By Dom Palumbo – UT Athletics
Who are legends, and what does it mean to become one?
In sports, a few names seem to regularly come to mind.
You have the present legends of Serena Williams and LeBron James, the past legends of Michael Jordan and Billie Jean King, who each changed the perception of their respective sports, and forever in the hearts and minds of Tennessee Lady Vol fans, you have the late, great Pat Summitt.
Currently, the Lady Vols sport their own legend. She’s @Legend_Hooper, as Twitter users may know her, but to most, she’s senior Rennia Davis.
The 6-2 wing player can beat defenders off the dribble and holds a shooting range that tends to bleed into the stands at Thompson-Boling Arena.
She has been a mainstay in the Lady Vols program for the last three seasons, with the reality of having to eventually leave Rocky Top on the horizon.
“It’s crazy because I feel like I just got here, but I also feel like I’ve been here for a long time,” Davis said. “It’s weird, and it’s weird that it’s my last go around here at this school. We had a coaching change and just a lot of overall change, and it’s crazy to finally be here.”
Crazy to be in the here and the now, but the story begins in her hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. It’s the place where Davis found her initial love of hooping.
“I just remember in middle school, we would always pick teams in P.E.,” Davis recalled. “My middle school unfortunately did not have sports. We were academic based, but, in P.E. we would play. I was always the only girl who ever played sports, and I would always get picked first. I would just be like, ‘Are y’all just picking me first because I’m a girl?’ But, as we started playing, I realized that I was the best one out there. It may be all boys, but I was still the best one, and that was why I was getting picked first. Being a girl probably had something to do with it, but I was the best one out there playing with some real athletes. Like, boys who were in seventh grade dunking.”
She moved on to Ribault High School, where she made an immediate impact. She helped lead the Lady Trojans to state championships in 2014, 2016 and 2017, along with a run to a national championship in 2016 that ended with the Lady Trojans lifting the trophy as the nation’s best team.
She was tabbed as a five-star recruit by numerous outlets and earned trips to both the 2017 Jordan Brand Classic and McDonald’s All-America games.
Coaches across the country wanted Davis to play for them, a process that itself was “crazy” for her.
“(Getting recruited) was overwhelming to say the least,” Davis said. “If I could have just picked a school in private, I would have taken that route, because there was just a lot that came with it. I was also just overwhelmed with the fact that so many coaches saw potential in me.”
“(And) to be in the conversation as one of the best players in the country? For me, where I come from, that’s huge,” she continued. “It just wasn’t something that I would have imagined. I definitely hold myself to a high standard, so even if some people think that something I do is good, I might not agree. But, for a committee of people to feel like I was good enough to be considered one of the best players in America, that was huge for me.”
With a number of schools after her, she chose Rocky Top.
She chose to come to East Tennessee for one main reason.
“The legacy,” Davis said. “That is so big for me. It reminds me of high school, because we had a huge legacy that was already built there. We had the most state championships in the state of Florida. I just like being around greatness. I want to be great and I want to be around greatness.”
Davis arrived in Knoxville ready to hoop and ready to learn.
Not only was she a highly-touted prospect on the court, but she was and still is a scholar in the classroom. She finished high school with her associate’s degree from Florida State College through dual enrollment classes.
She had half of college completed before even stepping foot on campus, yet what would normally be viewed as an advantage turned out to be a bit of a hardship for Davis.
“It actually made it harder. I would say it made it a lot harder, because of my class schedule,” she said. “It was way more strenuous than the typical freshman, because I had already taken those entry level classes.
“So, I’m 18 years old, coming into classes with juniors and seniors and they’re having discussions, and I am confused a lot of the time. So, I have to put in that much more effort in the classroom, which can be draining and take away from other areas of your life. So, it was tough.”
She pushed through the early stages of her freshman year, going through the life of lift, class, practice, repeat, rolling through the motions trying to figure out her new adventure.
Then, she found her feet and truly fell in love with her new home in a game that will never find its way into the Lady Vol record book.
“You know I don’t feel like I really became present here until our first exhibition game against Carson-Newman,” Davis reminisced. “I ended up having 27 (points) and 13 (rebounds). It was the first time I had ever put on a Lady Vol jersey. I was just like, ‘This is crazy. I am really at this school and really hooping.’ Before then, we were just practicing and it was cool, but practice is practice, it’s not the same as a game and that was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m here and this is crazy.’
“The game didn’t even count, but I didn’t care, because I really knew I was at the University of Tennessee after that game.”
