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March 10, 2011

Dowdell finally achieves lifelong dream - to play in the NBA

By: Jimmy Robertson

We’re going to stop the presses here and report that we’ve found the happiest dude in America.

But this shouldn’t come as a surprise because this guy always walked around with a smile on his face.

Former Virginia Tech basketball standout Zabian Dowdell sounded overjoyed in a recent conversation following his signing of a contract with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns for the remainder of the season. On Jan. 9, he inked a 10-day contract, as allowed per league rules, and then on Jan. 27, he signed another 10-day deal. League rules require a team to sign a player for the remainder of the season after the second 10-day contract ends, or release the player outright. The Suns chose the former.

“It’s about time,” Dowdell said of finally making it to the NBA. “I’m very excited. It’s a situation where I’m happy to be here, but at the same time, I need to keep the same approach and do the same things I’ve been doing. I don’t want to let myself get complacent. I need to stay focused and continue to work.”

That doesn’t figure to be a problem for Dowdell, who started his quest to play in the NBA right after his senior season at Tech. Despite being a first-team All-ACC player after averaging 18 points a game and leading the Hokies to an NCAA Tournament victory that year, Dowdell found himself crushed on draft night when every NBA team passed on him.

That began his tumultuous path to the NBA. He played for the Seattle Supersonics’ summer league team shortly afterward, and then after not being picked up by the Supersonics, he wound up in France, where he played for a year (2007-08). The following year, he played in Italy, averaging 19.5 points a game for his Italian team. In 2009-10, he played for the Suns’ summer league team, but he got caught up in the numbers game, and the Suns cut him. So he played in Spain.

Last summer, he played for the Suns’ summer league team, and he received an invitation to training camp again. The Suns cut him again in October, but rather than sign a $750,000 deal in Europe, he decided to take $13,000 from the Tulsa 66ers of the NBA’s Development League because it kept him in the States and in the eyes of NBA execs.

“Man, no one grows up saying his dreams are to play in the French League,” Dowdell said. “Playing in the NBA was my dream growing up. I guess I was like any other kid. But for me, the NBA was the ultimate goal.

“I felt I was close to making the team [in October]. Playing in the Development League allowed other teams to see me as well. Others thought I could play. Looking back, it was a great decision.”

Dowdell took advantage of those 10-day contracts. He was the first to practice and the last to leave. After practices, he placed folding chairs on the court to use as screeners, while running through the Suns’ plays. He accepted his role, which was to back up future Hall of Famer Steve Nash and Aaron Brooks. He became the team’s biggest cheerleader during games, and he played well when he got playing time.

“I think I ran the team well and showed them I could play,” Dowdell said. “They can rely on me to give Steve some rest.

“That’s what a back-up’s job is. You run and control the second unit, and our goal [as a unit] is to keep a lead or increase it. That’s what they look for in back-ups.”

Dowdell loves his teammates, which also include Vince Carter, who needled Dowdell about the Tar Heels’ victory over the Hokies in early January. He loves traveling in the team’s private jet and staying at the best hotels, though he added, “We traveled good at Tech, too.”

He also loves the city, and recently moved into an apartment. In his sparse spare time, he texts former Tech teammate and best friend Jamon Gordon, who now plays in Greece.

He sometimes watches NBA TV, catching old all-star games and dunk contests. He’ll see Carter throw down a resounding dunk or Nash make a no-look pass, and he realizes he’s on the same court as them.

“There were definitely moments when I thought this might not happen,” Dowdell said. “I thought I was talented enough, but so many other things go into it. You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time. You’ve got to stick with it, and that’s what I’ve done.”