Editor’s Note: On April 16, 2001, Damon Lowery sent the Wollongong Hawks to the 2001 NBL grand final series with a memorable trio of free throws against the Adelaide 36ers. To mark the anniversary, we’re reposting Liam Santamaria’s interview with Lowery, which was first published on March 20, 2014.
Damon Lowery is a legend of Australian Basketball. He hooped here for over 20 years and the free throws he hit against Adelaide in the 2001 Semi Finals will be remembered forever by those who watched them.
I first met Lowery on a flight home from China in 2006. We had both been playing hoops on a tour over there – but for different teams. I’d played against him a few times before that trip (and I had certainly watched his miraculous 2001 NBL Championship run with Wollongong) but it was on that 10-hour overnight flight from Shanghai to Melbourne – after a week of battling against the Chinese and each other – that I first had the chance to get to know him properly. And let me tell you, the man talked for 10 straight hours on that flight. Thankfully, Damon Lowery is one hell-of a story-teller and, after his many years of playing basketball, he has plenty of material to draw from.
Lowery sat down with Downtown recently for an in-depth chat about his fascinating life in and out of basketball.
Take us back to your high school days in Michigan in the early 80s. What was life like in Saginaw, Michigan?
Saginaw was affectionately called Sag-Nasty. Ain’t nothing there, man. It’s one of the poorest cities in America and every year it’s always just dead bodies. It wasn’t the kind of place where you’d think ‘I’m gonna graduate and get a job.’ I went to Buena Vista High School and our school was never a powerhouse until this one coach got there and he turned the school around. I had two years of varsity with that coach and in those two years we went to the State Championship twice.
And then you went on to play 4 years at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, Alaska. How did you end up there?
When I left high school I was extremely ordinary. Nobody recruited me – not one school recruited me. The Alaskan coach flew to California to recruit a guy named Greg Coleman – I played with Greg’s brother Steve Coleman. The coach offered Greg Coleman a scholarship but Greg told him “I ain’t goin’ to Alaska – call my brother Steve in Saginaw, he’s looking for a school. He’s trying to get out of Saginaw.” So the Alaskan coach called and our coach told him “Yeah you can have Steve – and I’ve got two other guards too if you want ‘em.”
I was working out in the gym and my coach yelled out “Hey Pee-Wee, I’ve got a school for you – it’s in Juneau, Alaska.” I said “Coach I ain’t going to Alaska.” He looked at me and said “I thought you loved basketball” and he turned his back on me and walked off.
So off I went to Alaska – me, Ricky and Steve. First time I’d ever been on a plane. Me and Ricky held hands too! We were scared to death man.
So how was it there?
It was a very small NAIA school and there weren’t many African-American people on the campus – it was my first time being in the minority. I was like ‘ok, this must be what it’s like being on the other side’. But everyone on the basketball team was black except this one white dude – one Alaskan guy. Nine black dudes, from all over America – Florida, California, Georgia and Michigan. We called it ‘rehab’. We would all sit around the dorm room and say to each other ‘how the hell did you get here?’ Everybody had some kind of bad luck story because nobody goes to Juneau, Alaska unless you’ve got nowhere else to go.
Then you had the bears to deal with. The bears were no joke, man. My teammate Steve Coleman went to take the rubbish out to the dumpster one night and a bear chased him. Steve ran to the lodge, called his mother and I didn’t see him again for, like, 8 years.
The campus security gave us a whole bunch of bear warning stuff. They said “Look, if you see a tree moving like this, run the other way because it’s a bear and if you see a little baby bear, run the other way ‘cos the mama bear ain’t far.” They made us put bells on our shoes ‘cos if bears hear noises they go the other way.
Wait, you were walking around with bells on your shoes?
I didn’t do it but I was like ‘I hear what you’re saying.’
They also said don’t climb a tree – the bears can do that – and if a bear is chasing you, zigzag ‘cos they can’t change directions.
Is that where you got your herky-jerky game from?
[Laughs] I tell you what, he was gonna have to be the Carl Lewis of bears to catch me.
So what next? After you finished up in Alaska?
