Floor-Burn Leader Not blessed with big-time talent, Nuggets forward Ryan Bowen survives in the NBA on all-out desire

December 30, 2002

Even on the NBA's lowest-scoring team, Denver Nuggets small
forward Ryan Bowen doesn't look for his shot. He's content to
rebound and pass and take charges and set screens and buff the
court with his body in chasing after loose balls. The running
joke in the locker room is that the 6'9", 220-pound Bowen might
be averaging 3.5 points per game, but he does everything short of
singing the national anthem. Turns out, even that's not out of
his range. "Oh, I'll do it one of these days," Bowen says. "In
high school in Iowa I was all-state show choir."

Though the Nuggets are in the throes of another bleak season, the
franchise struck gold with Bowen. Much about him--his nonexistent
offense, his love of country music, his show-choir
past--militates against his playing pro basketball, but the way
he orbits the court like a windup toy, sacrificing nonvital
organs for his team, explains why Bowen doesn't merely play in
the NBA, but starts. And if his name is foreign to fans,
opponents have taken note. Miami Heat coach Pat Riley has called
Bowen the best hustle player in the NBA. During a game against
the Nuggets last season, the Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller turned
to his coach, Isiah Thomas, and said, "We've got to get a
[player] like Ryan Bowen."

Bowen recalls his coach at Iowa, Tom Davis, once giving his
minions a blueprint for making it to the NBA: "You have to be
good at everything, and great at one thing." Bowen went through a
mental checklist. Was he a great shooter? No. Passer? No.
Rebounder? No. "One thing I can be great at is hustling," he
says. "I'm one of those guys--old-fashioned, maybe--who thinks
that if you're not going to hustle, why bother to play?"

After graduating from Iowa in 1998, Bowen was drafted by the
Nuggets late in the second round. The team sent him to Turkey to
work on his game. His team, Oyak Renault, practiced in a car
factory and often had to wait for the plant employees to finish
their lunchtime pickup game before taking the court. Living in a
modest rented house, he was awakened some mornings by his
neighbors' goats. During games he occasionally had to duck
batteries thrown by opposing fans. Bowen didn't complain. He led
Oyak to the playoffs, and the next season he earned a spot on the
Nuggets' roster. Now in his fourth season--the longest tenure of
any current Denver player--Bowen graduated from 12th man to role
player to starter. His progress hasn't been lost on Nuggets fans.
In a recent Denver Post poll Bowen was voted the team's most
popular player.

Though Bowen was averaging 2.88 steals per 48 minutes--10th in
the league--through Dec. 21, and even won a game against the
Phoenix Suns earlier this season with a buzzer-beating layup, his
true value has been his professionalism. While his teammates
commandeer the film room and hold Xbox tournaments after
practice, Bowen, 27, lifts weights or shoots extra jumpers. He
has made it his mission to take the Nuggets' foreign-born
players--Brazil's Nene Hilario, the Republic of Georgia's Nikoloz
Tskitishvili and Yugoslavia's Predrag Savovic--under his wing.
Ryan and his wife, Wendy, have donated a block of seats in the
Pepsi Center for every home game to underprivileged Denver-area
kids. "We're such a young team," says general manager Kiki
Vandeweghe, "and Ryan sets such a good example for these guys."

He also provides comic relief, albeit inadvertently. In a game
against the San Antonio Spurs last month Bowen hit a long jumper
and, it appeared, ran downcourt giving an earful to his defender,
Steve Smith. The Nuggets bench was astonished. Trash-talk? Bowen?
The Opie look-alike who listens to Diamond Rio and Garth Brooks
before games? During the ensuing timeout teammates crowded around
and asked what he had said. "Oh, I just told him, 'That was the
first three-pointer I've made all season!'" Bowen recalls. "I was
so excited." Smith's response: "Well, maybe you should shoot
more. You've got to shoot it to make it."

Bowen knows better. There are other ways to make it in the NBA.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/AP (BOWEN) DIVE TO SUCCEED Says Bowen, "I'm one of those guys who thinks that if you're not going to hustle, why bother to play?" COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Indiana's Artest

All-Hustle Team
In addition to Ryan Bowen, here are five other players whose
contributions go beyond the numbers (stats through Dec 21).

Player, Team PPG RPG APG

Malik Rose, Spurs 7.2 5.9 1.3
Though undersized (6'7") and limited offensively, he's a spark

George Lynch, Hornets 2.5 3.6 0.7
Jump shot could break cement, but his zeal is endearing

Jerome Williams, Raptors 9.4 7.0 1.2
Nicknamed Junkyard Dog because he cleans up all the garbage

Ron Artest, Pacers 15.3 5.3 2.8
Blossoming into a star in large part because of his hard work

Jon Barry, Pistons 7.8 2.4 2.8
Loves taking a charge; understands and excels in his reserve role