period for basketball at the University of Georgia in the late 1970s, LaVon Mercer helped set the bricks for their only Final Four run. Mercer didn’t play on that team, but along with Dominique Wilkins and Walter Daniels, the trio set in place the memorable team that faced the mighty Houston Cougars in the NCAA semifinals in 1983.
Still, Mercer is known not so much in Athens but in the Middle East, where he truly was the Michael Jordan of Israel.
But setting the matzoh-ball soup aside for a moment, Mercer came from the tiny southeast Georgia town of Metter (population 4,310), where college coaches from around the country poured into the high school gym to watch him play as a senior. Word then was the only coach and team that didn’t come to Metter and offer him a scholarship was John Wooden and UCLA.
Mercer, at 6-foot-8 with a great shooting touch around the basket, narrowed his choices to Georgia, Tennessee and Florida State. At the time, John Guthrie was the head coach of the Bulldogs, the team coming off a 12-15 season.
Mercer had family who attended Georgia and friends in Athens, and he picked the Bulldogs, arriving for the 1976-77 season. As a freshman, he was the only player on the team to play in all 27 games, averaging 12 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. The team was 9-18 and 3-15 in the SEC. The Bulldogs kept Guthrie around for one more season, and again Mercer didn’t miss a game. He averaged 10.5 points per game and led the team in rebounds at 8.6 a contest.
Before Mercer’s junior season, Guthrie was fired, and Hugh Durham was brought in from Florida State. Durham’s first season saw the Bulldogs go 14-14, and Mercer ranked second on the team in scoring at 13.4 points and again led in rebounding, this time at 7.7. Wilkins came the next season, and the Bulldogs were 14-13, and Mercer ended his college career averaging 11.5 and 7.8 rebounds per game. His name is all over the Georgia record books, including holding the No. 1 spot in career blocks (302 in 106 games), career field-goal percentage (.602) and the best single-season shooting percentage, when he made 64.2 percent of his shots in 1979 (146-for-227).
Mercer, however, wasn’t drafted until the third round of the 1980 NBA Draft, taken 60th overall by San Antonio. He went to rookie camp and the Spurs were interested in him, but he decided to take an offer to play in Israel. It was a very smart move. In Tel Aviv, Mercer became the nation’s hero on the basketball court, leading his team to six Israeli championships and playing for Maccabi, which reached the Euroleague finals in 1989 and the semifinals two years later. He also played for the Israeli national team at the 1986 FIBA World Championship.
At his size, Mercer stood out everywhere in Israel, and his autograph was sought after by many. He even spent two mandatory years as a private in the Israeli Defense Forces. He returned to the United States in the mid-1990s and spent some time coaching and as an athletic administrator at Spellman College.
Where he lives: Mercer, now 57, lives on the south Fulton-Douglas County line and is engaged to Madeline Zachary. He has three children, daughters Dionn and Gabriell and son Alexander.
What he does now: In addition to being a popular speaker, Mercer is a member of the MMW insurance team, dealing in life and health insurances.
On why he went to Georgia: “I actually really liked Florida State and had family in Florida, but in the end I think I felt most comfortable at Georgia. Also, black students were starting to come to Georgia.’’
On the small group of African-American students in Athens: “What it came down to the white and black students, we all learned how to work together. We overcame a lot of things back then, and it is incredible to see that there are still so many problems today with racial issues.’’
On his most memorable Hugh Durham moment: “It’s funny, but it was a game against Kentucky (season after Mercer left) and we had them on the ropes and were leading by two points (in first overtime) and had the ball and coach Durham called timeout. He told us everything is going the team’s way and let’s get out of here with a win and if they foul us let’s hit the free throws, but let’s hold on to the ball. Sure enough, and I am not going to say who (it was Eric Marbury), we have a player go down and try to dunk the ball and Sam Bowie blocks it and they went back down and scored (Georgia lost in two overtimes). Coach Durham lost his mind. We still laugh about that when I see him.’’
On being drafted by the Spurs: “I had a good camp, but back then there were only 17 teams in the NBA and I wasn’t a first-round pick, which back then typically would make the league for at least one to three years. They gave me an opportunity to come back after rookie camp, but I thought long and hard about it and was even thinking about going into coaching. Coach Durham had offered me graduate-student coaching position. But I had a chance to go overseas and play in Israel, and that was the best thing that ever happened to me.’’
On his years in Israel: “I was pretty honest with people over there, and a lot of things happened. I was pretty in awe of the lifestyle. My bunkmate was an Arab from a Jewish community. His name was Jimmy Turk, and he was quite a player. I stood out in a crowd, and I think people really liked me. I really wasn’t planning on leaving, but my family wanted to come back to the states.’’
On being in the Israeli Army: “I had to do my two years, and I saw a lot of bombs fall by my apartment in Tel Aviv and, of course, I was there when they (Iraq) was sending Scud missiles into the country. I did my duty and keep moving.’’
On the quality of basketball overseas: “It was really good, and I don’t think people over here know that. I played against Arvydas Sabonis and Toni Kukoc before the guys over here did.’’
On his no-nonsense attitude that goes back to his days in Athens: “I am just a basic ol’ guy that tells it how it is, and I tell people to their face how I feel. That is just how I am.’’
On his favorite player in the NBA: “It’s Shaq (O’Neal). People have no idea the amount of good stuff he does for people. He helps everyone. The world needs more people like that.’’
On whether he misses Israel: “I do. I learned a lot about Judaism and Christianity, and I guess you could call me a Messianic Jew or a Christian Jew. When I was over there it was the closest I felt to God. I really defend the state of Israel and a lot of African-Americans don’t see the other side that I do. What it comes down to is I accept people for who they are.’’
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