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Downey in bloom for Lake Forest

02/21/2013, 6:06pm CST
By Jon Kerr

Sam Downey has come a long way since his freshman year. The senior has come into his own physically and honed skills on-court and in the classroom. Downey will play at Yale next year.

Lake Forest Academy's Daniel Joseph is defended by Lake Forest High School's Sam Downey during a basketball game in Lake Forest, Saturday, February 16, 2013 I David Banks~for Sun-Times Media

Sam Downey is the perfect example of a late bloomer.

In fact, the Lake Forest senior even admits he wasn’t that good at basketball when he entered high school.

“Freshman year, I was on the B team,” said Downey, who scored nine points in Lake Forest’s 49-41 win over Lake Forest Academy Saturday. “I was not one of the better players.”

Standing 6-foot-3, Downey, although frail, still possessed natural size. He also inherited strong hoops bloodlines from his mother’s side. Downey’s grandfather, Carl Ibe, was a high school basketball coach in Green Bay, Wis., for decades and is a member of Lakeland (Ill.) College’s Hall of Fame.

So even as Downey rode the bench as a junior last season, there were signs a breakout was possible. There was a game against Stevenson in January when he scored 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting. That game sparked something in Downey, who had grown to 6-7.

“I remember thinking I had a chance to be a really good basketball player,” Downey said.

But he needed more growth. He needed to dedicate his life to basketball. So in March of 2012, he joined a new AAU team called Fundamental U. The coach was Mike Weinstein, founder of Joy of the Game basketball programs. Weinstein already had an all-star lineup that featured Mundelein’s Sean O’Brien, Glenbrook North’s Andrew McAuliffe, New Trier’s Steven Cook and Barrington’s Brad Zaumseil. He wanted the raw Downey to round things out.

“We went and saw him play. He played five minutes and I knew,” Weinstein said. “I saw he could run the floor. With his back to the basket plays, he looked like a young puppy.”

All spring and summer, four days a week, Downey worked out with the Fundamental U squad. His jump hook got better. His hands, always soft, got more firm around the basket as he learned to finish plays. In his downtime, he hit the weight room, putting on 20 pounds of muscle to better leverage his body against defenders in the low post. He played in tournaments in Ohio, Minnesota and Las Vegas in July.

His game reborn, teammates took notice.

“The confidence he had in posting up and being able to score in any way,” Lake Forest senior guard Ben Simpson said. “It started at the end of last year and rode into the summer.”

After a tournament in Waukegan, Downey got a call from James Jones, the men’s basketball coach at Yale.

“He wanted to offer me a spot on the team,” Downey said. “I didn’t want to make a rash decision.”

So the first week in August, he hit the road with his mother, Karla, and his father, David. They visited two other Ivy League schools, Brown and Dartmouth, along with Yale. After the trip, Yale was in his head and his heart. He committed with a plan to major in economics.

His college decision out of the way, Downey is having a formidable senior season. Now 6-9, he leads Lake Forest in field goals and is second in scoring and rebounding.

“I always wanted to play. I never thought about it until last year,” Downey said. “I never realized I had the opportunity.”

Better late than never. ~.

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