Dooling's professional career presumably came to an end after 12 seasons when the Boston Celtics announced Thursday that they had waived the 32-year-old guard.
Considering that he may have faced a tough competition for his job in training camp with first-year players Dionte Christmas and Jamar Smith, this is a gracious end for a player who entered the league as a precocious lottery pick and grew into a consummate professional, earning the nickname "Reverend" from his Celtics teammates last season.
Had anyone told the Los Angeles Clippers when they traded for Dooling on draft day in 2000 that the combo guard out of Missouri would wind up with career averages of 7.0 points and 2.2 assists per game, the Clippers probably would have considered the top-10 pick an unadulterated bust.
Dooling had teamed with future NBA player Kareem Rush to lead the Tigers to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in what would become a five-year
streak of tourney berths, and although he was undersized as a two-guard at 6-foot-3, he lacked the ballhandling ability and playmaking instincts to play point guard as a pro. An optimistic evaluation would have projected Dooling as an offensive sparkplug who could use his wiry wingspan to mess with opposing point guard on defense, provided he was paired with a stronger point guard who could defend bigger off-guards.
None of that came to fruition early for Dooling, although he appeared in 75 games off the bench as a rookie and appeared to be the ideal change-of-pace backup when the steady Andre Miller signed with the Clippers as a free agent in 2002. When his rookie deal expired in 2004, Dooling had failed to average more than 6.4 points per game in four seasons in L.A. and looked to be a waste of the No. 10 pick the Orlando Magic spent on him.
For draft picks that do not quite pan out, the nice thing about rookie contracts — both for the teams and the players — is that they eventually end. Dooling was able to latch on for one season with the Miami Heat, where he proved to be a capable reserve. That led to the most productive stretch of his career, a four-year run with the Magic and the New Jersey Nets, in which he shook the tag of a failed lottery pick and transformed into an emotional leader.
Dooling started only 10 games in three seasons in Orlando, but the qualities he displayed in backup action probably extended his career by four or five years. He consistently put up solid per-minute statistics off the bench, earning himself a career-high 26.9 minutes per game with the Nets in 2008-09.
Injuries kept Dooling from repeating that production the following season, and by the time he arrived in Boston after a one-year stint with the Milwaukee Bucks, Dooling was no longer a sixth man. Early-season injuries forced him into a minor role deep on the Celtics bench thanks to the emergence of second-year guard Avery Bradley, and Dooling struggled to find his place with the Celtics on the court. Instead he made his impact off the court — or beside it, actually, with the pseudo-craze stemming from the dance he and fellow reserve Marquis Daniels christened "Flexin'."
If things had gone differently for the Celtics against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, Dooling's speech at halftime of Game 5 of the conference semis against the Philadelphia 76ers might have been joined Cedric Maxwell's "Jump on my back, boys" or Red Auerbach's "Russell, go vomit" remarks in the pantheon of legendary Celtics quotes.
After the Celtics stormed back to win that game, the stirring speech
earned Dooling the nickname "Reverend" from Brandon Bass, bolstering
the leadership reputation Dooling had built throughout the season. Center Ryan
Hollins dubbed Dooling the captain of the bench, and head coach Doc Rivers partially credited the team's midseason turnaround to Dooling's willingness to call out stars like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo when they were slacking.
This certainly looks like the end of Dooling's playing days, but based on the respect he engendered in the latter portion of his career, Dooling should find his way back into the league in some other manner if he so desires. After 12 seasons, Dooling exits with zero All-Star appearances or significant awards, but with the admiration of his peers. That is not a bad way to go out.