Wrap Star

Every team had a crack at lockdown defender Bruce Bowen; the Spurs signed him. That's why they're the champs
December 26, 2005

From time to time over the last few years the idea of doing a profile on San Antonio Spurs forward Bruce Bowen has come up. He has a compelling backstory, having traveled the globe (Everux and Besancon in the French league), done time in the CBA (Fort Wayne, Ind., and Rockford, Ill.) and bounced around the NBA (from Miami to Boston to Philadelphia to Chicago then back to Miami) before finding a kind of second-tier stardom in the Alamo City. He is the quintessential smiling assassin, friendly and insightful in the locker room, tenacious and coldly efficient on the court. Plus, he continues to take correspondence courses online in pursuit of his degree in public relations. He's a good story.

Still, when it comes time to cover the Spurs, there are usually sexier tales to tell. Tim Duncan, Bowen's frontcourtmate, is arguably the league's top player and the Spurs' go-to guy (though not when in pursuit of a quote). Tony Parker, the quicksilver point guard from France, and shooting guard Manu Ginobili, the nonstop Energizer lapin from Argentina, are global stars, the former with Desperate Housewives' Eva Longoria as arm candy, the latter with a brash, dashing, style that has made him one of the most revered players in the world. Robert Horry, the 35-year-old forward, has a history of clutch shooting that's near mythic, and coach Gregg Popovich, with his military background and his fluency in Russian, is a fascinating figure who keeps a part of himself (the most interesting part) from the public. So any mention of Bowen is pretty much limited to occasional sentences.

But in any discussion of the best of the NBA in 2005, Bowen suddenly races to the lead. Actually, he kind of stutter-steps, legs shoulder-width apart, arms up, in perfectly balanced defensive position. Bowen is what every champion needs: a guy who excels at dirty work and never minds when, at crunch time, the ball winds up in someone else's hands. He is also a poster boy for the long shot who finds a way to modify his game, applies himself diligently and, eventually, flourishes.

Bowen's peripatetic past is not unique; what sets him apart is that he ended up becoming an essential part of a high-profile team rather than a marginal player on an also-ran. After going undrafted out of Cal State--Fullerton in 1993, he was waived by Miami and did extensive tours of duty in the CBA and Europe before he even played his first NBA game in '97, with the Heat. Three teams and four years later the Spurs signed him to a one-year, $716,000 free-agent deal. He was 30 years old and facing, in all likelihood, his last chance to prove himself as an NBA regular.

The 6'7", 200-pound Bowen, you see, carries one of the most dreaded tags in the league: midsized player unable to create his own shot. Like many who flailed and failed before they made it, Bowen carries a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He remembers all the teams that didn't see something in him. But he's also honest enough to concede that he was stubborn early in his career and that he saw himself as potential star rather than a blue-collar, supporting type. To leave a meaningful mark on the game he loved, he knew he'd have to make major adjustments at both ends of the floor.

Bowen had put up big numbers in Europe and therefore saw himself as a scorer, someone who would get into double figures by slashing to the basket, collecting offensive rebounds and making buckets in transition. Rare is the NBA player, after all, who wants to carve out a niche as a standstill shooter. But, gradually, Bowen began to understand that was exactly how he could help San Antonio. He was not a skilled ball handler, the Spurs didn't run much, and they had Duncan in the post and slashers such as Parker and Ginobili to take care of the spectacular stuff. So Bowen found another offensive spot: Either corner, just outside the three-point line. He works on that shot every day after practice and knows that a solid percentage from beyond the arc (at week's end he was third in the league) will be most beneficial for his team.

His reputation as a lockdown defender grew slowly at first, then exponentially when San Antonio became an elite team. Perhaps inevitably, given his commitment to physical defense, some players and coaches began to express the opinion that he was unnecessarily rough, a thug even. Seattle All-Star guard Ray Allen no doubt felt that way after Bowen held him to 22 points in the Spurs' 96-90 win over the Sonics in February 2004. Allen, however, chose to describe Bowen's play as "sissy basketball," suggesting that Bowen got away with extracurricular pushes and slaps behind the officials' backs.

