Editor’s note: Mannie Jackson and Dave Downey are two high-profile Illinois basketball alumni and donors to the University. They’ve made an impact in the record books, in the corporate world and in the lives of Illinois student-athletes with their donations.

Dave Downey has heard his introduction at Madison Square Garden 1,000 times before.

“6-foot-4.”

“200 pounds.”

“From Canton, Illinois… it’s Dave Downey.”

When he finally played there for Illinois in the Eastern College Athletic Conference Holiday Festival of December 1962, he’d already been there enough times in his dreams to not become overwhelmed with the real thing.

“Madison Square Garden was, and still is, kind of the mecca of basketball,” said Downey, a 1963 University alumnus who played for the Illini from 1959 to 1963. “I spent my lifetime dreaming of playing at Madison Square Garden, so all in all, that turned out to be a wonderful experience for us and then we ended up winning it so that worked out too.”

The Illini won the Holiday Festival, but Downey may not always be remembered at Illinois for his Madison Square Garden performance.

Instead, his legacy lives on in the State Farm Center’s new courtside club, Club 53, in recognition of his school-record 53 points scored against Indiana on Feb. 16, 1963.

His record still stands almost 53 years later.

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Downey grew up near Peoria, Illinois. His father couldn’t read or write and his mother had a seventh-grade education.

For Downey, his schooling was a way out of escaping poverty. Downey said he still believes education is the biggest hope for society. At night, his mother read him sports stories out of “Boys’ Life” magazine and parts of the Bible, instilling in Downey a desire to read.

Both nurtured his academic success, but his father played a crucial role in his basketball capabilities.

“His goal and my goal were to get me an education and it worked,” Downey said. “I was very focused on being the best I could be, both as an athlete and a student.”

Too poor to afford a basketball hoop, Downey’s father made him one. But he made it too small.

“When I got into junior high and saw a full-size basket, I thought ‘God, anyone ought to be able to make it into this one, it looks like a washtub,’” Downey said with a laugh. “The beauty of that, after my career at Illinois, after my dad died, I got back the hoop … It’s in the center of my man cave to remind me, that because my dad made that hoop a little too small, that’s probably the reason (people know my name).”

Downey’s retained a connection to the University ever since and his belief in education led to a successful business career.

With his playing days in the past, Downey graduated from Illinois’ law school in 1966 while working in the insurance business. He founded and remains the president of The Downey Group, which provides life insurance and financial planning based out of Champaign.

Downey has remained in town since graduating in ‘63 and served as a member of the University’s Board of Trustees in the 1990s, as a member of the Athletic Board and as an adjunct professor of finance.

He is a life director on the University of Illinois Foundation board.

He credits professors and deans for influencing him because they were interested in him not just as a basketball player, but as a person. It’s a mentality that he’s taken on, becoming a mentor himself and frequently stopping by the Illinois basketball program.

“He’ll make comments to me about how much he enjoyed meeting this player or talking to this player about life things,” said current Illinois head basketball coach John Groce. “He doesn’t even really comment a whole lot on basketball. Probably a third of what we talk about is basketball and two-thirds is who they are, how respectful they are and how they act.”

But before being able to chat with current Illini during practice or in the training facilities, Downey learned from his own Illinois teammates as they taught him more about the world.

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As a freshman, he saw star teammates Mannie Jackson and Governor Vaughn become Illinois’ first African-American letter winners in basketball.

“In my life experience, you run into these unbelievable, almost angel-like people,” Jackson said. (They) do not seem to be impacted by anything else other than the honesty of a friendship. When I think of Dave, all I remember from the first time I met him to even today, we always embraced each other. He had the capacity to see beyond color and see performance and friendship.”

Downey and Jackson remain friends, and Downey serves on the board of Jackson’s Center of Humanities Foundation in Edwardsville, Illinois.

An annual donor for years, he didn’t want his name as a title on his donation to the State Farm Center, instead he wanted to focus on the team aspect of basketball.

“He truly did it to thank the University, his teammates, his friends and the community, and I think that’s who he is,” said Rick Darnell, senior associate athletic director at Illinois. “He really is just so thankful for everything that he has. If you didn’t know, when you ask to him at any time, ‘Hey Dave, how you doing?’ His response is always ‘Better than I deserve.’

“That is his line and that really just shows the sincerity of how he is.”

For Downey, being a donor has meant giving others the opportunity to dream like he had and providing a foundation for athletic and academic success. For him, it’s as simple as giving others a chance to pursue their dreams, whether it’s being introduced at Madison Square Garden or simply being a better human.

“If people can look at what has happened with my life and say, ‘Well if he can do it, maybe I can do it,’” Downey said. “It’s very likely they can. It’s more of an aspirational thing, than it is to be looking backwards. Let’s look forward.”

[email protected] @charlottecrrll