Well, obviously I didn’t want to retire – I was 21! The NBA wasn’t an option. The CBA was just garbage and that really wasn’t an option. I got drafted into a 6’4”-and-under league that Bob Cousy had started but it went broke just before we started playing.
Then… I bumped into a dude I used to play against, Steve Williams from Lewis-Clark State, and I asked him what he was up to. He said “I’m playing ball in Australia.” I said “Austria?” He said “Nah, Australia. Matter of fact, you should go to my team, Shoalhaven, ‘cos I’m not going back – I’m going to another team. I’m going to Wagga Wagga.” I was like “Alright man, quit fucking with me. There’s no team called Wagga Wagga.”
Anyway, he gave me the number for the Shoalhaven coach, Warwick Cann, and I had my college coach give him a call. My coach was trying to describe me and Warwick asked him “Does Damon drink?” My coach said “…ah…only on special occasions” and Warwick said “Good because I don’t trust a man that don’t have a beer.” I was like ‘what the fuck is this place I’m going to?’
How long did you stay at Shoalhaven?
Two years. Won the championship. My buddy Darnell, we call him Troop, was gonna come with me but he got arrested the day before at the airport, court issues. As soon as he went to put one foot out of the car, the cops come over and arrested him. So I get on a plane arrive in Sydney and Warwick says “where’s Darnell?” I said his mother got sick so he couldn’t make it. Warwick ended up bringing out Dave Biwer instead, who I had played against in Washington.
It’s amazing how things work out…. you and Biwer both ended up coming out and making a life here. So was Ballarat next?
Nope, I got the sack from Shoalhaven after the second year. So I go back to Juneau and I’m working in the racquet ball club living with my buddy, sleeping on the couch. Warwick’s last words to me were ‘I’ll get you back to Australia’, so I was waiting for a phone call. Warwick at this stage was the senior coach for the Bendigo Braves in the SEABL. So Warwick’s at Bendigo stadium watching a junior tournament and there’s a coach behind him who says “my import just went back to Saint Louis… I need a guard” and Warwick turns round and says “I got the guy”. The phone rings a little while later and Owen Hughan offered me the job at Horsham. It was January 16th because the Gulf War had just broken out and they had reinstituted the draft. Some of my mates from Juneau were going to war, and I’m freakin out, I says, “the draft, what the fuck, what’s all this about? The draft? I can’t to go to war, I got to go to Horsham.” Now what if Warwick Cann wasn’t sitting there that day? What if Owen Hughan wasn’t there that day? What if they had both been there but had been sitting in different parts of the stands? I mean you can’t make this stuff up!
I read somewhere that it was you, the other import and seven or eight footy guys at Horsham, am I right?
Yeah they all played football. I came up trying to give everybody the ball and Owen Hughan pulls me over and says “you don’t need to lead the league in assists, you need to keep hold of the ball.” All these guys, they played footy, they were all smoking in the locker room. I was like “what the fuck is this? This is supposed to be basketball.” They didn’t care, they weren’t getting paid like an import.
The first game I had 32. The next week I went for 42. Then 52. Then 62. This little kid asked me, “what are you going to do next week? “ I said “I guess I’m gonna go for 72.” Which I did. [laughs]
So how long did you stay in Horsham?
Only one year in Horsham, won the championship and then I went to Mildura and then, after a couple of years, I landed at Altona. We were playing VBA on a Wednesday and that was it. We were playing Ballarat and Eric Cooks broke his hand and I get a phone call from Brendan Joyce asking if I could fill in for Cookie and play for Ballarat. Now, I didn’t know where Ballarat was but I went for it anyway. When Cookie came back he had become a naturalised Australian so Brendan kept me. We ran the table, sixteen straight and won the Championship. I re-signed and stayed there for quite a while.
That phone call from Brendan Joyce, that ended up coming around full circle later on. Did he coach you the whole time at Ballarat?
Two years. We won the championship again the following year but then Brendan got the job at Illawarra Hawks and he took Mat Campbell with him. Then I got the sack in ’99. A new coach came in, Mark Leader, sacked me. I got picked up by Kilsyth so now I’m living in Ballarat so I’ve got to drive the hour and a half to Kilsyth.
