By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted Sep 3 2009 8:59PM
Bruce Bowen retired Thursday in a beauty salon. Not quite the setting you'd expect for someone who did the San Antonio Spurs' dirty work for all those years.
Bowen got in opponents' faces and their heads. It was ugly. It was borderline dirty. Well, it was dirty at times. It also helped win championships.
There isn't a prettier sight for the Spurs and their fans than the four NBA championship banners hanging from the rafters of the AT&T Center. Bowen helped hang three during eight career-defining seasons in San Antonio.
Perhaps the premier perimeter defender of his generation, Bowen wasn't part of the snapshot that accompanied the last three titles. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were the headliners, and rightfully so. But none of the El Trio Grande would ever discount Bowen's role in the Spurs' success.
Bowen talked with a number of teammates, past and present, in the past few weeks. Some told him it's not time. Others said do what feels right. Bowen decided to call it day.
"I've been thinking about this for the last five years," Bowen said from the San Antonio salon he owns with his wife. "Each year it put more thought in my head, as far as maybe the time is nearing."
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich loved Bowen's grit and basketball IQ. It wasn't uncommon for Pop and Bruce to knock foreheads at times. They would often engage in spirited exchanges during timeouts over something that just happened on the floor. The words were always meant to get it right.
Bowen did get it right, prospering despite not owning the skills most associate as necessary in a league that celebrates skill. Bowen couldn't shoot like Ray Allen, rebound like Dwight Howard, pass like Steve Nash or dribble like Chris Paul.
Has anyone in a fantasy league ever drafted Bowen? Has there ever been a player so vital to a team's fortunes that averaged 6.2 points and 2.8 rebounds, and shot 41 percent for his career? The answer on both counts is probably a resounding "No."
Bowen was effective in other ways. Both a fundamentally sound and instinctual defender, Bowen had a knack for coming up with a loose ball or grabbing the key rebound or making a timely block. And if he couldn't do it, he darn well made sure the guy he was guarding couldn't make a play. Bowen guarded all five positions with kamikaze gusto, earning eight all-defensive team selections along the way.
He also developed a trusty 3-point shot from the corner, much to the chagrin of opposing defenders who often sagged off Bowen. He struggled with free throw shooting -- rival coaches often employed the intentional foul technique dubbed "Bruise-a-Bowen" in San Antonio -- but Popovich found a way to keep him on the floor.
The other stuff helped. Bowen had a way of nudging or prodding or pulling or sniping that irritated the spit out of his opponents and everyone in the stands at enemy arenas. It was truly a wicked art form. Bowen did just enough on the edge of sportsmanship to create reasonable doubt in officials' minds of his intentions, but clearly enough to take his foes out of their games.
While downplaying the assertion he was dirty, Bowen does regret kicking Allen in March 2006. The incident earned Bowen a $10,000 fine.
"I shouldn't have done that, but that was purposely done," he said. "A lot of the other things it just so happened that I was there after everybody stuck their hand in the cookie jar, and then the lights came on and I had a cookie."
Last season, though, Bowen wasn't the same pain in the neck. A permanent fixture in Popovich's starting five for seven years, Bowen moved into a reduced role as the Spurs began to reshuffle the deck. He started only 10 times and even registered two DNP-CDs. (The Spurs lost both games.)
It became painfully obvious in the first round against the Mavericks that Bowen couldn't cover as he once did. Popovich used him against Dirk Nowitzki and J.J. Barea, and Bowen struggled equally with the 7-footer and mighty mite. The lateral quickness wasn't there anymore. Nowitzki shot over him and Barea zipped by.
Spurs fans hardly batted an eye when Bowen was included in the collection of used parts San Antonio traded to Milwaukee for Richard Jefferson. The euphoria of the move that catapulted the Spurs back to bonafide contender status drowned out any cries over losing Bowen.
"You need to do things to better the business, and the Spurs definitely got better in the players they received, so I'm looking forward to continuously supporting the Spurs, but at more of a distance now," he said, while leaving the door open to rejoining the organization in some capacity down the line.
Hey, it's about titles and Bowen understands that as much as anyone. The one-time pro basketball vagabond who made a home in the Alamo City takes as much pride in those banners as anyone who has ever worn in the Silver & Black.
"If anything," Bowen said, "what people remember me for now is I have three championships."
And so Bowen walks away from the NBA at age 38 without regret. After being bought out by the Bucks, talk surfaced that Bowen would sign with another contender. The Cavaliers and Celtics were among the teams mentioned, but Bowen declined to mention the suitors. He did make sure to tweak the Mavericks once last time.
"It would have been hard for me to play in certain places that I love their football team," the devout Dallas Cowboys fan said. "The only way I would have been there is if I would have been traded there and I had to go."
He all but ruled out completely coming out of retirement during the season for the stretch run, even if the Spurs called.
"I'm not one to decide and then reconsider," Bowen said. "It's not that kind of party here, especially with this gang. You really need to be there from Day 1. It's hard for guys to come in at a certain point and then play.
"I want it to always be on my own terms and I've been fortunate enough to be able to do that now."
Instead, the graduate of the University of Texas-San Antonio returned to his adopted hometown, trading his sneakers for a curling iron.
The pest is ready to tease.
If you have a question or comment for Art Garcia, send him an email.
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