“Someone asked me, ‘What if you’re inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame?’” Bowen, 40, said before the luncheon. “It wouldn’t surpass this. This is something that comes from the organization and people you were around for quite some time.”
-Bruce Bowen, via the San Antonio Express-News
Tonight the San Antonio Spurs honor Bruce Bowen by sending his jersey up to the rafters alongside Hall of Famers David Robinson and George Gervin, as well as fellow “star” role players Avery Johnson and Sean Elliott.
Recognition is never something Bowen sought during his time in San Antonio. After all, awards are generally reserved for those that put the ball in the basket, not those that prevent it.
Even the greatest individual honor bestowed upon defensive players, the Defensive Player of the Year, is often left for those that compile gaudy steals, blocks and rebounds. The idea that great defense could be something as simple as forcing great players into tough shots was a foreign concept during Bowen’s career.
The ceiling for the kind of praise his play could solicit during his career was much lower than the heights his jersey will reach tonight.
“Bruce was a pest. For a defensive player, that’s the best compliment you can give him,” former All-Star Jerry Stackhouse said. “It’s hard to slow down guys in this league, but you knew you had to work to get your points.”
Scorers loathe handing out any credit. Sometimes respect for Bowen was even given through the scope of validation for the scorer. Being defended by Bruce Bowen was a sign that you had arrived. Or, in some cases, that you were departing.
“When I was with Washington, playing with Michael Jordan, we were talking about how Bruce was going to guard the best player,” former All-Star Jerry Stackhouse said with a laugh. “Mike was like, ‘Bruce is going to guard me.’ And then tip-off came, Bruce came over to me. I gave [Jordan] hell for that one. He didn’t take it well.”
And Stackhouse’s thoughts on being defended by Bowen?
“I didn’t think he could guard me.”
A source of validation before the game, a pest during, and an afterthought afterwards, this is the prism through which much of the NBA viewed Bowen.
Except, of course, in San Antonio, where Popovich and the Spurs have always had their own way of looking at the game.
“Good defenders and people who get steals are not always synonymous,” Popovich once said. “Some steal guys are poor defenders as far as team defense because they’re rogue defenders.”
To keep the sort of defensive intensity that Bowen had, guarding the opponent’s best player, without having an opportunity to answer on the other end, or getting caught in defensive schemes that at times meant getting lit up by opposing scorers, shows a complete lack of ego. And yet, Bowen seemed to be a very prideful player.
“He was relentless with his defense, it was a pleasure competing against him every year,” Tracy McGrady said when hearing news of Bowen’s jersey retirement. “He was a fierce competitor. What I liked best about him is it didn’t matter who it was, whether it was a guy that averaged 30 points or a guy that averaged 10, he gave them his best efforts.”
Bowen was the ultimate team player for the ultimate team-first franchise, and tonight very well could be the last recognition Bowen receives for his career. But for a man who was all about the Spurs organization, the franchise that took the first long-term chance on him, it fittingly is the only one that matters.