After the formalities—after he slips on the "CUT THE NET" T-shirt, after he gathers with his teammates for the trophy presentation on the dais, after he snips a section of the net and strings it around his hat—PJ Dozier sets off on his own path.
He isn't lost, but he doesn't know exactly where he’s going. First, he finds a teammate holding the East Regional trophy—which South Carolina had earned by defeating No. 10 seed Marquette, No. 2 Duke, No. 3 Baylor and finally, on this Sunday afternoon, No. 4 Florida, giving the school its first Final Four berth—and pulls it into his chest.
"Oh yeah," he says. "I'll hold on to this for a while." Then he lets a few fans find him, lowering his shoulders to slip into the camera frame for their selfies or throwing up four fingers for their Snapchat stories.
Then, as if he's just remembered something he'd forgotten in another room, he 180s on the court and cuts through the maze toward the crowd.
He high-fives his way through the fans standing courtside, slips between security guards at the bottom of the lower bowl and scales chairbacks till he reaches his destination: his family. Standing tall above the nearly dozen grandparents, parents, siblings and cousins who made the trip is Perry Dozier Sr., a former South Carolina forward and PJ's father. Without a word, they embrace. And as PJ descends again toward the court, Perry yells, "I'm floating!"
As PJ makes his way at last toward the locker room, he finally finds the words to fit his feelings. "I'm blessed," he says. "I'm living right now what every kid dreams about: playing for your hometown team and taking them further than they've ever been."
About 30 years before South Carolina signed PJ Dozier to its class of 2015, the Gamecocks were hoping to secure the services of high school stars Perry and Terry Dozier in the class of 1985. To that end, then-Gamecocks coach Bill E. Foster shipped a nearly 10x10 poster to the twin boys' home in Baltimore. It read, "SOUTH CAROLINA WANTS PERRY AND TERRY," and it was co-signed, a Baltimore Sun story notes, by seemingly "half the state."
Perry, who is 6'10", and Terry, a 6'9" McDonald's All-American, were nicknamed the Twin Towers, and they did eventually sign with South Carolina. Although injuries limited Perry to 2.5 points per game through three seasons, Terry averaged 13.9 points through four years and even played on a South Carolina team that advanced to the NCAA tournament as a senior, losing to N.C. State in the first round. After school, Terry went on to play part of a season with the NBA's Charlotte Hornets and then for several years overseas, and Perry set down roots in South Carolina.
After having two girls, Asia and Amelia, Perry and his wife, Theresa, welcomed PJ to the world in 1996. Years before the internet began giving birth to an endless succession of five-year-old basketball phenoms, PJ became just that. In grainy video footage, five-year-old PJ can be seen crossing over and stealing from seven-year-olds and sinking layups with both hands.
To understand how serious basketball instruction was in the Dozier household, consider this: That footage wasn't shot so it could be uploaded to YouTube, which was still years away from launch. It was shot so that Terry, the uncle-slash-trainer, and Perry, the father-slash-coach, could review it with PJ.
Before PJ was studying multiplication tables, he was studying tape.
Perry would coach PJ in rec leagues and on the AAU circuit until sixth grade, and Terry would train him until high school. They built PJ's game from the fundamentals up, starting with ball-handling and footwork. Although they figured PJ would be tall, they didn't want him pigeonholed as a big man, so Perry would fudge PJ's age and play him with boys one or two years older.
"With the way the game was changing, you were going to need ball skills," Perry says. "And when you play with older kids, you get tougher."
By March 2009, a month after he had been surrounded by the NBA's best while playing in the junior national game at NBA All-Star Weekend in Phoenix, PJ was named the best sixth-grader in the country by Hoop Scoop. The ranking put his name in a New York Times news brief, and his skyrocketing hoops career was chronicled in a Sunday feature in South Carolina's The State. "I see my basketball talent as a gift from God," 12-year-old PJ told the newspaper, "and you can't just let God's gift sit there."
What neither Hoop Scoop nor the two newspapers nor any of his many opponents knew was that PJ had torn his right anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments the previous year during a tournament in Charlotte. Although doctors repaired his MCL, they advised Perry to put off his son's ACL surgery for fear that it could potentially stunt his growth. And so as PJ grew from a 5'6", No. 1-ranked sixth-grader to a 6'4", consensus top-25 sophomore playing for his father at Spring Valley High, he did so with only one functional ACL.
Although the eventual surgery sidelined him for his junior season in high school, he recovered in time to become a McDonald's All-American and a top recruiting target for prestigious programs such as North Carolina, Michigan, Louisville, Georgetown and, of course, South Carolina.
Even though PJ had grown up going to Gamecocks games, his commitment was far from guaranteed. He had seen the school's fanbase grow, but he remembered the nearly empty arena of his childhood. Even though his sister Asia was a captain on what would become a women's Final Four squad at South Carolina, he wasn't sure the men's team would soon make a similar breakthrough.
Part of what eventually sold him was Frank Martin, who had been introduced in 2012 but whose head coaching record was 28-38 through two seasons. Martin made no promises about wins and losses. He focused instead on the smallest details of development, just like PJ's uncle and father had done.
"Some people were saying that we were pressuring him to go out of state," Perry says, "but nothing could be farther from the truth. We wanted him to go where he'd fit, where he'd be developed. And of course as a parent, you want your child close to home."
Or, as Asia puts it, "South Carolina always had his heart, but they had to earn his commitment."
