Still Chasing the Dream

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday.

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Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli

It was the best feeling, the finest 31 minutes of his life. After playing in obscurity in Japan and Korea, after toiling anonymously in the Philippines and Dominican Republic, after fighting for years to get noticed in the NBA’s Development League, Eric Dawson caught a break.

The Spurs needed a big body. Injuries in the low post had created a void. Dawson got the call. After watching one game from the bench, Dawson, 6-9, 250, received a heads-up from Gregg Popovich before a road game against Portland in February 2012.

“Get ready,” Pop said. “You’re gonna play.”

Brief instruction followed. A few words stand out. Don’t worry, Pop said, if you throw up an airball. Just play hard.

“It’s funny he would say that,” Dawson recalls. “Because my first shot was an airball.”

In the aftermath of a 40-point defeat defeat, Dawson’s stat line glimmered: nine points and six rebounds in 31 minutes and 47 seconds. It was a memorable NBA debut, one that plays, on certain occasions in one man’s head, like an endless loop of video.

“It replays in my mind,” Dawson says, “every time I step on a court.”

One year and nine months later, memories from that game -- and others that followed with the Spurs -- stoke his desire for another NBA call-up. Dawson is 29-years-old now, more than a decade removed from his days at Sam Houston High School, but remains youthfully upbeat.

“My age doesn’t concern me,” he says. “I feel younger than ever. I’m going to keep grinding and, hopefully, breakthrough and stick.”

He begins his sixth season with the Austin Toros, who open on the road Nov. 22 against Santa Cruz. The last time Dawson suited up for the Toros, in April 2012, they won the D-League championship. Dawson scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against the Los Angeles D-Fenders in the title game, and earned the League’s Impact Player of the Year award.

Impact? Dawson suffered a concussion 35 seconds into Game 1 of the D-League finals and did not return. The Toros lost. A day before Game 3, with the series tied 1-1, Dawson flew to Los Angeles. He recorded a double-double and celebrated.

“A great feeling,” he says.

Since then, he’s played for the Spurs Summer League team in 2012, once scoring 12 points and grabbing 13 rebounds against Atlanta. Dawson also played for the Meralco Bolts in the Philippines and for Metros de Santiago in the Dominican Republic. He received a tryout with Atlanta in September, but the Hawks cut him in late October.

“That was disappointing but I have to look at it another way,” he says. “I could have been the first player let go. Instead, I was the last to go. That says a lot about me as a person.”

When you chase a dream as Dawson does, when you travel the world and play in so many countries, you’re bound to stumble unexpectedly into familiar faces. Not long ago, Dawson was playing with 6-foot-6 swingman Courtney Fells in the semifinals of a league in the Dominican Republic. Then Dawson showed up in Austin and, lo, there was Fells, sharing the same locker room.

“He helped me in the Dominican and I helped him,” Dawson says. “Hopefully, that will carry over to the D-League.”

The Game is never far from his mind. Dawson could be in street clothes and passing through a gym and the video loop will begin. There he is, on Feb. 21, 2012, defending All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge. There he is, missing four of his first five shots -- but making all three he took in the fourth period.

Another memory from another venue appears in the loop. Dawson’s high school coach, Wayne Dickey, attended his first Spurs game in San Antonio. Afterward, as the two met and exchanged pleasantries, a young boy approached and asked for Dawson’s John Hancock.

“That made coach Dickey’s day to see me give a kid an autograph,” Dawson says. “I will never forget that.”

One day, Dawson will tell his children about his first NBA game, about his first autograph request. He will give voice to the video that plays on and on. But he wants more material to share, more memories to create. So he returns to the gym, moving images in his head, and continues a long hard climb.