Bowen laughed it off, as he always does. He has a serenity about him off the court and by now enjoys the fact that his reputation for defensive mayhem precedes him. In fact, he welcomes the notoriety. Players come into the game expecting to be frustrated by Bowen's physicality, only to become even more frustrated when they realize they have fallen into his trap. Before Game 3 of the Spurs' first-round series against the Denver Nuggets last April, Bowen sounded like a psych major as he described how he gets his opponents to crack; later that night he applied that knowledge to Denver's high-scoring forward, Carmelo Anthony.

Bowen plays a game-within-a-game, visible to fans only if they take their eyes off the ball and watch the action in front of the ball. What they'll invariably see is Bowen's man running around screens trying to free himself, Bowen pursuing him like a cop on the trail of a bank robber. Sometimes Bowen had a split second to decide whether to go under a screen, over a screen or barrel right through it. Invariably, he made the right choice. When Anthony went directly to a spot, Bowen glued himself to his opponent's back. (Not a great leaper, Bowen rarely fronts his man.) Sometimes Bowen shaded Anthony's left shoulder, sometimes the right, sometimes he played directly behind him. Sometimes he put his elbow in Anthony's back, sometimes he planted his knee between Anthony's thighs, sometimes he hipped Anthony off the blocks, sometimes he did all three on the same possession. "You have to change it up," said Bowen.

And, sure enough, as the fourth quarter rolled around and the Spurs started to pull away, 'Melo turned decidedly unmellow. With time running out and another aggressive teammate, Ginobili, guarding Anthony, the young Nugget threw an elbow that earned him a technical foul and an ejection. It's a safe bet that Bowen was smiling.

In the playoffs Bowen's ability to clamp down on Anthony, then Allen, then the Phoenix Suns' Shawn Marion made him a viable story choice entering the Finals. But by then Ginobili had become the Alpha Spur, boosting the team as both a starter and a reserve. While Ginobili is an engaging and intelligent guy, he has difficulty analyzing his own game. So Bowen, befitting someone who got to the top by dissecting other players' strengths and weaknesses, spoke up for his teammate, offering astute insights. For example, he attributed Ginobili's ability to get to the rim quickly to his taking two giant "European" steps instead of two small "American" steps. During Bowen's days playing with Everux and Besancon in France he witnessed these nuances on a nightly basis.

In Game 2 of the Finals against the Pistons, Bowen was on the bench when Parker surrendered an offensive rebound to Lindsey Hunter; during a subsequent timeout Bowen pulled him aside and instructed him not to follow the flight of the ball with his eyes but rather to first get a body on his man. If there was any small scene that elucidated the true character of San Antonio, a thinking man's team, that was it.

After the Spurs won a scintillating Finals in seven games, the main debate was whether Duncan or Ginobili deserved the MVP award. There was minor consideration for Horry, whose Game 5-winning three-point shot had provided one of the most dramatic moments in Finals history. More astounding, there was some talk of Bowen's candidacy as well. There was no movement to rechristen him Big Shot Bruce--after averaging a career high of 8.2 points during the regular season, he went for 7.9 during the Finals--but he had provided indefatigable defense on shooting guard Rip Hamilton and small forward Tayshaun Prince. He also made 13 of his 29 three-point shots.

In the end Duncan, deservedly, got the award. But Bowen--canny, efficient, relentlessly professional--reflected the Spurs' championship ethos as well as anyone. A good 90 minutes after Game 7 at the SBC Center he was the last Spur left in the locker room, which was already stale with the smell of spilled and squirted bubbly. He knotted his tie and smoothed his bald head, damp with postshower perspiration, and looked like the happiest man in the world.

"I am," said Bowen. "How many players who started out like me find a home like this?"

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Players come into the game expecting to be frustrated by BOWEN'S PHYSICALITY only to become even more frustrated when they realize that they have fallen into his trap.

PHOTOPhotograph by John BieverHE HATE ME Bowen got so under the skin of Anthony that the Nuggets forward got tossed in a crucial first-round playoff game. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHTAKING OFFENSE After being known for his sharp D, Bowen honed his three-point shot and began delivering daggers from the corner. THREE PHOTOSFRANK POLICH/REUTERS (MILLER); SAM FORENCICH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (PATTERSON); JOE MURPHY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (STOUDAMIRE) THREE PHOTOSJOHN W. MCDONOUGH; GARY DINEEN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (HORRY); DAVID LIAM KYLE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (JONES) THREE PHOTOSROBERT BECK (DAVIS); JEFF REINKING/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (JAMES); JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (SPREWELL)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)