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November 14, 2008

Downey completing life's journey

JACKSONVILLE STATE at SOUTH CAROLINA

When: 7:03 p.m.
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
TV: SportSouth
Tickets: Available at the box office

Jacksonville State's probable starters: G DeAndre Bray 5-6 Sr. (5.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg); G Jeremy Bynum 6-4 So. (7.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg); F Nick Murphy 6-4 So. (13.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg); F Stephen Hall 6-6 Fr.; F Amadou Mbodji 6-11 Jr. (7.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Devan Downey 5-9 Jr. (18.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg); G Zam Fredrick 6-0 Sr. (14.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Brandis Raley-Ross 6-2 Jr. (6.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg); F Dominique Archie 6-7 Jr. (10.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg); F/C Mike Holmes 6-7 So. (8.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
*Stats are from last year.

Notes: The coach Darrin Horn era officially begins. ... Each team won their exhibition games, USC by 20 over Kentucky Wesleyan and Jacksonville State by nine over West Georgia. ... Only one of the past 10 USC coaches has ever lost his first game (Eddie Fogler, Old Dominion, 1993). ... USC is 71-29 in season-openers and Horn was 4-1 at Western Kentucky. ... This is the first meeting between the two schools. ... The two schools are the only teams in the nation to use "Gamecocks" as a nickname. ... Bray is taller than only three other players in all of Division I.

Next game: USC hosts Winthrop at 4 p.m. on Sunday.


It starts with a 13-year-old boy, walking the streets of his small hometown with his spindly arms barely big enough to hold the basketball he's always carrying and a head full of dreams too grand to imagine.

Despite his diminutive size, Devan Downey's game has always spoken loudly.

As South Carolina's newest basketball season dawns, Downey is the man everybody's looking to. He's the Gamecocks' leader, a spot he took over as soon as he was eligible and has never relinquished.

It's his natural position. On the court, the point guard directs the team.

Downey sees no difference between the hardwood and the streets of his life. He leads, the others follow. Fact.

"He is as obsessed with basketball as anybody I've ever met," said his high school coach, DeAndre Scott. "He's the hardest-working kid I've ever been around.

"Devan was a great kid. Just a great personality. Just very likable, but beside that, he's a good guy. Cares a lot about his friends and family."

What is it that makes Downey so unstoppably fearless on the court? How does he take that tiny 5-foot-9 frame and weave it between the redwood forests of Division I defenses, kissing the ball off the glass for an impossible deuce?

Simple. He was born to play basketball. And anything worth doing is worth doing well.

"When he got to the phase of when he could walk, he had to have a basketball," said Downey's uncle, Walter White. "When he first got his first basketball, he was 2, 3 years old. He kept that ball with him everywhere he went. He would try to hold the basketball when my wife would hold him."

Every legend begins somewhere.

Raised by his uncle and aunt, Mary White, Downey had a tiny basketball in his crib the moment he got home. He learned to dribble shortly after learning to walk.

At age 7, the family moved close to an apartment complex with a basketball court. Downey went to play one day and came back hurting, so his uncle and aunt put their own goal up in the front yard.

"It's still out there now," Walter White said. "We had to put a new rim and a new backboard on it but it's still there."

Some early school trouble put Downey in an alternative school, where he wasn't allowed to play for Chester Middle School and thus catch the eyes of the Chester High School coaches. The tiny guard instead wore out basketballs by the gross on his own goal and at the local recreation center.

The tales started to spread. There was this kid, the locals would say with dazed fascination, that was absolutely dominating players 10 years older than him down at the YMCA.

"We heard the stories all the time about how we needed to get down to the rec center and check out this point guard," said Scott, who was then an assistant coach at Chester High and is now head coach at Myrtle Beach High. "Well, you know how it is as a coach -- you hear that kind of stuff all the time. You go, 'Oh, yeah, yeah, sure.'

"At the time, we didn't have any middle school kids playing. Devan wasn't playing for Chester Middle School, he was playing for the Y team. I was an assistant coach, so I didn't go over and meet him or anything."

But Downey turned 13 and enrolled at Chester, a year earlier than most high school freshmen, and Scott was promoted to head coach. He posted announcements for conditioning work for basketball in the summer of 2001 and began making out a depth chart -- his senior point guard was gone but he had a good nucleus of players returning.

Scott opened the door to the gym on the first day and there was this tiny kid, maybe 5-4 and 120 pounds, tops, holding a ball. Scott was about to direct him over to the playground when the kid turned around and aced a 3-pointer.

Scott re-inserted his eyes into his sockets and got the kid's information.

"By the time we got him in tryouts, he was one of the fastest kids there," Scott said. "I immediately knew he was going to be a pretty good player for us."

Downey played off and on, many times showcasing the talent that would be evident years later but also sometimes showing how physically outclassed he was. Extremely high potential, yes, but at 13, maybe a little too over his head.

Until.

"He started his first game as a varsity player against Rock Hill," Scott said. "He scored 21 points that first game as a 13-year-old. He hit the shot to send the game into overtime.

"We eventually lost the game in overtime, but for him to have the guile and the guts to take that shot at 13 years old, from that point on, I kind of knew he was going to be special, the kid that you could kind of count on to be your best player night in and night out."

"The first time I saw him really getting serious about the game was his freshman year," White said. "He played in a tournament in Rock Hill and said, 'They'll never give a freshman the MVP award.'

"I didn't go to the game that night, but when I came home, he had it sitting on top of the head of my bed. I told my wife, 'I think he's getting a little serious about this.'"

Downey won the MVP award of a Christmas tournament in Florence during his sophomore year, prompting one reporter, stunned by the kid's speed and control, to inquire about his college prospects. Scott politely informed the guy that Downey still had two and a half years of high school ball left, drawing a rapid head shake and another shocked expression.

