Sure, a straight line might be the shortest distance between two points, but more often than not, the path to success includes more than a few twists, turns and unexpected detours.
When Gavin Dowling graduated from Greenwood, he likely anticipated spending four consecutive years at Anderson University, playing basketball and working toward his degree and a future in coaching. Life, though, has a way of altering best-laid plans.
Dowling’s high school basketball career was cut short by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic; the Woodmen won a sectional title in 2020 but never got to play in the regional. Similarly, his freshman year at Anderson was riddled with potholes in the form of quarantines, social restrictions and more.
Though he’d carved out a role for himself right away on the court, starting all 14 of the Ravens’ games as a freshman, the overall day-to-day routine was anything but routine — and it took its toll.
“I was struggling a lot my freshman year,” Dowling said. “Obviously COVID wasn’t an easy year for anybody. It definitely wasn’t ideal for a freshman year. And then I also dealt with the passing of a couple of friends that second semester, so I had a really hard time. Grades slipped, everything was kind of going downhill. Basketball was kind of the only thing that was keeping me afloat that year.”
Dowling decided to take a year off from school to focus on his mental well-being. Back at home in Johnson County, he started taking part in some open-gym runs — and that’s when a new opportunity arose. Adrian Moss had just taken over as the new varsity coach at Franklin, and Dowling wound up landing a spot on his staff as a varsity and JV assistant. Eventually, he also took over as the head coach for the Grizzly Cubs’ freshman team.
Though not much older than the players under his tutelage, Dowling — the Daily Journal’s Player of the Year as a Greenwood senior — had his ways of commanding respect.
“There were a couple of guys that weren’t 100% sure who I was, and I pulled up a couple of clips,” Dowling recalled. “I was like, ‘Hey, the last time I played Franklin we won by almost 30 and I had one of the best games of my high school career — so let’s ease up on the jokes, guys.’”
After helping Moss and the Grizzly Cubs claim a sectional championship last winter, Dowling returned to Anderson, where he’s majoring in sports and recreational leadership with a minor in athletic coaching. On the hardwood, he went into Thursday night’s game at Bluffton averaging 6.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists as the starting center for the Ravens, who sat atop the HCAC standings with a 9-1 conference mark.
Dowling isn’t putting up huge offensive numbers, but for a team that scores almost 78 points per game, he hasn’t had to. He’s content to contribute where he can on that end while also serving as the anchor of what has become a pretty effective zone defense.
“On the defensive end, we weren’t really sure what our identity was,” Dowling said. “We’ve worked a lot of hours on making this zone what it is, and you can kind of tell when we finally felt comfortable with that zone, we went on our win streak.”
When Dowling’s playing days come to an end, he’d love to be able to keep basketball in his life. He points to former Anderson player Micah Smith, who’s now an assistant athletic trainer with the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, as proof that there is a path forward from the Division III ranks to all levels of the sport.
He’s taking small steps down that path all the time, even if it’s something as simple as staying behind after practice to pick the coaches’ brains about their approach.
Carter Collins, currently the Ravens’ interim head coach after five seasons as an assistant, definitely sees a future for Dowling on a bench somewhere.
“He’s definitely one of the highest basketball IQ players that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Collins said. “He’s for sure one of the smartest in terms of recognizing what’s going on on the court, what’s going well and what needs to change.”
“I’ve always thought of the game from a coach’s perspective,” Dowling added. “I’m obviously not the most gifted athlete, so I think of the game mentally a lot and it just clicks with me.”
Dowling’s eyes remain focused on that end destination — regardless of what the road there ends up looking like.