Bruce Bowen and thanking the thankless job
If anything exemplifies the name of this blog, it is the nightly torture chamber Bruce Bowen put opponents through during his tenure with the San Antonio Spurs.
Many nights Bowen put individual scoring endeavors through 48 minutes of hell, replacing pitchforks, fire pits, and demons with active hands and busy feet in torturing lost souls. All the while Bowen never sought—and rarely received—his due 15 minutes of fame.
On March 21, the San Antonio Spurs will honor Bruce Bowen for that by hanging his jersey in the rafters of the AT&T Center.
Some bristle at the thought of bestowing such honors on role players, either jokingly asking when we can expect Fabricio Oberto’s retirement ceremony or outright accusing the Spurs of a shameless marketing ploy:
“San Antonio evidently needs another marketing ploy — one that insults the very fabric of this proud basketball powerhouse. “ (via John McMullen, Sports Network)
I would counter that 1.) Bruce Bowen was simply not a role player, and 2.) his jersey retirement validates the very fabric of this proud basketball powerhouse.
The criteria for retiring numbers varies from team-to-team, and the inclusion of Bowen to a list of names that also includes James Silas, Johnny Moore, Avery Johnson, and Sean Elliot alongside Hall of Famers George Gervin and David Robinson, the Spurs have drawn some questions about their list of jersey-retirement qualifications.
Outside of the Gervin and Robinson, none of the names hanging from the rafters carry much weight in the larger context of the NBA. Still, at least they can claim stake to some significant franchise statistical markers. Bowen by contrast is unquantifiable.
But the term role player is generally reserved for interchangeable cogs to a much greater core, players that worked hard to overcome their own considerable limitations and complement stars. Bowen, as Tim Duncan attested to, is anything but. After all, the Spurs have been trying to replace Bowen for years.
This honor is not a tribute to Bowen’s hard work. Well, it is, but the San Antonio Spurs do not formally award players for their hard work. They expect it of them.
Instead, the retirement of Bowen’s no. 12 jersey is a testament to—and narrative of—an elite player and a new way of looking at the game and evaluating it. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford have always looked at the game of basketball from a different perspective, it makes sense they would honor it similarly.
Historically we tend to evaluate legends by their battles, and think of great battles as a shot-for-shot affair. The heavyweight fighter that ruthlessly trades blows in the middle of the ring will always be remembered over the tactician that wards off such shots and wears his opponent out.
In the NBA our fondest memories are scoring duels like those engaged by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, making each other soar to new heights by forcing the other to answer his own basket with another. By those standards Bowen never brought his game to greater heights. He simply prevented his opponent from reaching theirs.
Bowen’s showcase highlight duel? A two-minute feature run by ABC sports showing the off-the-ball work battle between he and Rip Hamilton in one of the worst rated NBA Finals in recent memory.
But who is to say the similarly one-dimensional Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire’s of the world contribute more to winning and the narrative of basketball simply because their primary pursuit focuses on scoring the basketball rather than preventing it?
After all, there is no shortage of 20-ppg career scorers currently with, or waiting on, their own retired jersey hanging from the rafters. But after March 21 there is only one Bruce Bowen.