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Filling a void | Longtime Bellevue Christian hoops coach stepping down after 32 years
When Brandon Kats thinks of coach Mike Downs, basketball is not the first thing that comes to mind.
Like so many former athletes at Bellevue Christian School, Kats has his share of memorable moments with Downs on the court. But what sticks out isn't the wins or trophies, but the character and message behind them.
"It was always more than just basketball with coach Downs," Kats said. "It was always about the bigger picture."
Downs announced his retirement from the head coach position of the BCS boys basketball team after 32 years last week, leaving behind a legacy that stands alongside the most respected in Washington prep history. But more than a court general, his players saw Downs was as a father-figure.
"I saw coaching as a conduit to teach life skills and biblical values," he said. "As I was impacted by life lessons, I would instill those into my athletes."
Over the years those athletes included his own three sons, Daniel, Jeffrey and David (Downs also has a daughter, Christi, who estimated she was at 90 percent of her father's games over the years) and while his coaching peers preached a family atmosphere around their programs, Downs went a step further, inviting family members and friends into his locker room for post game talks with his team.
Other coaches had a difficult time understanding why he allowed such transparency, but after having many of his players as students at Bellevue Christian's Three Points Elementary and becoming close with their families in the tightly knit school community, it was only natural.
That feeling of community is also what that kept him at the small, Clyde Hill school for more than three decades, despite several overtures from larger programs. Downs said he was also influenced by a book written, 'Make the Big Time Where You Are,' by legendary Pacific Lutheran University football coach Frosty Westering, a National Championship winner with the Lutes and Division III athletic royalty.
"The grass wasn't necessarily greener on the other side," Downs said. "I always turned them down because of the BCS community and how they supported me."
In more ways than one, his loyalty was rewarded.
After making the district tournament in his first season a year after the team had gone 2-18, Downs led the Vikings to their first ever 1A state tournament in 1988. Even with the 9 a.m. game, Downs took his team to the Tacoma Dome well before tipoff to get acclimated. When the opposing team sauntered into the gym in suits and ties, they found their opposition already working up a sweat on the floor.
"They were wondering what the heck was going on," Downs said. "We shot 68 percent from the field, 88 percent from the free throw line and played really well."
BCS went on to a third-place finish that year, one of nine finishes in the top-six for Downs during his tenure, and proved the mantras he had been preaching so intently paid dividends between the lines as well as outside them.
His Vikings broke through on the state's biggest stage in 2005 and again in 2006, winning the school's only two basketball state championships. A near-miss in the second round the following year narrowly denied BCS the chance at a three-peat, but gave Jeffrey the Class 1A state tournament scoring record, a mark that still stands today (Downs is tied for the single-game record for made free throws with 20 and owns Class 1A all-time career marks in field goals made and field goal attempts).
"That was pretty special to be able to receive that with him," Downs said, adding that watching his three sons go from his elementary school basketball camps to the state tournament was the crowning accomplishment of his career. David just finished his junior year with the same Seattle Pacific University program his father played for as a collegian, and helped his team to the championship game of the West Regional with more than 14 points per game.
Family was a recurring theme for Downs at BCS and also factored in his resignation from the head coaching position. After losing his wife to cancer two years ago, and no longer with a son of his own heading down the pipeline, he said the time was right to move on.
"She made cookies for the team, she would debrief with me after the game, she supported me and encouraged me," Downs said of his late wife, Jan. "She was a huge part of the coaching team."
Kats said while he has been learning from the coach since his childhood, he gained an entirely new appreciation during his wife's battle with the terminal disease.
"Going through what he did and the way he persevered, it's been a really good opportunity for me to see how a man lives his life," said Kats, who has spent the past two seasons on the sidelines as the program's lead assistant coach. "I'm really appreciative of all the opportunities he has given me."
Daniel, now a physical education teacher in the area, said many of his earliest memories are in the gym, piling into the family van for road trips to tournaments and listening to his father address his teams post game, something he wouldn't recognize as unordinary until much later.
"He really wanted that family and community aspect," Daniel said. "My dad was the head coach, but it was a family thing."
After playing that role since shortly after college, the bug will likely return when the season rolls around, and Downs did not rule out returning to the sidelines as an assistant somewhere in the future.
At Bellevue Christian, the task of replacing a legend on the court and transcendent figure away from it falls to athletic director Mark DeJonge, who said he first met Downs years before taking his current position with the school. After hearing tales of a man more concerned with character than trophies, DeJonge quickly found they didn't do him justice.
"I found all those things were true, and then some," DeJonge said. "He's just a man of integrity, someone who cared about the kids and wanted to win, but wanted all these guys to grow up and be great dads, great husbands and passionate about whatever they were called into."
For Downs, the subject of a legacy is an emotional one.
After beginning his career at SPU before coaching with the Christian mission group Athletes in Action and building a state power in Clyde Hill, the longtime Kirkland resident said he hopes his players remember him as a teacher and leader. But more than that, he hopes they remember his willingness to show emotion, which he said was a product of the deep connection with each team and individual player.
"I want them to say, 'He was really a man of integrity and was genuine,'" Downs said. "He cared about his players and wanted them to grow as Christian young men."
Mike Downs at BCS
9 top-six Class 1A state tournament placings
2005 and 2006 Class 1A state champions
2005 Wayne Gilman All Star Coaches Award
2006 NFHS Coaches Association Washington State Coach of the Year
2007-08 PNBOA Outstanding Ambassador for Basketball Award
2010 WIBCA Hall of Fame Inductee
2011 SPU Alumni Association Medallion Award
Conference Coach of the Year honors in Chinook League and Emerald City League
The Downs family, with his three sons, wife Jan and daughter Christi, after a state tournament. COURTESY PHOTO, DOWNS FAMILY
Mike Downs prepares to have his head shaved after his team won the state title and cost him a bet for his hair. COURTESY PHOTO, DOWNS FAMILY
Downs with a state title net after a tournament. COURTESY PHOTO, DOWNS FAMILY