“BRUUUUUUUUUUCE!” Few things made me happier than being part of the home crowd as we all screamed Bruce’s name in unison. It was also a great way to judge the guy sitting next to you. If he said something like, “Are they booing that guy?” You knew he didn’t know much and was available for taunting purposes at any point during the night.
What Bruce Bowen meant to the Spurs depends on the person you pose the question to. For me, Bruce represented my favorite wrinkle to the game of basketball. Outsiders to the game see the athletes and automatically assume that if you are not the tallest, most athletic, and talented player in the world, you do not have a shot at making the NBA. These observers do not appreciate guys like Bruce Bowen because they simply overlook them. Bruce is a testament to what hard work and a high IQ can do for you, even in a world dominated by the best athletes available that is premised upon pure athletic ability.
Bruce is 6’7”, not the tallest guy, weighs 200 lbs, definitely not the strongest guy, and if you pay close attention, even in his prime, he was no where close to being quick. Bruce made up for his lack of athletic ability through hard work and by learning the game of basketball. Bruce’s greatest skill came on the defensive end of the floor. During the ’03, ’05 and ’07 championships, Bruce Bowen was the Spurs’ defensive stopper. It was Bruce’s job during those seasons, and the ones that fell in between, to slow down the opposition’s most prolific scorer. He faced the best the NBA had to offer on a nightly basis. How did a relatively un-athletic player stop the best basketball players in the world? The only way he could, by anticipating their moves.
When Bruce was in his prime, it had nothing to do with his athletic ability, which was always lacking; it had to do with his basketball IQ. Bowen’s best years came between ’03 and ’07; during that span he was 32 to 36 years old. Does that seem like a normal prime for an NBA player? Of course not. Most players, since their game is based solely on athletic ability, hit their prime between the ages of 25 and 31. Bruce hit his prime at the ripe, old age of 32 because it was at that time that he finally mastered the art of anticipation.
The amount of tape Bruce studied during his career must be staggering. You can liken what he does to a professional poker player. By studying his opposition, Bruce learned their tendencies and tells. This allowed Bruce to anticipate his opponents' moves and beat them to where they intended to go. In this way, although Bruce was often slower than the offensive player, he was able to defend them because of his anticipation. Basketball is different than other sports because if you master the intangibles of the game, there is always a spot for you on a winning team. Michael Lewis recently wrote an article for the New York Times entitled "The No-Stats All-Star," which greatly explored the intangibles that do not get recorded in the box score but have a dramatic influence over the game. He centered this piece on Shane Battier. I would argue that if Lewis had attempted to write it a few years ago, Bruce Bowen would have been the headliner.
Since Bowen’s contributions did not make the box score, he was constantly overlooked for the Defensive Player of the Year award. This award is generally given to guys like Marcus Camby, lots of blocks and rebounds that overwhelm a box score. That is great and all, but how many times did Camby bite on a pump fake and give his man an easy basket? How many times should he have gotten back in transition defense, rather than go for an offensive rebound, thereby putting his defense at a disadvantage? It’s little things like these that Bowen always thought ‘team first,’ in contrast to other ‘defensive players’ who thought ‘me first.’ Despite missing the box score, he made the NBA All-Defensive team 8 consecutive seasons, from ’01 through ’08. This just displays the respect other teams had for Bowen and it serves to acknowledge that a player can dominate the game defensively, without dominating the box score.
Bruce was great defensively, but teams would often take advantage of him by leaving him wide open on the offensive end in order to double-team Tim Duncan. Bowen realized this, and through more hard work, became a lethal three point shooter. I went from screaming, “No!” whenever he took a shot to screaming, “Swing the ball, Bruce is open!” This dramatic turnaround is just another reflection of Bruce Bowen’s intelligence. Bruce played ‘Sherlock Holmes’ throughout his career; find the problem, isolate it, study it, and solve it.
Coupled with his defensive anticipation was Bowen’s determination. He was not going to give anyone an inch on the basketball court. Bruce was ferocious. And he was not hounding the opposition’s eighth man; he was banging bodies with the other team’s franchise player. This is why Bruce was involved in so many brouhahas throughout his career. Franchise players were simply unused to dealing with someone as tenacious as Bruce Bowen. Bruce would eventually get under their skin and then the skirmish would commence.
Fans of other teams generally dislike Bruce and call him a “dirty player.” I argue that Bruce was not dirty; he simply did everything in his power to disrupt the flow of the best NBA players in the league. If it meant he needed to get his feet tangled with Vince Carter, he did it. If it meant Steve Nash needed a love tap, Bruce was the first in line. If Kobe needed a slap on the head, you get the idea. Bowen was the ultimate team player. Other teams may think of him as ‘dirty,’ but if they were being truthful; they’d say they would take him on their team in a second. In a way, that is the ultimate compliment. And that’s all you really need to know about Bruce.
Unfortunately, it appears his run with the Spurs is over. Barring an unexpected shakeup to the Spurs’ roster, there really is no room for Bruce on the team. The Spurs are simply too loaded at the small forward position. Because of this, I thought it would be a great opportunity to pay my respects to Bruce Bowen. While most every Spurs fan lists Tim, Tony, or Manu as their favorite Spur, mine will always be Bruce Bowen. He is the epitome of what is right in the NBA.
“Starting at Small Forward, standing six foot seven out of Cal State Fullerton, Number 12, Bruce Bowen!” “BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE!” Yup, I’m definitely going to miss that.