Moments after Phoenix Suns guard Zabian Dowdell picked up his fourth foul in 11 minutes Feb. 2 against the Milwaukee Bucks, he walked over to teammate Mickael Pietrus seeking a little sympathy and understanding.
Pietrus, a seven-year veteran forward in the National Basketball Association, had nothing of the sort for Dowdell. It was all part of Dowdell's ongoing NBA education.
"Man, that wasn't a foul," said Dowdell, who went on to commit a fifth foul seconds after complaining about the fourth one.
"Welcome to the NBA, rook," Pietrus said.
Dowdell, a 6-foot-2 guard from Virginia Tech, grinned after Pietrus' response. At 26 years old, Dowdell was finally an NBA rookie.
After playing professionally for three years in France, Italy and Spain, starting an internet business to prepare for life after basketball (which could've come at any time), toiling for next-to-nothing in wages in the NBA's D-League and showing just enough promise in back-to-back 10-day contracts with the Suns, Dowdell is getting his chance.
On Feb. 4, Phoenix lost at home to Oklahoma City 111-107 in a game Dowdell played 13 minutes off the bench, contributing four points, two assists and three steals. His second 10-day contract was set to expire the next day. The Suns were required by NBA rules to make a decision on Dowdell at the end of the second 10-day contract – sign him for the rest of the season or release him.
Dowdell was called into Phoenix's film room after the Oklahoma City loss. Suns team president Lon Babby and general manager Lance Blanks were waiting. It was an identical scene to the one Dowdell experienced in mid-October, when he was called into the film room by Babby and Blanks. They proceeded to cut Dowdell a week before the start of the NBA regular season.
This time, the news was much more encouraging.
"It was kind of like déjà vu," said Dowdell, a first team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection in 2007 who averaged 14.5 points per game in his Tech career. "I could remember in the preseason going into that same room in the same situation, and the decision didn't turn out in my favor. I tried to keep an open-mind (at the end of the second 10-day contract). I felt like I had done everything I could possibly do given the situation. I wasn't going to hang my head if things didn't go my way, but thankfully, they did."
In truth, Dowdell would've gone back to the Tulsa 66ers in the D-League if he had to take that detour again. He was averaging 14.5 points and 4.6 assists per game with Tulsa before Phoenix gave him a shot in January with his first 10-day contract.
Then again, Dowdell admits he was already growing accustomed to the NBA lifestyle. He made a good living in Europe, where pro teams pay good salaries to former top-level college players, but he'll also get a good chunk of change for the last two months of the NBA regular season.
Dowdell is earning a prorated cut of the NBA's rookie minimum salary, which is $473,604. When he was signed, Phoenix had 34 regular season games left, which works out to $196,372 for Dowdell – in addition to money he earned through the back-to-back 10-day contracts and $115 NBA per diem.
"He took the path less traveled, believed in himself and now he's living his dream," Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "I always thought he was an NBA player, but there's a limited number of jobs in that league. I just thought if he could find a place where there's an opportunity, then he'd make it."
There will be no more long bus trips from town-to-town, like the ones Dowdell experienced in the D-League. On occasions when Tulsa took a commercial flight to a road game, players jostled for exit row seats.
With the Suns, the only time Dowdell sees the inside of a bus is when he and his teammates hop on a luxury cruiser for the short trip from an arena on the road directly to the door of a charter plane, where a four-course meal awaits.
"It's definitely like going from coach to first class," said Dowdell, who said he became nearly fluent in French while playing in Europe. "I'm really not a big fan of flying, but I don't mind flying the way we fly."
Though he's chipping in averages of four points and 2.8 assists while averaging just 12 minutes per outing in the eight games in which he has backed up potential Hall of Famer Steve Nash, Dowdell isn't worrying too much about playing time right now. He's more concerned about what he does with his limited minutes when gets those chances to spell Nash.
"I won't say (backing up Nash is) an easy thing to do," said Dowdell, who is also co-owner of a website called sportsagent411.com that facilitates businesses contacting athletes through their agents. "I feel like I can go out there and run the team just as well. You really have to have confidence in what you're doing at this level. The moment you don't, your teammates will notice, and the other team will notice."
"Growing up, I always dreamed of playing in the NBA – not in a foreign country. When you feel like you belong somewhere, like I felt like I belonged in the NBA, it's just hard to think otherwise."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times