There is an old saying about Hollywood, career arcs and directors' casting demands that goes something like this: "Get me Denzel Washington! Get me a Denzel Washington-type! Get me a young Denzel Washington!" I'm reminded of that today, in the wake of Bruce Bowen's decision to retire after 12 proud (for him and his) and punishing (for opponents) NBA seasons.
Bowen, 38, won't make it into the Hall of Fame. He might have to wait to see his jersey number retired by the Spurs, the team he helped to championships in 2003, '05 and '07. But he exits the playing scene having achieved a distinction that only a special handful has managed in league history: Bruce Bowen leaves as an archetype.
There have been far fewer pro-basketball archetypes across the years than there have been Springfield inductees, Top 50 honorees, All-NBA selections or certainly All-Stars. Only those with special games, styles or bundles of skills need apply. Yet it can't be so rare that it veers into one-of-a-kind territory; there has to be some opportunity for others to follow down that particular path, prototype first, copies later. In other words, we're talking about a player who is unique -- but not too unique (sorry, vocabulary sticklers).
A simple way to gauge this is to stick "-type" onto the back end of a player's name and see if it means something to a typical NBA fan. Consider Larry Bird. Anytime a multitalented frontcourt player taller than 6-foot-8 comes along -- whether it's Detlef Schrempf, Tom Gugliotta, Christian Laettner or Dirk Nowitzki -- the phrase "Larry Bird-type" gets tossed out there by somebody. Usually, somebody is wrong. But we all know what he or she meant.
For a while in the 1980s and '90s, teams actively sought "Magic Johnson types," which was supposed to flood the league with really tall point guards who, charisma aside, could run their teams while peering over the top of the defense. That didn't work so well and it has less to do with Jalen Rose's results than the scarcity of Johnson's total game.
Going further back, coach Don Nelson made Paul Pressey the pioneer of "point forwards" when they were together in Milwaukee, but Scottie Pippen is the guy who can lay claim to "-type" status for how he and the Bulls' coaching staff refined the role. Sometimes it's shorthand -- saying a John Stockton-type or a Kevin Garnett-type conjures instant images. Sometimes it's, er, longhand -- UConn's 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet was talked of at draft time as a possible "Dikembe Mutombo-type" for what might be shot-blocking prowess but limited scoring skills. Sometimes it's negative -- a Byron Houston-type, besides being obscure, is a great low-post scorer in college who isn't big enough to play that way in the NBA. As opposed to, y'know, an Adrian Dantley-type.
Mostly, though, it's positive, which is the case with Bowen. Actually, Bowen's backstory could serve as a prototype as well, standing for all those players who went undrafted by an NBA team out of a school such as Cal State Fullerton, knocked around Europe and the CBA, got signed and waived a time or three, then finally found a home and a career at age 30 (Bowen landed in San Antonio as a free agent in 2001). But it is his front story -- as in, in other guys' faces, right up in their grills -- that we think of now.
What Bowen brought to the Spurs was every bit as essential during their run of titles and Finals appearances, particularly to coach Gregg Popovich, as the playmaking and scoring of Tony Parker, the creativity of Manu Ginobili and the fundamental wonderfulness of Tim Duncan. He was the starch in their black-and-silver shorts, the guy assigned to thwart the other team's most potent scorer and the San Antonio player who invariably became the lightning rod of abuse and invective for fans of 29 other teams.
Sufferers such as Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Steve Nash and Nowitzki directed our attention to Bowen's feet (allegedly stepping underneath jump shooters), legs (kicking into his man) and knees (aimed at quadriceps and groins), but I'll always remember his hands flailing around and about the ball-handler like the NHL's Sean Avery pestering Martin Brodeur or, as Phil Jackson said, Edward Scissorhands.
Dirty? At times it sure looked that way -- and Bowen was too good an athlete to pass those moments off as being clumsy. But he was tough, consistent and almost Eddie Haskell-like in his placid expressions through the most physical encounters. And like a single spoonful of castor oil, a little went a long way -- the idea of being guarded by Bowen seemed as distasteful to many NBA stars as the actual experience of it, given his reputation for making an opponent work. That alone made Bowen and the Spurs more effective.
Bowen was named to the All-Defensive team in each of his first eight full NBA seasons. He was runner-up three times for Defensive Player of the Year, though he never won the award that's worthy of being named after him. That doesn't really matter -- what matters is that teams determined to chase a championship feel compelled these days to find a "Bruce Bowen-type" of guy: a clingy, even irritating defender who, for long stretches or whole nights, can negate a dangerous weapon from the other guys' arsenal. Now, from Raja Bell to James Posey, from Trevor Ariza to Jamario Moon, every alleged contender needs someone like Bowen if it expects to be taken seriously.
Some of the players are slightly different in size or build (Matt Barnes, Reggie Evans, Mickael Pietrus). Some, such as Tayshaun Prince, Shane Battier, Ron Artest, Ariza and DeShawn Stevenson, have other skills or attributes at their disposal, occasionally luring them away from Bowen-type duty. But then, Bowen himself never was just a defender, frequently stepping into the corners for a key three-point shot. What they all share at their best, though, is a defense-first focus that the NBA as a whole seems to welcome only in limited quantities, no more than one or two per roster, while coaches, purists and home-team fans welcome them wherever they can find them. Because Bowen reminded us we should.
Summing up his career in his retirement session with reporters, Bowen said: "I hope my legacy would be as someone that never was satisfied with just being where they were."
His legacy goes well beyond that. From inside the offensive man's jersey and head, all the way to "-type" status.