This article appears in the Jan/Feb 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Juanita senior Micah Downs will make small talk for quite a while before being coaxed into getting all serious and stuff.
But when he talks about what matters — when he moves away from chitchat about cars and Subway's cheese steak sub and the intricate suiting-up sequence of his game-day sock superstition — Downs talks about his dad.
"I wouldn't be near the player I am if it weren't for my dad," says the 6-foot-8, 195-pound small forward, who is rated the nation's No. 16 hoop recruit in the Class of 2005 by SchoolSports.com. "We've been through thick and thin together."
That is Downs' way of saying his father, Steven, runs a tight ship. And he does. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound construction worker demands a lot from his son, on and off the court. And he communicates his message with authority.
Rough spots? Yeah, they've hit a few. But all in all, Micah Downs has been tuned to the right frequency and has come away with remarkable perspective on how everything in his world fits together.
"I think a lot about how hard it was for my dad growing up," says Downs, who averaged 20 points and 12 boards per game as a junior at Bothell and signed with Kansas in November. "He had both his parents, but they weren't as supportive of his sports interests as my mom (Gerri) and dad are. My dad didn't go to college. I see how he busts his butt. I see him get beat on by his job and go out there in the cold and wet, his body always hurting. It makes me realize I want to be as good a person as him, but take advantage of my better opportunities."
It's a good thing Downs has drawn strength from the consistency he sees in his father. The rest of his teenage life has been pretty nomadic.
Due to the migratory demands of his dad's construction-project obligations, Downs is playing for his fourth high school in as many years this season. He spent his freshman campaign playing JV at Nevada's Green Valley High and started for Montana's Butte High as a sophomore. Then as a junior, he played at Bothell.
You'd expect all that moving around to have a negative impact on his development as both a player and a person. To say nothing of all that packing and unpacking. Not so, insists Downs.
"It wasn't too difficult, and I'll tell you why," he says. "Making relationships with people and teammates work is all about compromise. If you know how to discuss things and compromise, you can have a good relationship with anyone."
The key ingredient to Downs' relationship with basketball is passion. At least according to Juanita first-year head coach Ezechiel "Zeke" Bambolo.
"He loves the game," says Bambolo, 32, who spent the past two years as an assistant coach at Juanita. "For a lot of elite kids, that's half the battle. He'll push guys on this team to reach new heights, especially since they haven't seen a player of his caliber. Even on Micah's bad days, these kids have to play at a high level to compete with him. Micah has grown up with a passion to play. Now he has to refine his tools to make them match that passion."
It was evident to Bambolo right away that Downs already possesses a nifty toolbox. This past fall, Downs led the Rebels — who went 3-17 last year — to an 8-3 record in the competitive Bellevue Community College Fall League.
His passion was on display as well. When working the game clock for fall-league contests involving other teams, Downs would grab a ball during breaks in the action and shoot jumpers before racing back to the scorer's table.
Kansas head coach Bill Self liked the combination of passion and skills enough to make Downs a high priority in the Jayhawks' top-rated recruiting class.
"He's certainly a shooter, but I think what will play best for him at the next level is his length and his athleticism," says Bambolo, a former NAIA honorable mention All-American at Montana Tech. "He jumps really well, and he's a smart player in that he knows his strengths and weaknesses. He can separate himself with his defense and the maturity to decide where to make an impact. There's a gracefulness about his defense, and that will separate him from the rest of the pack."
So, how exactly has Downs separated himself from the pack and become one of the nation's elite recruits? Particularly while acquiring a new mailing address following every season of his high school career.
"I became a lot better passer," says Downs, 18, who told The Seattle Times in December that he plans to test the waters for this summer's NBA Draft. "It's about being more mature on the floor. It's about knowing when not to force a shot and knowing when to because the team needs you to. That's important."
It's also important to understand where Downs' push-and-pull history with his dad stands these days. His answer is just as measured and serious as the subject matter.
"There have been times I've been benched by my father because of grades or for doing stupid kid stuff — and I mean not that long ago," says Downs. "If I don't have my head on straight, he calls me on it. It still gets hard sometimes because I'm 18 now and more capable of making better choices. But I know he's only looking out for my best interests. Plus, let's face it, he's kind of intimidating."
Hey, the hard part is over. It's those better opportunities that lie ahead.