SPOKANE – The Gonzaga men’s basketball team was having a pregame meal a few years back, and on a television screen, up popped a clip of the venerated Utah Jazz heroes, John Stockton and Karl Malone.
“Think me and you could beat Malone and my dad in a 2-on-2 game right now?” David Stockton asked his roommate, Sam Dower Jr.
Overhearing the conversation was Leon Rice, then a Zags assistant.
“I don’t care if they’re 50,” Rice hooted. “They’d kick your butts right now!”
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A few years later, it’s still true that nobody has compared Sam Dower Jr., the fifth-year Gonzaga senior forward, to Karl Malone, the truculent old Jazz warhorse. Malone was all sinew and sneer, while Dower’s chief trait on the floor is the same as the one reported by Rice after he scouted him in high school.
“His ball,” Rice said simply then, “just goes in.”
Still does. Perhaps the only thing as mellifluous to Dower, an avid fan of musical styles like rhythm and blues, is the note of ball splashing net.
He leads the Zags in scoring with 15 points a game, and if he’ll never be known as a guy whose game is muscling for rebounds, he’s also the team leader there at 7.1 with eight double-doubles. Dower will be a key figure Friday in the NCAA tournament against an Oklahoma State team not noted for its rebounding.
That was Dower wearing an ear-to-ear grin last week as MVP of the West Coast Conference tournament, and his coach, Mark Few, lauding his patience while playing behind future pros Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk.
But it wasn’t always forbearance without frustration. Before the season, Dower admitted to wondering when his time would come as his opportunity at Gonzaga grew shorter.
“I just needed to take when I got into the gym to heart,” he said recently, talking about the offseason, “rather than just going through the motions. Getting shots up — anybody can do that. You need to go through it at game speed and really embrace what you’re doing.”
Speaking of embracing, it’s a matter of debate whether the left-handed Dower is a convert to rebounding, or if he just regards it as a necessary evil. He seems born to release a basketball, not retrieve it.
“I still watch it to this day,” says Rice. “I swear, sometimes he’s not even looking at the hoop.”
Now five years into the program, Dower has passed the statute of limitations on teaching old dogs new tricks. The coaches used to ride him about rebounding, but mostly now, they just take him at face value.
“God bless him, he’s got a pulse rate of about 30,” said Few. “We try to call his number and direct things to him, but it doesn’t happen very often. He just kind of falls into stuff. He plays in the flow. Scoring comes easy to him.”
Kind of like life. You might think of Dower in the same way you recall Sam Perkins, the former Sonic — loose, chill, imperturbable. If his teammates hear somebody warbling down the hall, they know it’s Dower.
“Sam’s hilarious to be around,” says teammate Kevin Pangos. “Every lyric to every song, he probably knows.”
He grew up listening to his dad’s playlist — Temptations, O’Jays — and didn’t like the stuff. Now he’s come around to it, along with a lot of other forms.
Dower came from outside Minneapolis, picking Gonzaga over Marquette, Minnesota, California and George Mason.
“I visited other places, but I don’t think they were as cohesive a group as they were here,” he says. “They (others) were in just like for basketball. Here, we get business done on the basketball court, but we’re also friends outside of basketball. I want my teammates to be my friends as well.”
His senior season got sidetracked Dec. 21 at Kansas State when he took a hard fall on his hip on a dunk. His initial fears that something was broken were unfounded, but he was a decrepit figure going home for Christmas.
Dower sat out three games. When he came back, guards Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. were also dogged by injury, so for a long stretch of the conference season, Dower has been the most reliable offensive option.
Now he can look back favorably at last season, when his minutes and his offense dropped slightly while the team surged to a No. 1 national ranking.
“I didn’t bring my teammates down, by me not playing,” he says. “I tried to encourage them to do what they needed to do, rather than me being mopey. That stuff can be contagious and affect the team.”
Similarly, there’s little doubt this year of Dower’s impact, both in points and persona.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com