Davidson Basketball: A Personal Reflection on a Lifelong Love

Davidson basketball players and Coach McKillop cheering on sidelines at a game

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 three or four, he would take me over to Cabin Creek, West Virginia, 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 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, Virginia, 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.

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 Coach 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, 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.

The 2021-22 Wildcats are again a team that’s well-taught but not over-coached. Picked to finish around the middle of the conference, they have stayed atop the Atlantic 10 standings all year long and achieved the number one seed heading into the tournament in Washington, D.C. Led by seniors Luke Brajkovic and Michael Jones, but with other key players all pulling their weight, they are proof of the team concept of basketball, just like all of Bob McKillop's teams have been over these many years.

On any given night, any given player will lead the team in scoring, and they all look for the extra pass setting up a better shot for a teammate. They play strong and smart defense, battle hard for rebounds and hustle like crazy, leading to a stellar record of 15-3 in the A-10, 25-5 overall, and with some good mojo for the ‘Cats from the last time the conference tournament was held in D.C. 

It’s been another great season. And with the prospect of more basketball to come, I am more grateful every year for the role that Davidson hoops and the people who make it happen have played in my life, from my earliest days.

To the team: Whatever happens beyond D.C., 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. Thank you.

Go 'Cats!