Even a previous legend of Chester had to see for himself. William Gallman, a former South Carolina player and integral part of the Gamecocks' 1996-97 SEC championship team, returned to Chester from playing overseas and heard about some kid over at the high school that was rivaling his high school exploits.

"I had heard about this little machine in middle school that was so quick and real good," said Gallman, now living in Rock Hill and in the property management trade. "Everybody was talking about how good he was. But I didn't actually see him play until the ninth grade. Once I saw him play in ninth grade, I was amazed at how mature and how good he was at such a young age."

The recruitment began in earnest, White recalling one UPS truck leaving his driveway to make room for another. Downey sought Gallman's help and Gallman obliged.

"I just wanted him to go with his heart," Gallman said. "Go somewhere where he would be able to play the type of game he's capable of playing. He's got a pretty good family base and Devan is a good kid. Always had his head on straight. I knew he would make a good decision for himself."

Downey saw a coach that employed a run-the-floor system and an incumbent starter he could battle. More importantly, he saw a consistent NCAA tournament program.

Cincinnati. USC was in the mix but Downey knew he may not get to play for a while if he chose the Gamecocks.

He committed before his senior year and went out with 2,738 points, holding the state record for points in a game (67). As South Carolina Mr. Basketball 2005, Downey was a consensus Top 50 prospect.

And not content to back anybody up.

Within five games at Cincinnati, Downey was a starter. He averaged 12.3 points, 4.1 assists and 2.0 steals per game, making the Big East All-Rookie Team. Downey was doing everything he said he'd do and what people thought he'd do.

But he wasn't happy. Not after the summer before his freshman year, when Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins was fired.

Huggins was let go and assistant Andy Kennedy took over as interim head coach. That was fine because Kennedy was the main guy who handled Downey's recruitment.

After the season ended, though, the Bearcats hired Mick Cronin and Kennedy went to Ole Miss. Downey put in for a transfer.

After some searching, USC was too good to turn down a second time.

Kennedy was hired at Ole Miss and had Downey in for a visit, but Downey decided soon after he wanted to be closer to home. The bond between the two never wavered.

"What he and I went through together ... he was a freshman and I was a rookie interim coach, under not the best of circumstances," Kennedy said during his first season. "Something I'll remember forever. I look at him almost like a proud father."

"I had took a few of them trips to Cincinnati and it wasn't no joke," White said. "I told him, 'Look, it's up to you. I don't want to tell you to go where you want to go. Your career and whatever you decide, I'm going to stand by you 100 percent. If you come to South Carolina, we'd come and cheer for you every game just like we do everywhere else.'

"I thought he might go to Tennessee and Wake Forest, but he settled down and said South Carolina."

Having to sit out a year per NCAA transfer rules, Downey used the time to make his team better. Assigned to shadow Tre Kelley every day in practice, Downey hounded Kelley all day, every day.

"There must have been a fight or tussle, like, eight times a week," chuckled former Gamecock Dwayne Day during last season.

Kelley ended his senior year scoring 18.9 points per game and was named first-team All-SEC. Downey took over and made it two straight years a USC guard got the honor.

Another moment of proving his worth and another moment of unbelievability.

Dave Odom retired and USC hired Darrin Horn. That was Downey's fourth coach in as many years.

But Downey had come too far to quit now. He re-rolled his sleeves, retrieved the basketball and kept shooting. The kid who had taken over the team within the span of a few games in 2007-08, stating his teammates needed to step up after a loss at arch rival Clemson, had to make himself known to another coach.

No problem.

"One thing that Devan Downey's doing is he's got that tremendous work ethic and he plays very hard," Horn said at USC's Media Day. "I think, obviously, when your most talented player is doing that, it helps."

Downey heads into the season a consensus preseason first-team All-SEC pick and the focal point of the Gamecocks' offense. He scored 19 points with four assists, four steals and eight rebounds in an exhibition win over Kentucky Wesleyan and will have the ball in his hands again tonight, when USC hosts Jacksonville State in the regular-season opener.

His peers continue to laud him.

"He's definitely a great point guard," Kentucky's Jodie Meeks said at SEC Media Days. "He's very quick and an excellent scorer. Definitely fun to play against because he's so good."

"I played with Devan Downey at the NBA camp. He's real good," added Auburn's Korvotney Barber. "He's one of the top guards in the nation, in my opinion. He's a good leader, on and off the court. He's a good guy."

The future seems bright. Downey was NBA-eligible last season but still has two more years or college left. Not many mock drafts have him listed at all among their ranks, so he may be in Columbia for two more full seasons.

That'd be nice for all of the folks who continue to see him pursue those long-hatched dreams.

"I always go to a lot of home Carolina games, but since he's been there, I've been trying to get to as many home games as I can," Gallman said. "Just to see him play for my alma mater, I just know he's ready to win a championship and experience some of the good things that I've experienced."

"I'm an old basketball player, but I tell you, I only played against him one time," White said. "I found out he was too quick for me. I about broke my ankles trying to play with him. I got lucky to beat him that one time, he was about 13, and I didn't play him any more. I could tell he was going to be good."

Downey, not a boaster but rather deservedly confident in his abilities, continues to play that same awe-inspiring game. Nobody could break down the moves on a chalkboard -- they just work.

Not that much different from that 13-year-old kid. He's slightly taller, a lot stronger, a lot improved.

But still the same player that has drawn the raves of first an entire town, then a state, then much of the country.

So he keeps shooting, ball after ball, rack after rack.

Expectations don't come easy, you know.

Least of all from himself.



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