Ex-UAS star leads team to Aussie title

Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2001

Damon Lowery said he hasn't had many options when it has come to basketball.

Still, the former University of Alaska Southeast star has been able to turn his limited options into a journey that's taken him from his boyhood home of Saginaw, Mich., to Juneau and now to the pinnacle of basketball in Australia.

On April 29, Lowery, a 5-foot-11 1/2 reserve point guard, helped lead the Wollongong Hawks to the championship of the Australian National Basketball League, the top league in Australia. Wollongong is a steel town of about 100,000 people about an hour's drive from Sydney.

Lowery, who played for the UAS Humpback Whales from 1985-89, kicked around the lower basketball leagues in Australia for 11 years before finally getting his chance in Australia's top league as a 33-year-old rookie for a team that had never gotten beyond the first round of the playoffs in the league's 23-year history.

"When I finished at UAS, I was still wanting to play ball," said Lowery, who started at UAS when it was known as UA Juneau and it was his only college scholarship offer. "Australia was the only place I knew to go where I couold get paid for playing ball. As soon as the coach asked me, 'Do you want to come,' I was packed and ready to go. I haven't been one with a lot of options. One option or none, that's been the story of my life."

This season, Lowery finished second in the NBL's rookie of the year vote, to teammate Axel Dench, a center who attended Gonzaga University. During the regular season, Lowery hit the game-winning shots in five different games for fourth-seeded Wollongong. He also hit a game-winner in the quarterfinals against top-seeded Perth, said Guy Tompkins, a former Juneau resident who now lives in Sydney.

And in the decisive game of the three-game semifinal series against the Adelaide 36ers, Lowery hit three of the ugliest free throws in Australian basketball history with no time remaining on the clock to give the Hawks a one-point 109-108 victory. Lowery said his first free throw bounced off the front of the rim, then rolled up and in. His second free throw hit the back and then the front of the rim. And his final free throw bounced five times before going through the basket.

"They defied all the laws of physics," Lowery said.

"I mumbled to my wife that Damon had never liked shooting free throws, but that he had plenty of guts and always delivered in the clutch," said Tompkins, who played against Lowery in both Juneau and Australia and attended several of Lowery's games this season. "He did (make the free throws), and the stadium erupted."

In the NBL's Grand Final series against the Townsville Crocodiles, Wollongong won the first game 104-101 as Lowery scored five points, made two steals and added a steal. In the second game, the Crocs claimed a 114-97 victory despite Lowery's 25 points, seven assists and three steals off the bench. In the championship game, won by Wollongong 97-94, Lowery hit another pair of wobbly free throws that bounced around the rim with 1 minute, 29 seconds left, then hit one of two free throws with 2.7 seconds left. Lowery finished with 13 points, four rebounds and two assists in the title game.

"The place has been going nuts," said Lowery, who is now a naturalized Australian citizen. "The team had never got beyond the first round of the playoffs before. I haven't been able to walk the streets in Wollongong. I can't pay for a drink, or buy my own food at McDonald's. People see me and they can't believe it. A radio station actually gave away my game socks and jock, and my game jersey was auctioned off for $5,000 (Australian, about $2,600 U.S.)."

Lowery has been in Australia since June 1989, other than a brief return to Juneau in 1991 where he said he was the best basketball-playing janiter the Juneau Racquet Club has ever seen. He played in some of Australia's lowest divisions of basketball (in the Australian Basketball Association and the Continental Basketball Association), including one team where averaged 48 points a game. That team, the Horsham Hornets, had two American import basketball players and eight football players, and Lowery said the football players kept throwing him the ball and telling him to shoot.

"I shot more than Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant put together," said Lowery, who married one of Horsham's cheerleaders, Leesa Arnott-Lowery. He and his wife have two daughters, Isis and Cleopatra.

Lowery's route to Alaska was almost as improbable as Wollongong's route to the NBL title. Lowery said former UAS coach Clair Markey was in California on a recruiting trip when he happened to see a player he liked by the name of Greg Coleman. Lowery said Markey asked Coleman if he wanted to play for the Humpback Whales, and was told "No." But Coleman said he had a brother back in Saginaw who was about to graduate from high school, and Steve Coleman might be interested in playing for Juneau.

Markey called Steve Coleman's high school coach, who also recommended Lowery. When Lowery accepted the offer, he decided two players from Saginaw weren't enough, so he got Markey to offer a scholarship to Ricky Beachum. The next year, Lowery said he persuaded Markey to recruit two more players from Saginaw, Eric Henderson and Eddie Rogers, giving the Humpback Whales five players from the Michigan town.

"I decided I'm not going to be the only one up there," Lowery said. "I was recruiting. The guy (Markey) didn't see any of us play, but we had some players."

"I remember Steve Coleman being chased to the Dumpster by a bear, and never coming back," Lowery said of his UAS experience. "But it was the best time. I was 21, on my own and playing basketball."

Charles Bingham can be reached at cbingham@juneauempire.com.



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