Kevin McDowell, 35, was a former Poly High School basketball player who drowned while saving a woman's life in Portland. Photo courtesy of Trayanna Enriquez.

It took more than a week to find Kevin McDowell’s body after he jumped from a boat to save a woman struggling in swiftly flowing water.

It was July 4 when McDowell’s sister, Trayanna Enriquez watched authorities bring his body up from the Columbia River in Portland, marking the end of their extensive search for the Poly High School alum and Long Beach transplant who was being hailed as a hero. As she looked on, she said, fireworks began to light up the sky.

“He wanted me to be here,” said Enriquez, who’d rushed to Portland as soon as she could and arrived just before search crews brought his body ashore.

About a week earlier, on June 26, McDowell was celebrating a friend’s birthday in a boat on the Columbia River where the group was trying to beat the triple-digit temperatures. When the boat began to dock near Lemon Island, a woman jumped into the seemingly calm river and attempted to swim to shore, McDowell’s family said. But the river had an undercurrent, which began dragging the woman away as soon as she hit the water, according to Enriquez.

Without hesitation, McDowell jumped into the river and pushed the woman to safety, likely saving her from drowning, authorities told Portland media. As he fought against the current himself, McDowell waved for help, but moments later, the river swallowed him, his sister said. After multiple dives by authorities, he was presumed dead.

“He lost his life because of his heart,” said Enriquez. “He had too big of a heart sometimes.”

An undated photo of Kevin McDowell. Photo courtesy of Trayanna Enriquez.

That heart—filled with passion, selflessness and creativity—was well known in Portland as well as in his childhood home of Long Beach, according to his family. His death has left a hole in both communities, which are now mourning him.

“There’s been a big impact from Portland all the way to Long Beach,” Enriquez said. “It shows just how much he was loved.”

Long Beach roots

McDowell was born at Santa Barbara College Hospital on Dec. 16, 1986.

“He was a beautiful little boy,” his mother, Rhonda Jackson, said. “Even from a baby, he was a good boy. He always listened and was well behaved and he loved his sister.”

As a young boy, his family moved around quite a bit from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, and at one point Alabama, before settling in Long Beach in 2000 where McDowell attended Poly High School. There, he excelled in basketball, his family says, playing the shooting guard and small forward positions.

“Such an amazing basketball player,” his sister recalls. “He was up there with some of the best.”

With dreams of becoming the next big talent out of Long Beach, his ambitions were set on going pro and playing in the NBA.

Kevin McDowell attempts to dunk a basketball in 2017. Photo courtesy of McDowell’s Instagram.

But after a blood clot in his right arm nearly killed him and required him to be airlifted to a hospital in Los Angeles, he began to think about life outside of basketball.

After he graduated from Poly in 2005, McDowell attended San Jose State where he made the team’s basketball roster in 2007. He played for one year before exploring other options.

His favorite saying was “We’ll figure it out,” Enriquez said. And he always did.

Although dreams of being drafted to the NBA drifted away, McDowell found a way to stay close to the game. Post-college, he moved around the country before getting a job at the Nike headquarters in Oregon as a financial analyst, Enriquez said. As his career flourished—modeling, dancing, designing and doing motion capture in basketball video games—McDowell decided in 2017 to settle permanently in Portland.

There, his new saying became, “It’s all love,” his family said.

Over time, McDowell made a name for himself in the Portland community. He and his girlfriend owned the Capitol Bar and McDowell was working on multiple other projects, including his art galleries, according to his relatives. They say his custom home decor business Sui Generis (pronounced sway generous), which means “of its own kind,” embodied who McDowell was, a Long Beach kid who made it big because he believed in himself and his greatness.

“Going to Poly High School gave me a real-time view of what greatness was seeing so many of my friends achieve success sometimes before we even graduated high school,” McDowell said on his website. “I never planned on doing much else outside of playing basketball professionally. But, I also knew I would do much more after my hoop career. I had to come hard because it’s just what we do.”

The “James Harden,” home decor by designer Kevin McDowell. Photo courtesy of McDowell’s Instagram.

Today, McDowell’s loved ones remember him as a protector. He was a giver and saw the value in people. In return, he also received fierce love from his family.

“I’m quite sure if I was there they would have been trying to find two bodies,” Enriquez said, implying she would have risked her own life to save her brother the day he drowned.

After his presumed death, as authorities continued searching for his body, Jackson, his mother, rushed to Portland and refused to leave.

“Not knowing where he was was what bothered me the most,” Jackson said. “I just wanted my baby so I can take him home.”

They take solace in the fact that he died a hero.

“It’s the biggest peace of mind I could have asked for,” Jackson said.

An undated photo of Kevin McDowell with his family at his Capitol Bar in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Trayanna Enriquez.

A GoFundMe page was set up by McDowell’s family to cover the cost of his funeral expenses. It has raised $43,551, exceeding the $20,000 goal, as of Friday. McDowell’s family says his service will take place Sunday, July 25 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Renaissance Hotel in Downtown Long Beach. 

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