That was when I first encountered you, you wouldn’t remember, but it was a VBA grand final at MSAC show court, Kilsyth v Melbourne Tigers. I was like seventeen and Al Westover gave me a couple of minutes and you just went, here we go, you just licked your lips.
I remember that game, I got the stat sheet from that game, Mark Landell gave it to me; I’ll have to go and have a look.
If you’ve got the play by play you would see Santamaria shooting foul, Lowery draws the foul, Santamaria shooting foul, Lowery draws the foul. The shot fakes, the step throughs…. You must’ve had 40 that night.
I had 45. [laughs] You know that was the last VBA grand final. Nobody knew it was going to be the last one. I gotta go find that stat sheet, dig that up, that’s good trivia right there.
So you get the call up to go to Wollongong the next year
Brendan Joyce had said to me “hey man, if I’ve still got a job here, when you’re naturalised I could bring you in.” I was an Australian, I had permanent residency, so then I applied for citizenship. I applied in 97 but I had to wait three years before I could play in Australia. That’s the rule I could have been prime minister before I could play. Brendan said “I got a guy who can fill in till you get your papers next year, Darren Perry.” Darren at that stage, he wasn’t NBL Darren Perry; he was playing SEABL for Knox, still very handy… DP played in ‘99 and in 2000 is when I came in.
Let’s talk about that season at Wollongong, you guys had a pretty legit bench unit; you, Matt Shanahan, Luke Doherty, Matt Garrison and Grant Kruger.
Matt Garrison was the import because Melvin Thomas was naturalised, Garrison was high energy, high, high energy and had a good attitude coming off the bench. That was the good thing about us, we didn’t have that jealousy. You know. Just a good unit, no superstar, our superstar was Melvin but he only averaged fourteen that year. Axel Dench had just come from college. We just had a good group of dudes.
You should have been Co-Rookie of the year with Dench in ‘01. A 32 year old rookie – that’s a good story right there.
You know what, the captains and the coaches all voted and I wasn’t very popular with the captains of the other teams. I called Ricky Grace a koala, he didn’t like that. Just the way I played… getting up and in… Rucker, Heal, Maher… they hated me.
Time to talk about those free throws. It’s been 13 years…. was it a foul?
Darnell Mee karate chopped me. To this day he won’t admit it, swears it was all ball. I popped my shoulder, my AC joint, out against Perth late in the year. It popped out all year. If I stuck my arm out and something hit it, it would pop out again and it would be numb. So when he chopped me, my arm went back and my shoulder went out. I said “god damn it, I’ve got to shoot free throws and I can’t feel my fuckin arm.” I’m on the ground and I say come on shoulder, I’d done it maybe five times so I knew it would come good, it would take a while but it was the end of the game, so we got to go to the bench. I was like phew, thank god, because if I had to get up and shoot right then, I couldn’t have done it.
So Brendan calls the time out….
I don’t even think it was a time out, because there was no time left. That was on the buzzer.
You see that’s the controversial thing, my understanding is that Brendan called the time out which I found a bit strange because why would you call a time out and make your own guy nervous? But now it makes sense if he knows you have your shoulder issue.
Well… he didn’t know the extent of that, because I didn’t tell him. He wouldn’t have played me.
Ok, but how is there no time left? If there’s enough time for you to get fouled…………..
ON THE BUZZER. [laughs] Shot goes eeeeeeee They called a foul after.
It’s pretty crucial because….
Yeah… they couldn’t line up.
And they couldn’t knock it off.
If they had of lined up and David Stiff was out there he’s knocking them off. But, you know what? If he lined up I would have swished ‘em. I just hit the rim for theatrical purposes.
Ha ha. It was like the end of Teen Wolf. There’s one guy standing at the foul line, no one’s lining up and, you know, those shots are never supposed to swish.
Yeah it’s got to roll.
Those free throws had no right going in Damon, not the last one anyway.
Nope, definitely not the last one.
