My love for basketball at Davidson goes back, probably like for many people, to my father, Bertis E. Downs, III, ’53. He had gone to Davidson, and like me, felt fortunate to have been able to go there—him for baseball and the ministry, me for his memory and legacy and whatever my life was to become.
One of my earliest memories of my dad involves hoops—an actual hoop, to be precise. When I was about 3 or 4, he would take me over to Cabin Creek, W.Va., only a few miles from our hometown, where he led his first church. There in a plain, small-town Appalachian yard stood the basketball goal at the home of Jerry West, one of the biggest stars ever to attend West Virginia University, and later play for the Lakers. At that goal, just a few years earlier, school boy legend West had taken shots from the same spot until he made 20 in a row—if he missed, he’d start counting again. My dad was in awe of such talent; I was very young, but I still remember it.
A few years later, we were living in Taipei, Taiwan, where he had accepted the call to the mission field and was studying many languages in preparation for life as an evangelist in the mountains of that then-developing island nation. Our entire family, and a couple of other missionary families, would gather around the Sunday lunch table after church. My dad would get everyone’s attention, and when it was quiet, he would loudly exclaim, “Well guess who’s the number seven college basketball team in America . . .!?” And my mom would dutifully play along and ask, as if she didn’t know . . . “Who Bert?” Of course, the answer was “Davidson.”
The young West Virginia native Coach Lefty Driesell had started something very special at the tiny liberal arts college in North Carolina, and against all odds—big-time college basketball. The academically challenging small school was recruiting top-tier talent like Fred Hetzel, Dick Snyder, Rodney Knowles, and eventually Mike Maloy. My dad was a fan and had only graduated 10 years earlier. All the way across the Pacific, in Taiwan, via shortwave radio and through the Stars and Stripes military newspaper, my father remained the Wildcats’ biggest fan. And I had no idea why or what he was so excited about, except I knew it had to be important, and fun, if my dad got so fired up over it.
A few years later, my dad was gone just like that—a tragic plane crash in June of 1964. His classmates at Davidson responded, in their sadness, by raising the money to build a chapel in his memory—the Bertis E. Downs III Memorial Chapel near Taichung, Taiwan, “Given to the glory of God by his friends at Davidson College.” My family attended the ground breaking in 1966, and the church was still there when I visited Taiwan 30 years later; as far as I know, it still stands.
Our path as a family the next couple of years took us to Richmond, Va., where my parents had met during seminary days. There, I would hide the transistor radio under my pillow so I could stay up late listening to Davidson games. The Wildcats were really good, and I knew my dad surely would have been proud—that connection made me feel close to him, or rather to the memory of him. I was a young Davidson fan now too, and why not? Somewhere during that time, on a road trip to visit my grandparents, my mother made a last-minute detour through Davidson and took us to the place that had meant so much to our father. We approached a tall man jogging at the track that encircles the football field. My mom went up to him and asked: “Are you Lefty Driesell?” And, of course, he was. Somewhere in a drawer there’s a snap-shot of two little, skinny boys with bemused looks on their faces, and a tall man with a kind smile. I hope we can find that photograph some day.
A New Era
Years later, I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to go to Davidson, thanks to a great mom, some decent inherited smarts, a welcoming college, and a mentor (Big Brother Jim) who encouraged me and asked “Why not?” When I got to college in 1974, Davidson had become so accustomed to basketball success that, although Athletic Director Terry Holland had just left (for Virginia), some people thought it was no big deal. That year we went 7-19, and over the next few years, although I went to the games and took some fun road trips with friends, I found out the meaning of the word “nadir”—peaks and valleys, just like life. Davidson was in a trough for a while in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For me, Davidson basketball during my days on campus really meant Intramurals, where I was an average player in the B League—in other words, I was not very good. But hoops had its moments for me in the old gym, with all-nighters for studying including games of 1-on-1 and HORSE while waiting to start my newspaper route at about 5 a.m. (early time-management training) . . . Hoops was still an important thing to me, just not necessarily central to my four years at Davidson, certainly not the intercollegiate games, at least.
But then Bob McKillop showed up and the team started to win, a lot, and make it to the NCAAs fairly often. It was fun to get pulled back into basketball as a fan and proud supporter of my alma mater, plucky little Davidson. Then came 2008. The magical run—the halcyon days. As luck would have it, that March of 2008, I was in Europe on business, and I ended up getting very little sleep because I stayed up very late catching the team’s epic ascent in sports bars, hotels and airport lounges in the middle of the night—remarkably the ‘Cats kept going all the way to The Shot, the one that would have landed them in the Final Four (where they would have played North Carolina in the next game!). I heard that the morning after the game, after their late flight home from that old dome in Detroit, the players walked into class, just like regular students. I like that story, and I hope it’s true.
This year’s Davidson squad is an awfully fun team to watch—undersized, sure, but not over-matched, and as someone very smart (Jay Bilas, who went to Duke) said this week, “well-taught but not over-coached.” The odds are, there will never be another Steph Curry, we know that; but some of these guys sure can play and, as a unit, they are kind of amazing. Seven different guys have scored more than 20, the five starters all average double figures, they are always unselfish and disciplined and, occasionally, they pull out the Curry-esque moves… all while they are still in college. It’s a gutsy bunch for sure, and they don’t seem afraid of any game or any situation—heck, they led mighty UVA at the half and scored more points on them than anyone all year.
The Latest Chapter
As for me and my most recent chapter of personal Davidson basketball-watching history, I was thrilled to find a place to watch the noon quarterfinal yesterday—an airport lounge in the Caribbean on our way home from spring break. My girls could have cared less and, in fact, never looked up from their own screens—kids these days. But when the Wildcats hung in there, on a so-so day with unfriendly rims, and Tyler Kalinoski sliced through that last few seconds and tossed up that unlikely game winner with 0.0 left, I felt my deep connection to Davidson, and it felt like family.
To the team: Whatever happens in Brooklyn and beyond, this year and every year, just know that a bunch of us, with a thousand unique stories, are right there with you, admiring the way you play and what you accomplish. Mainly, it’s fun! Thank you.