Although Martin never made PJ a poster, he did take advantage of that proximity: He or a staff member attended almost every one of PJ's high school or AAU games. It was the same full-court press that had helped them land South Carolina's top prospect in the class of 2013, Sindarius Thornwell.
On Nov. 12, 2014, the first day of the early signing period, PJ held a press conference at his high school and slipped on a Gamecocks hat. When Martin heard the news, he tweeted: "I am so proud to welcome [PJ Dozier] 2 the family. Unbelievable young man that will wear the Garnet and Black proudly!!! Let's goooooookk."
One of the first replies read: "What a great day, coach! Watch out SEC! The Gamecocks are on the way up!"
If not for Asia, PJ might have never played for the Gamecocks. Although his father and uncle were always his on-court counsel, Asia taught him the intangibles. Three years his senior, she'd challenge him to driveway duels that would sometimes last hours and almost always end in tears.
"I wasn't going to let him grow up soft just because he didn't have a big brother," Asia says. "So I made sure I was big sister and big brother."
That competition extended well beyond the basketball court. In fact, the most contentious Dozier family activity was often bowling night, which would happen one or two times a month at the Royal Z Lanes near their home in Spring Valley. Perry, Terry and their mother, Paula, had all spent time as semi-professional bowlers. Even Grandma wasn't above trash talking. "I can't say exactly what would be said when we went bowling," says PJ, whose personal best is 287, "but those nights were legendary."
As he transitioned to college, PJ continued to lean on family. Asia's dorm suite, which was almost identical to his and two floors above it, became his second home. Asia would often return from practice to find PJ napping in her bed. They'd buy groceries together, and then he'd beg her to cook dinner for him. He'd bargain by saying he'd do the dishes afterward, but Asia rarely held her baby brother to that promise.
On the court, PJ was battling the kind of outsized expectations that get placed on every 5-star prospect. Although he started 28 of the Gamecocks' 34 games, he averaged just 6.7 points and 3.0 rebounds in 19 minutes a night. Most troubling were his advanced stats, which, according to kenpom.com, showed a player who used nearly 27 percent of his team's possessions with an abysmal offensive rating of 78.9.
Although South Carolina started the season 15-0, it was clear Martin hadn't found the right fit for his star freshman. "I've got to figure him out as a player," he told reporters after a January win over Vanderbilt. "That's the biggest adjustment anyone has to make. I've got to figure out what he's real good at, and he's got to figure out that he's got to be a little more aggressive. He's too passive."
The Gamecocks would limp to a 9-7 finish, lose in the first round of the SEC tournament to Georgia and barely miss out on the Big Dance. The snub left a bad taste in everyone's mouth.
For Dozier, that meant rededicating himself to training in the offseason. Through South Carolina's legendary strength and conditioning program, he estimates he put on about 15 pounds of muscle. He also accepted a secondary scoring role, averaging 13.8 points behind Thornwell (21.6 PPG), who would become the SEC Player of the Year.
But for the second season in a row, South Carolina struggled in the stretch run. Bookended by a quadruple-overtime loss to Alabama and a first-round exit from the SEC tournament at the hands of the same Crimson Tide, South Carolina finished the season 3-6. After that SEC tournament loss, Thornwell erupted in the postgame locker room. "I was pissed," he remembers. He called out players specifically, asking them if they wanted to keep playing or not.
Martin reminded his team of a metaphor he'd used all season, of tug of war. "If one person on one side lets go of the rope, it's bad," he told reporters. "I don't care how hard it is. You can't let go of the rope or your team's going to lose. So we started saying, 'We're in a difficult moment right now. Hold on to that rope. Don't let that rope go. I don't care how hard it gets—don't let that rope go.'" He also asked them a simple question: "Why not us?"
After breezing by Marquette in the first round of this year's NCAA tournament, South Carolina has strung together the most impressive run of any team in the field. Dozier has more than done his part, averaging 15.3 points in the tourney and being named to the All-East Regional team. Although he'd dropped off most mock drafts, his recent performances have inspired scouts to take a fresh peek at a player who has always looked the part of a future NBA All-Star but hadn't put it all together prior to this tournament.
For Dozier, the most enthralling thing about this run hasn't been that NBA scouts are watching. It has been seeing how fervently Gamecocks fans have followed their team. "I was coming to South Carolina games when almost no one was watching," he says. "Everyone is watching us now."
As the Gamecocks' bus idles in the bowels of Madison Square Garden, Perry Dozier and his family brave the 41-degree New York day to see PJ one more time. Well, most of his family—Asia and an aunt excuse themselves and head to a Kmart across the street to wait in the warmth. "My hands are cold," Perry says, "but I'd stand out here all day to see my boy."
When PJ finally emerges, he is wearing his South Carolina sweats, a beige Steph Curry backpack and a bright smile. He poses for more photos with fans and then basks in the afterglow of another win with his family. He jokes with Asia that when reporters were asking him questions in the locker room, he would twirl the piece of the net secured to his hat to show it off.
When the buzzer sounded in the arena, Asia had a flashback to her own Final Four run. Now she hopes out loud that he will make it a game further than her Gamecocks did.
After a final family photo—and a brief interruption from a pair of college-aged women wearing South Carolina jerseys who demanded a photo with PJ by yelling, "Party Juice! Party Juice!"—PJ gives his father a fist bump. "See you in Phoenix!" several fans yell. PJ turns toward the bus and strides away. He knows exactly where he's going next.
David Gardner is a staff writer for B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: @byDavidGardner.