The first one hit the front rim and it got the shooter’s roll. But the last one… that just sat up there. You were on the floor by the time it went through the net.
I missed a lot of one & ones in high school. This one particular game I missed about three or four crucial one & ones. We ended up winning the game – we beat this team in Flint Michigan that we had no reason to beat – and we were all celebrating and my high school coach walked right up to me and said “HEY, DID YOU CHOKE?” I said, “No coach I didn’t choke.” “YES YOU DID, DON’T LIE TO ME BOY, YOU CHOKED OUT THERE.” He made me cry. He says “how can you be choking when there’s kids your age in Africa starving to death and there are kids in Yugoslavia with their AK47s protecting their village and here you are in your Nikes and you’re choking out there. Don’t you ever choke again.” He made me apologise to my teammates and tell them I would never choke again.
I had told Brendan Joyce this story and he had remembered it and I come to the huddle and Brendan goes, “remember your high school coach.”
I went out there thinking this is a great stage, I’m loving this, not an ounce of nerves. I made the first one and I thought ‘shit, I nearly missed that one’. After the second one went in and it was tied up I was thinking ‘how fuckin good is this I can win the game’. I turn around and look at my wife, she’s sitting up there with my father-in-law, mother-in-law, my daughter, my littlest baby, I went to give Lisa a little like, how cool is this, but she wasn’t even looking.
I turned around and as soon as I let it go I knew it was short. I go ‘oh no, shit’ and then there was pandemonium.
Amazing. Hey let’s talk about life after pro-hoops. How did you get involved with VACCA (Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency)? Did Dave Simmons bring you in?
He did. I was working in a warehouse in Campbellfield. I finished playing and I was back in Melbourne and I had to get a job. I remember I was standing in the Centrelink queue and I sent Mat Campbell and Glen Saville a text message saying ‘I played 151 NBL games… got a championship… and don’t nobody in here give a fuck.’ I’m standing there in that queue thinking ‘geez it’s real out there.’ Then I saw Dave Simmons at Eltham stadium and I asked him what he was doing. He said he was working for VACCA [Victorian Aboriginal Childcare Agency] and that they were hiring.
You must’ve seen and dealt with some serious situations in that job.
The hardest of hard. If you’re walking down Swanston Street you might see a homeless dude but you ain’t gonna see this kind of stuff. I mean, grotesque poverty. Every client we had was grotesquely poor. They all lived in housing commission flats… domestic violence, mental health issues, physical violence, rape, incarcerated relatives… ain’t nothing good, nothing good. And we walk in there and try and put a family back together. The hardest of hard man. I learn a lot about respect.
Do you think your experiences growing up in Saginaw, which you described earlier as being one of the poorest places in America, helped you with your VACCA work?
Absolutely, I had reference points all over the place. The Aboriginal people were very untrusting of the government and I was working for a government agency. I’m not aboriginal so they would look at me and say “what would you know about what we go through?” But I’ve got some stories that bought me some credibility. I just had to go in and do the best I could.
How long did you work for VACCA?
Hardest two years?
Yep. Hardest two years. I used to sit in the car some days before I walked in and say to myself ‘come on man, you can do this.’ Then I worked in Resicare [Residential Care Service], on the weekends. That was like a prison for those kids. Those kids are just hard-core man. I left there to go to Broadmeadows and work in the homeless unit and that was even worse. Eventually it was taking a toll and I didn’t want to keep doing it.
So tell us about what you’re doing here with the Dandenong Basketball Association?
I’m the Operations Manager and Director of Coaching. I work a little bit with the WNBL team – as operations manager I have to take care of contracts, accommodation, promotions, all that behind the scenes stuff that I took for granted when I was playing. I’m also doing some individuals with the guards as well.
Do you miss playing ball?
Now I’m here I don’t even miss it. I thought retirement was gonna be hard but it’s not. I guess I could still physically play. I still want to come back and just hit a bucket, just to see the look on the dude’s face and see what it feels like to hit one more bucket and then that’s it.
It’s been a pleasure chatting, mate – thanks for sitting down with us.