Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the January 31, 2011, edition of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
Zabian Dowdell arrived in Phoenix with 10 days' worth of clothes, two Bibles and a copy of a letter saved on a laptop. He wrote the original letter to himself a decade ago, by hand in the bedroom where he grew up, 595 words with the title I Will Make It. He was 16 then, a basketball player in a football town, worried that college recruiters would not notice him in Pahokee, Fla. "Nothing will stop me from making it to the NBA," Dowdell wrote. "I am on a mission." He took the letter with him to Virginia Tech and back home again, but he'd lost track of it by June 2007, when friends cried at his draft party because he went unpicked. Dowdell rode the bench in France, dodged paper airplanes thrown from the stands in Italy and stayed up until 3 a.m. in Spain to watch NBA games on his computer, still seething at the fellow point guards drafted instead of him. When his mother stumbled across his old letter while cleaning out his room, she typed and e-mailed it to him, sensing he could use his own motivation. Dowdell recognized the defiant tone of his younger self and saved the e-mail, to read whenever his resolve was tested. Last October, after the Suns cut him out of training camp for the second year in a row, Dowdell rejected a $750,000 contract in Europe and took $13,000 from the Tulsa 66ers of the Development League because Tulsa offered something Europe did not: the possibility of a midseason NBA call-up. "For Zabian, it's NBA or bust," said his agent, Karim Memarian.
At 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 9, Dowdell left his room on the 14th floor of the Sheraton in downtown Phoenix, walked five blocks to U.S. Airways Center and made good on his teenage pledge. At 26, after three seasons in Europe and two stints in the D-League, summers spent running on golf courses and shooting jumpers past midnight, Dowdell signed an NBA contract. There was, however, one caveat. The contract was for only 10 days.
The 10-day contract is as much a part of the NBA as the max deal, though nobody is using it to hire personal chefs. Players are signed for 10 days, but they can be released after one. If they last the duration, they are either released then or signed for another 10. If they are still hanging around after that, they are either released or signed for the rest of the season to a prorated minimum contract. "It's like being a substitute teacher," says point guard Steve Nash, except teachers are guaranteed time in front of the class. A player has 10 days to prove he belongs, without any promise that he will actually see the court in a game or even a practice. A 10-day can be evaluated on something as trivial as the high fives he gives his teammates when they come to the bench or the shots he takes with a ball boy when everyone else has gone home. "You feel like you are on 10 one-day contracts," says Nets head coach Avery Johnson. "You don't sleep a lot. You look at your phone all the time. No one is sending a limo to your house with roses for your wife. You are taking a taxi and turning in the receipt."
Johnson revived his 16-year career with two 10-day contracts in 1992. Kurt Rambis made his last 14 seasons. So did Anthony Mason. The 10-day contract allows teams to affordably fill holes on their bench and D-League players to audition for dream jobs. By rule, teams could start offering 10-day contracts on Jan. 5. Dowdell signed his four days later.
He is typical of a 10-day, forever on the fringe and running out of time. He went to summer league with the Suns last season but strained his groin in a pickup game before training camp. He went to summer league with the Suns again this season but was cut six days before the opener. "Keep working," club president Lon Babby told him, "and we will try to bring you back." Dowdell is a 6'3" lefthanded point guard who can run an offense and play sticky defense, but the Suns wanted him to improve his outside shot. They summoned four guards from the D-League for a tryout on Jan. 7, and after staying up all night and flying all morning from Tulsa, Dowdell could not miss. In the same office where the Suns cut him three months earlier, they told him they were keeping him.
A 10-day does not have time to celebrate. Dowdell was the first player to the arena for shootaround on Day 1, and a security guard assumed he was with the Cavaliers, that night's opponent. Instead of a nameplate over his locker he had a strip of athletic tape with DOWDELL scrawled in black marker. He picked number 22, in part to honor former college teammate Jamon Gordon, still in Greece. The Suns were on a three-game losing streak, but they hardly considered Dowdell the answer to their problems. Coach Alvin Gentry announced he was shortening his rotation and speculated that Dowdell might sit on the bench for the entire 10 days. He was signed primarily because the Suns wanted a third point guard so Nash would not wear himself out during practice. "There's a lot of pressure because he doesn't want to go back to those eight-hour bus rides out of Tulsa," Gentry said.
As Gentry spoke, the Suns' practice court was empty except for Dowdell, running through plays and using folding chairs as screeners. "He's working on where he'll get his shots," Gentry said, acknowledging those shots may never come. Back in his room at the Sheraton that afternoon, while watching football on TV, Dowdell pondered the challenge facing all 10-days: how to make an impression without an opportunity. "I have to be the first one there every day and the last one to leave," Dowdell said. "I have to bring energy and a smiling face." Comportment matters. The Suns once released a 10-day partly because, as Gentry put it, "He wasn't a nice guy."
On the walk to the arena for his first game, Dowdell got a call from his mother. Isabelle McDonald was a high school point guard herself who once played in a state tournament while three months pregnant. She raised three boys and one girl, working days as a schoolteacher, nights as a sergeant in the Palm Beach County sheriff's office and taking classes on weekends toward her doctorate in theology. All four children earned full college basketball scholarships. She is the reason Dowdell never got a tattoo or an earring, and also the reason he never quit. "Right now," she told him, "you can't afford an off night."
A 10-day must be assertive but deferential, seizing his moment while knowing his place. When the Suns warmed up, Dowdell dribbled near half-court, pantomiming his jumper as veterans launched three-pointers. When the team huddled outside the locker room, he stood on the edge of the circle, hands in sweats. When the game began, he sat at the end of the bench, the first one rising to cheer. Early in the second quarter, backup point guard Goran Dragic bumped his left knee and hobbled off. Dowdell started to stretch. "I thought I was going in," he said. Instead, Nash finished the second quarter, Dragic returned in the third, and Dowdell applauded a comeback win over the Cavs. "He should enjoy this," said Cavs guard Alonzo Gee, who had two 10-day contracts last season with Washington. "You're in the NBA. You reached your lifelong goal. No one can take that away from you." But Dowdell could not see it that way, not yet. "I'm not going to be the guy telling people I played 10 days in the NBA," he said. "I want to make an impact."
On Day 2, the Suns flew to Denver, and Dowdell experienced his first regular-season NBA road trip. He had his own row on the charter. He ate rigatoni and kicked himself for not going with the fried chicken. When he landed, he retreated to his hotel room and watched the talking heads debate the future of Carmelo Anthony. "I can't relate," Dowdell said. Road trips are a test for every 10-day. Like any NBA player, they get a $115 per diem and entrée to nightclubs, but if they show up bleary-eyed the next morning, they can find themselves on the first plane home. "Guys will go to clubs and be seduced by that lifestyle, but word will get back to the team," says former NBA guard Elliot Perry, who had four 10-day contracts. "They don't want somebody who will be out late and mess up the locker room. This is your one chance. You need to get your rest and eat right and be at the gym early. You can't relax. Your career is riding on it."
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.