Tuesday February 17th, 2015

AUBURN, Ala.—Cinmeon Bowers remembers the day he almost died.

“Feb. 1,” Bowers said, sitting in a folding chair in the ground-floor media room of Auburn Arena. The Tigers’ stocky 6’7’’ forward pats his right leg, a reminder of the accident that almost cost him his life and a shot at college basketball. Now Bowers is one of the best players in the SEC. But his path to the top has made him appreciate where he is now.

“I’ve been through a lot,” Bowers said. “I could write a book.”

The first chapter of that book would take place in the suburbs of Milwaukee. Long before Bowers arrived in SEC country, he was a prep star at Milwaukee’s Rufus King International School in 2011. The school sits about 30 miles from Bowers’ hometown of Racine, Wisc. On the night of Feb. 1, 2011, Bowers and a friend—Elgin Cook, who played basketball at nearby Hamilton High and is now a redshirt junior at Oregon—decided to drive around town in Cook’s Chevy Blazer. There was nothing unusual about the night. The two friends were simply killing time and wasting gas.

The duo sat in Cook’s car outside a friend’s apartment when two men approached the vehicle. Both had guns. One knocked on Bowers’ passenger-side window and flashed his firearm. Bowers and Cook didn’t wait to ask questions; Cook thrust the Blazer into drive while Bowers frantically climbed into the backseat. The men outside peppered the truck with bullets as it sped away.

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“They were trying to rob us,” Bowers said. “We really didn’t know what was going on. They just started shooting in the car.”

Bowers and Cook escaped with their lives, but only one emerged unharmed. Five bullets hit Bowers in the right leg. Four bullets went clear through his limb, with the fifth lodged in his shin. For a high-school junior with major college aspirations, the eventual prognosis from Bowers’ doctors wasn’t good. “They thought I was never going to play again,” Bowers said.

But Bowers did play. After a winding route that took him through physical therapy, to junior college in Florida and eventually to Auburn, Bowers has become one of the most talented rebounders in college basketball. Four years ago, he never expected to find himself on the Plains. But Bowers has made the most of his second chance.

Today Bowers is the most formidable rebounder in the SEC. Through Feb. 12, Bowers ranks first in the league and eighth nationally in rebounding (11.0 per game). He has 14 double-doubles, the most by an Auburn player in a single season since Mike Mitchell’s 18 in 1974-75. With Bowers’ 13.3 points per game, the Tigers’ bruising forward is one of only five players from the Power Five conferences to average a double-double this season. “He’s a real key competitor for us,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.

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Even before his injury, Bowers’ college basketball future was hardly a forgone conclusion during his prep career. Today Bowers admits to not being focused on his basketball future. “I didn’t think about basketball,” he said. “I didn’t take it seriously.”

But others took notice of Bowers’ potential. Schools like UConn expressed interest in Bowers; then-coach Jim Calhoun even called the high schooler on one occasion. Rufus King coach Jim Gosz knew Bowers had the tools for a lucrative basketball future—if he decided he wanted it.

“I’ve been here 25 years, and I’ve never had such a physical specimen that can do everything on the basketball court as a 17-year-old young man,” Gosz told SI.com in a phone interview. “Cinmeon reminded me of Charles Barkley in his prime the way he could do things ... I knew the sky was the limit for Cinmeon if he got his head on right and surrounded himself with the right people.”

After the shooting, Bowers worked his way through physical therapy and was back on the court by June. When graduation approached a year later, Bowers’ injury and subpar academics made Division I hoops impossible right away. Instead he took a detour to Chipola College, a junior college in Marianna, Fla., with an enrollment of 2,200. As a freshman Bowers played in 26 games with the Indians and averaged 11.0 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.

By the next fall Bowers had risen to the No. 1-ranked JUCO player in the country, per 247Sports. After being recruited by the likes of Louisville, Memphis and Florida State, he committed to the Seminoles in Sept. 2013. Finally, Bowers’ dream of big-time college basketball was falling into place.

