Coming out of high school, he was among the brightest of basketball stars. Antoine Davison - tall, graceful, explosive, quick, athletic - was a force on the playgrounds and high school courts of Chicago. He was bound for the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, which was surely only a pit stop on the way to the pro ranks.

It never worked out that way.Instead of the Final Four, Antoine Davison got 16 months in prison. Instead of having Larry Johnson for a teammate, he got a cellmate doing 80 years for murder. Instead of the bright lights and fast times of Vegas, he got long, quiet nights in Carbon County. Instead of airlines and posh hotels, he got 10-hour, all-night bus rides to Idaho.

Antoine Davison had it all, and then he had nothing.

Then he started on the long road back. For 14 months, Davison has been a free man, proving himself on and off the court at the College of Eastern Utah. Next fall he will play for the University of Utah, or anyway that's the plan.

By most standards, Davison is a recruiting risk, but then the past year has gone smoothly, and the Utes must figure he is worth the gamble. No one doubts that Davison, who is 6-foot-8, 210 pounds, can play the game. Rusty from his prison stretch, Davison still averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks per game last season for 24-9 CEU, but what everyone will remember most about him are his leaps and dunks. During CEU games, students, like Olympic judges, held up cue cards rating Davison's dunks, which came an average of three per game.

"I've seen him do stuff I've never seen before, stuff I'm not even sure is legal," says CEU coach Ron Stubbs. "I'd just shake my head."

For instance, there was the time Davison was going in for a fast-break layup from the left side when he stopped abruptly in front of his defender, flipped the ball off the backboard, raced to the right side of the hoop, caught the ball in midleap and dunked it, all in one motion.

Last summer Davison dunked over the Utah Jazz's 7-foot-4 Mark Eaton in a summer rec league game. He won the 1990 Roundball Ruckus dunk contest, largely by leaping over two people seated in chairs for a jam.

No one has measured Davison's vertical leap, but this much is known: he can put his hand above the square on a backboard. He also can perform so-called "electric dunks" in which he catches a rebound, dunks it, catches it, dunks it, over and over, without pause and without the ball ever touching the floor.

"He got better and better every game," says Stubbs. "If he played here next year, he'd be the Larry Johnson of the junior colleges."

That's the kind of player everyone expected Davison to be all along. As a senior at Chicago's Collins High School, he averaged 22 points and 14 rebounds per game, earned first-team all-state honors and was rated among the top 50 players in the country. He was recruited by Iowa, Illinois, Temple, Pitt, Kansas State, Washington State, etc., but UNLV signed him early, in the fall. When it became clear months later that Davison would be unable to gain admission to UNLV, the Rebels set him up in Salt Lake Community College, planning for his return in two years.

But there was a hitch in the plan. A 16-month hitch. With one rash, inexplicable act, Davison threw it all away.

On May 15, 1987, Davison, still an 18-year-old high school student, was arrested in Champaign, Ill., along with teammate Issac Miles. Davison pleaded guilty to charges of armed robbery and theft of property exceeding $300 in value. According to the police report, Davison stole a car from a University of Illinois student at knife point.

Davison never expected to do time - "because I'd never been in trouble before," he says - and for 11/2 years his lawyers battled the case in court. When Davison flew from Salt Lake City to Chicago in November 1988 for sentencing, he had an airline ticket in his pocket for the return trip, fully expecting to play in a basketball game for SLCC the next day.

Then the judge gave him a three-year prison sentence to begin immediately (Miles was sentenced to 180 days and probation).

"I cried when he read the sentence," says Davison. "You'd cry too if they sent you to jail."

During the next 16 months Davison was housed in three different prisons - at Joliet, Lincoln and Menard. In some ways it was like the old days. He still wore a number (albeit with a few extra numerals), he still played ball (for the prison teams), and room and board were free. But he wasn't.

"I went to a place where nobody wants to go," says Davison, who still refuses to discuss his crime. "I agreed with a lot of people not to talk about it," he explains. "I was locked up for stupid childhood mistakes. Something happened that will never happen again . . . I learned what life was about when I was in prison, how much life really means. It was a blessing to wake me up."

Although Davison had no previous criminal record, friends and coaches say he had been on a collision course with trouble for a long time. All the signs were there. He was hanging out with the wrong people. He was expelled from two different Catholic high schools. He was sent home early from a Nike basketball camp for violating rules. He was selected to play for a Chicago all-star team in the Boston Shootout, but never showed up. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, he never earned a high school diploma, either.

"I thought my ability as a basketball player exempted me from a lot of the rules that others were forced to abide by," Davison told the Sun-Times.

In prison, some inmates sympathized with Davison's plight and offered him protection. "They knew me," says Davison. "They kept people away from me, so I could get out. They said, `We ain't going to let this brother waste his life like we did, so we're going to keep him away from this garbage. He's got a better chance than we did.' They said, `Be cool, we'll walk you to the yard. When you want to play ball, we'll go with you. When you want to work out, we'll work out with you.' "

To stay in shape, Davison regularly ran, played basketball and lifted weights in the prison yard. Only once did he fail to steer clear of trouble. An inmate challenged him in the yard one day, and before his bodyguards could react there was a fight. Davison's prison term was extended 30 days, but was later retracted because of good behavior.

After 16 months, Davison was granted parole. Upon his release, he told a reporter, "I have a long way to go to regain people's trust."

During his stay in prison, Davison had called Stubbs regularly, although they had never met each other formally (Stubbs says he barely remembered him). They became friends and eventually Davison asked if he could play for CEU. After discussing the matter with his administration, Stubbs invited him to Price.

Stubbs' no-nonsense, disciplined style appealed to Davison. "That's what I needed," he says. The coach delivered. One day Stubbs discovered that Davison wasn't in class. He went to Davison's apartment and, when no one answered the door, he smashed the window. "I'm going! I'm going!" said Davison, running out the door.

"Well, at least put your shoes on," said Stubbs.

Davison, who has had to report to a probation officer weekly and submit to urine tests, is 18 hours short of completing his degree. He expects to be in Salt Lake City this summer, degree in hand.

"What did Jesus say?" asks Utah coach Rick Majerus. "How many times should we forgive? Seventy times seven. Has (Davison) made a mistake? Yes. Has he been punished? Yes. Will I be on his case? Yes. He comes to our team on our terms. If not, we'll get rid of him. I'll be tough on him, but I'm also for giving him a chance."

Majerus has never seen Davison play, but he compares him to current Ute center Paul Afeaki, with typical Majerus skepticism. "He's a good athlete," he says. "He's no second coming of Moses Malone. He doesn't have a game right now. He'll be like Afeaki. He looks good. He should be on the track team. The way he's handled his adversity has impressed me. He hasn't thrown in the towel."

For his part, Davison hopes to make up for lost time, but he knows some of it is gone forever. "I'd probably have a (national championship) ring now," he says. Then, after a pause, he remembers his life behind bars. "It's a different world in there. Inside, you live minute for minute. It's only outside that you live day by day."