It's been rocky road for Zags senior Micah Downs. After attending seven high schools in three states and cutting off ties to his father, he found a safe landing spot in college basketball.
MEMPHIS — All over, they’re going to be watching this succulent North Carolina-Gonzaga matchup tonight. In Charlotte and Greensboro and Chapel Hill, and in Spokane and Seattle.
And in Auburn, where every day, it becomes a little longer since Micah Downs has spoken with his family.
The void must be piercing.
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He’s a Gonzaga senior now, and two weeks ago, at the team banquet, assistant coach Tommy Lloyd got up to do a routine introduction of a departing player. But there was never anything routine about Downs.
Jokingly, Lloyd said something about not always being sure he wanted to see Downs hang around long enough to become a senior. Then he turned serious and choked up.
Downs’ story does that, it catches throats and shakes heads and riles passion. His is a tale of a basketball vagabond, roaming seven high schools and two colleges, searching for … for something he never found until he got to Gonzaga. And as much as the Zags should get credit for his soft landing, no doubt part of it owed simply to the fact he was running out of places to go.
People in Downs’ past tell a story of an immature kid controlled by an involved father that saw great things in a lean, lanky youth who could jump explosively, shoot, pass and had a natural feel for the game. In four years, Downs attended seven high schools.
They tell stories of paternal battles with coaches and fans. They tell a story with all sorts of team and personal and family implications, like the four chilling words uttered by John Thatcher, one of his prep coaches in Montana:
“His teammates hated him.”
In Auburn, Steven Downs, his father answers the phone and talks briefly.
“What’s a parent to do?” he says plaintively. “It’s pretty hard, man.”
When Micah Downs was a senior at Juanita, his seventh high school, Steven Downs, referring to the multiple moves, told The Times, “Blame me. We moved because I needed work and because we had family issues with my folks.”
The family lived in Eastern Washington when Micah was in grade school, spent some time in Missouri, and then moved to Las Vegas, where he attended two high schools his freshman year.
His sophomore year, he was at Butte (Mont.) High School, where he played for Thatcher.
“I asked him to leave when he was a sophomore,” said Thatcher. “He didn’t get along with the kids. I’m not going to blame him. His dad was very difficult when he was around him. He didn’t get a chance to be a kid and to be a good athlete.
“He refused to get into our weight program. I said, ‘Son, it’s not going to work out. You’ve got to go somewhere else.’
“The problem, the dad even said to me a couple of times, ‘Micah’s going to sign with the NBA out of high school.’ Right then and there, it was pretty noticeable it was going to be a real issue.”
By the time he was a junior, Downs was at Bothell High. Without being specific, coach Ron Bollinger acknowledges there was difficulty with Steven Downs and says of Micah, “He’s a good kid and I wish him the best. He had a hard circumstance with the family moving all the time and expectations placed on him that were unrealistic.”
As a Juanita senior, Downs told The Times he planned to go straight to the NBA. That was a season with some issues, including a two-game suspension for making an offensive gesture to an official during a game.
“That was something me and my dad talked about,” Downs says today, referring to the NBA. “He was kind of pushing it.
“That was a time when I was kind of vulnerable to all kinds of people getting in my ear about things.”
Kansas coach Bill Self helped talk the Downs family out of that, and Micah headed for KU. He lasted only a few months.
“I didn’t fit very well with coach Self,” Downs says. “Also, I probably didn’t give it the greatest opportunity. I didn’t trust anybody.”
He called Gonzaga, which had recruited him hard the first time. Lloyd was the conduit. Perhaps it was something of a marriage of desperation, but it worked.
Lloyd stressed to him that he was at a good place, and now it was all about looking forward. To be sure, there were bumps, but for the first time, Downs soldiered through them.
He came in at the midpoint of the 2006-07 season, and Lloyd wondered aloud at the banquet what could have been if Downs had redshirted that season.
“I’d love to have you an extra year,” Lloyd said, smiling. “But when I first started working with you, there were days when I wouldn’t have thought that.”
They say Downs has a girlfriend, Natanya, who is wonderful for him. He speaks glowingly about his years in Spokane, saying, “If I could have it to do all over again, I would have chosen Gonzaga in the first place.”
Truth be told, it wasn’t seamless on the floor. Downs had a tendency to take shots out of the offense and spent periods in and out of the starting lineup. He wondered whether he was being treated fairly when it happened a year ago.
But his body language hasn’t betrayed any inner struggles. On his way to averaging 9.5 points this season, he hasn’t sassed referees or mouthed off to coaches.
And 18 days ago, there he was at a dais in Las Vegas, nets hanging around his neck, the most valuable player of the West Coast Conference tournament. Gonzaga coach Mark Few was rapturous in describing how Downs had been rewarded for finally trusting, for sticking something out.
While he was doing that, he broke it off with his family. He says it has been almost a year since they spoke. Others say it’s longer.
“It’s something I made a decision on,” Micah Downs says. “Someday if things could change and work out for the better, that’d be great.”
In Auburn, Steven Downs says he wants to talk, but only in person. He’s been ripped in print too many times. A few days later, he changes his mind, declining an interview.
“I’ve decided to take the high road,” says his voice message. “I wish the best for Mr. Thatcher. I’m sorry he feels the way he does. I wish the best for him and his future.
“The same with Micah.”
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org