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10 DAYS TO LIVE
Lee Jenkins
January 31, 2011
Playing time? Don't bank on it. Quality practice time? If you're lucky. Pressure? It's the only guarantee for Zabian Dowdell and his 10-day brethren in a lonely, urgent week and a half to prove they belong in the NBA
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January 31, 2011

10 Days To Live

Playing time? Don't bank on it. Quality practice time? If you're lucky. Pressure? It's the only guarantee for Zabian Dowdell and his 10-day brethren in a lonely, urgent week and a half to prove they belong in the NBA

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The Suns trailed the Nuggets by 30 through three quarters on Day 3, garbage time for everybody but Dowdell. Gentry called for him to start the fourth quarter and designed the first play for him. Dowdell set up in the right corner, took a handoff from Dragic on the right wing, dribbled three times, pulled up just inside the arc, elevated and released. He had waited all of 10 seconds to take his first shot. It missed. His next one missed too. But then he made a slick feed to Dragic, forced a turnover, sank two free throws and nailed a long jumper coming off a screen at the top of the key. "Those are the toughest circumstances a shooter can possibly be under," says Tim Legler, who had eight 10-day contracts in his NBA career and is now an ESPN analyst. "You feel the pressure. This is the culmination of everything you've worked for your whole life. You want to be aggressive, but you can also shoot yourself right out the door. One 0 for 5 could kill you."

Dowdell went 1 for 6, but his coach approved. "He played without fear," Gentry said. "He believes he belongs, and for these guys, that's three quarters of the battle." On Day 4, though, he was back on the bench as the Suns beat the Nets, and on Day 5 the team was off. Dowdell still went to the arena, quizzing himself on the playbook and mimicking the hesitation move Nash uses when releasing from pick-and-rolls.

By Day 6, Vince Carter was needling Dowdell over a Virginia Tech--North Carolina basketball game. Coaches were telling him he might be used in a three-guard lineup. He talked about renting a car so he would no longer have to walk. "I feel like I deserve to be here," he said. He was sitting on his bed in the Sheraton, rolling a basketball in his hands. "But it doesn't matter what I think. I need to show these people what I can do. I'm anxious. I want to get in a game when it matters." That night against the Blazers, Nash and Dragic both picked up two early fouls. With five minutes left in the half, Suns assistant Dan Majerle told Dowdell to get ready. Dowdell fixed his attention on Blazers guard Patrick Mills and noticed that he looked uncomfortable holding the ball in his left hand. With 34 seconds until halftime, and the Suns down by four, Gentry sent Dowdell to the scorers table. On his first possession Dowdell fed Carter for a three-pointer, then smothered Mills on the in-bounds pass. Dowdell overplayed Mills's right hand, prying the ball loose, picking it up and racing to the rim. His layup was blocked out-of-bounds, but the Suns retained possession and the crowd howled. Carter gave Dowdell a chest bump. Marcin Gortat rubbed his head. And in Port St. Lucie, Fla., eight-year-old Camryn Maxon and her four-year-old twin brothers, Christopher and Christian, hopped around the living room, long past their bedtime.

The kids' father, Chris, coached Dowdell at Pahokee High, and when Dowdell was in college he spent summers living with them in a converted garage. He babysat the twins during the day, and at night ran every fairway of the St. James Golf Club. Chris drove a cart while his wife, Cheri, held a flashlight. After Dowdell traversed all 18 holes, the group headed to Southern Oaks Middle School, where he had to make 1,000 shots before bed. "I don't care if this is for 10 days or 10 years," Maxon said. "He made it." After the Suns beat the Blazers, several players credited Dowdell with reversing momentum. "He plays with an edge," Babby said. "We need that toughness."

Practice was canceled again on Day 7, as the Suns flew to New York. He ate at a soul-food restaurant in the West Village called The Pink Tea Cup. He tried not to look at the calendar. "The end is the hardest," says Avery Johnson. "You're so close." Legler remembers rushing out of McNichols Arena in hopes that Nuggets head coach Paul Westhead would forget to release him. Westhead did not forget.

Dowdell's first full practice came on Day 8 at Baruch College in Manhattan, where he led the Suns in a spirited scrimmage while Nash rested for the game the next afternoon. Dowdell did not play against the Knicks on Day 9, and after the Suns won, Gentry cornered him outside the family room at Madison Square Garden. Coaches liked what they had seen. But they wanted to see more, and the Suns were not practicing much on the remainder of the trip. Gentry explained that the organization was releasing Dowdell and sending him to Phoenix with the intention of signing him to another 10-day contract after the trip. "We need to get him in a situation with a lot of practice time," Gentry said, "so we can see if he's the guy we want to keep." Dowdell flew to Cleveland that night on the charter, with the team but no longer part of it.

"I'm in a tough spot," Dowdell said from his Cleveland hotel room. "I really don't want to be bouncing around like this forever. It gets to a point where you don't know how much you can take." He had options. Other NBA teams were interested. A European team recently offered $70,000 a month. Dowdell could even put more time into the Internet company he cofounded, sportsagent411.com, which allows companies to contact athletes through their agents.

But he also believes, sure as he did at 16, that he can make it in the NBA. On Day 10, he practiced with the Suns in Cleveland and then flew to Phoenix, commercial this time.

He was waiting for his next 10-day audition in a 10-year quest.

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