But Bowers’ latest plans were soon derailed. Marianna Police arrested Bowers and two Chipola teammates in Jan. 2014 for allegedly eating marijuana to conceal it from police during a traffic stop. The felony charges were eventually dropped, but the damage was done to Bowers’ reputation. He was labeled as a troublemaker. Florida State released him from his letter of intent that March.

To this day, Bowers denies any wrongdoing. “I never had weed in the car,” he said. “I never had an issue with weed. I was just falsely accused, man.”

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Despite an eight-game suspension stemming from his arrest, Bowers still managed to put up 12.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game and help Chipola reach the quarterfinals of the NJCAA National Championships. But only two schools kept recruiting Bowers after the incident: Auburn and South Carolina. The Tigers were coming off a 14-16 year and a 12th-place finish in the SEC. But they’d fired coach Tony Barbee and landed the biggest coaching hire of the off-season in Bruce Pearl. Because Pearl couldn’t recruit as part of his ongoing NCAA show-cause penalty, assistant coaches Chuck Person and Tony Jones served as Bowers’ primary recruiters. Their efforts worked: The first big recruit of the Pearl era committed to the program without ever speaking to its new head coach.

“Cinmeon was one of the first guys we targeted as coming to help improve the program and put it back,” Person said. “Cinmeon’s a big reason why we’re able to reconnect with our fan base.”

Said Bowers: “Auburn said I had an opportunity to make a major impact by coming to this program -- starting, playing time, being a major leader. I just took advantage of it.”

Bowers hasn’t turned Auburn into an immediate contender. As of Tuesday, only Missouri (1-11) and South Carolina (3-9) had worse SEC record than the Tigers (4-8). But Bowers is only a junior, and he hopes he can help lay a foundation for success that will last far beyond his two seasons at Auburn.

Bowers is also laying a foundation for a potential pro career. Though listed at 6’7’’, Person said Bowers is likely closer to 6’5’’ or 6’6’’ and must fight off criticism as an “undersized” post player. His height hasn’t held him back in the SEC, where he’s the league leader in offensive rebounds (104) and gets much of his production on second-chance points. But doing the same against seven-footers on an NBA schedule is another challenge.

Bowers has used the advice of another great Auburn rebounder as a spark for his own career. Charles Barkley was the SEC Player of the Year in 1984 as a 6’4’’ forward. Barkley has spoken to this year’s team on a number of occasions, and he’s even offered advice to Bowers on becoming a top-tier rebounder. It’s advice Bowers remembers each time he takes the floor.

“You’ve got to have heart to go grab a rebound,” Bowers said. “Height doesn’t matter.”

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Added Person, who played alongside Barkley at Auburn and is the school’s alltime leading scorer: “Everything that Charles has in the game, Cinmeon possesses some of the same qualities. Will he continue to work as hard as Barkley did to become the great player Barkley became? That’s up to Cinmeon. If he wants to put in the time, he can be anything he wants to be.”

When he’s not practicing, Bowers often finds himself playing his teammate and roommate, K.C. Ross Miller, in “NBA 2K15.” Bowers usually plays as the Pistons, whose roster includes NBA star Caron Butler. Like Bowers, Butler grew up in Racine and was forced to overcome and forge his own path to the NBA; he was arrested 15 times by age 15 and spent time in jail for cocaine and firearm possession, according to a 2010 Dallas Morning News story. Now Butler is in his 12th year in the NBA.

Bowers sees Butler as an example of his own potential. Despite a near-death experience and off-court struggles, Bowers has managed to keep his pro dream alive. That dream isn’t just about him anymore. Bowers also wants a future for his three-year-old daughter, Dani Cimmone, who currently lives with his family in Wisconsin. “I barely get to see her, but it’s going to pay off,” Bowers said.

Bowers learned the value of life at a young age. Now he’s making the most of his.

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