Through three seasons in the Orange & White, Davis has started all but two games she’s appeared in, increased her scoring average each season, while being a monster on the boards, averaging 7.8 rebounds per game during her career which ranks No. 9 all-time at UT. Her scoring average (14.9), by the way, ranks No. 10 among any player in school history.
She also was named an All-SEC honoree as both a sophomore and a junior, was a 2019 and 2020 All-America Honorable Mention, earned the Chancellor’s Honors Award for Extraordinary Academic Achievement last year and graduated a year early with her bachelor’s degree in hotel, restaurant and tourism management and a minor in business administration this past May.
She’s even eclipsed 1,000 career points for the Lady Vols with an entire season still to play and could become one of only five players to stand in UT’s top 10 for both career scoring and rebounding. The others on that short list are Chamique Holdsclaw, Sheila Frost, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker.
Davis has already earned a career’s worth of individual accolades both on and off the floor. However, this past season she earned an opportunity that not only changed her life and perspective, but provided knowledge she can continually bring back to her teammates.
In 2019-20, Davis was enrolled in Tennessee’s VOLeaders Academy, a program that was developed to cultivate positive student-athlete leaders through sport to create positive social change.
By using their platform in sport, student-athletes admitted into the VOLeaders Academy learn how to be a positive force for their team, campus, and local and global communities. The program aims to inspire student-athletes to find ways to use their influence and passion for sport to enact change that transcends their athletic success.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason and me getting into VOLeaders was huge,” Davis said. “My whole perspective on a lot of things changed. A lot of relationships of mine changed, obviously because my perspective was changing. And, I feel like it helped me a lot on the court from a maturity standpoint, knowing that as a leader, things are still not going to go your way all the time. Just because you get the title of leader, everything still is not going to be 100 percent how you want it.”
It was an experience that better equipped her to navigate the rigors of an already stressful life, while also helping her confirm knowledge she already had to prepare her for one of humanity’s most volatile periods.
“It made me feel like I am more than an athlete,” Davis said. “It was something I already knew, but VOLeaders confirmed that for me. I’m more than someone who just dribbles a basketball. If fans don’t want to view me a certain way when I don’t have a basketball in my hand, then I don’t want any praise while I’m on the court. VOLeaders just gave all of us that confirmation that we are more than athletes. There’s more to us than our sport. I think a lot of times fans don’t realize that. This is just something that we do, it’s not who we are.”
The experience also gave her a voice to better lift up the voices of her fellow Lady Vol hoopers.
“I do it all the time now. We have a freshman who has the potential to be a leader,” Davis said. “When you come in as a freshman it can be hard to say, ‘I want to help lead the team this year.’ But, sometimes it just is what it is. I have to let the freshman, sophomore, junior or senior do it. Everybody can get it done, and we need everybody to get it done. I just try to make sure my freshmen know that freshman or not, if something needs to be said or done, you have that right and authority to get that done for us as a team.”
As she enters her final campaign for UT, she also faces the most difficult question that gets posed to just about every college senior, “What’s next?”
“Definitely playing. Yes, yes, yes. I tell people all the time that I’m going to play basketball until both of my legs break,” she said jokingly. “I just can’t see myself without basketball anytime soon. I definitely want to go to the league. I should be on track for that right now, just got to finish out strong and then obviously in the offseason I want to go overseas and play. And that’ll be the cycle for a few years.”
When that fateful day does come and she has to fully walk away from playing, Davis has goals that both step outside the realm of the game, while also keeping her not very far away.
“I want to get into the restaurant business. I definitely want to have my own little restaurant, food truck or nice little spot with some wings or something,” Davis said. “I could also see myself coaching too. I just love the game of basketball, and I couldn’t see myself getting too far away from it. So, I’m not going to say coaching is out of the picture.”
Before we get there, though, there’s still a season to be played.
“Honestly, my personal, personal goals are something I don’t share, because that’s just me,” Davis said. “But, for this team, I always say that I want us to get better every day. I feel like even if we start at bare minimum, if we’re getting one percent better every day, by the time it’s time to play where are we going to be? Then by game 10, where are we going to be? Every day, if we improve in something it will all come together.”
It certainly will all come together. For @Legend_Hooper, the title of ‘Legend’ is something she’s always going to chase until she reaches the same status that so many Lady Vols before her have already attained.
“I still want to be a legend,” Davis reiterated. “That also goes into why I came to this school. Some legends have gone to this school, a legend has coached at this school, it’s like I said, if you want to be great, you need to be around greatness. I don’t know where legend came from, but it came and that’s what I want to be.”