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Fran Blinebury

Bruce Bowen (far left) brought his hard hat to San Antonio for three championships.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

Bowen exuded the Spurs' way like none other

Posted Mar 21 2012 9:56AM

SAN ANTONIO -- When nothing seems to help, I go and look at the stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps 100 times without so much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the 101st blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it but all that had gone on before.

The words of the 19th century social reformer Jacob Riis have been prominently displayed inside the Spurs locker room since the AT&T Center opened in 2002 and before that inside the Alamodome because they are the mantra of Gregg Popovich.

There are Spanish, French, Serbian and Turkish versions of the quote framed and lining the hallway leading out to the court, a nod toward the international bloodlines of the franchise and an emphasis of how much the head coach believes in the message.

Of course, Popovich could have saved himself the trouble of getting all the translations by simply hanging up a portrait of Bruce Bowen.

Through eight tireless seasons with the Spurs nobody pounded away at more rocks than Bowen.

An undrafted small forward out of Cal State-Fullerton and an itinerant ballplayer who toiled for seven teams in three leagues on two continents before landing in San Antonio in 2001, Bowen became an eight-time fixture on the NBA All-Defensive team with his aggressiveness and his hustle. But it was the workmanlike dedication of the stonecutter that enabled him to become the seventh player in franchise history to have his jersey -- No. 12 -- retired in a ceremony on Wednesday night when the Spurs host the Timberwolves.

"It's the greatest honor that could be bestowed on me," Bowen said. "I'm telling you, it's better than the Hall of Fame, because it means that you've been embraced by a family, a community.

"It's also kind of funny, because when I came here nobody thought I could hit the side of a barn with my shot and, really, let's face it, not many guys with my stats get this kind of an honor."

It is the perfectly fitting gesture from a franchise that has always sold less of the sizzle and more of the steak.

The numbers that show a 6.1 per game scoring average and 40.9 career field goal percentage hardly scratch the surface to reveal Bowen as just as critical as stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to three NBA championships in 2003, 2005 and 2007.

"I always thought that was a little bit superficial," said Popovich. "Those high-scoring, bigger-name guys are easy to see. OK, if David Robinson or George Gervin didn't score all those points, we wouldn't have done anything. Of course, so you retire their jerseys. Those are no-brainers. But there are other people in a little more subtle way who make the whole team fit together and complete the puzzle. Without them it doesn't get completed and I think they deserve credit also. That's what guys like Avery (Johnson) and Bruce do. They don't have those typical retirement type numbers. But their meaning to the group, their leadership, their effectiveness on the game night in and night out was huge and they should be credited for that."

Bowen laughs.

"Can you imagine having a conversation back in the time when I first got here about retired jerseys?" he said. " 'What about Bruce? Who?' But I think it's a by-product of what we were to one another as well, recognizing as well that we couldn't accomplish what we did without one another.

"I really appreciate the fact that I had three great teammates in Tim, Tony and Manu. Not to exclude anybody else, but we had a connection that others didn't have. I was able to communicate with them. I was a big brother to them. Not as far as skill-wise or anything like that. Just being able to say, 'Hey, we need to do this this way. We need to do that that way.' For the most part, they listened to me because they saw the work that I put in."

"He knew what he needed to do to stay on the floor, and he stuck to that," Duncan said. "Those people are rare. Everybody wants to be something they're not. His focus was to be the best he could at what he was."

When Bowen signed with the Spurs in 2001, they were confident to be getting a guy who was willing to make his mark with defense. What they didn't know is they were getting the walking embodiment of the Popovich work ethic, an on- and off-court conscious in high-tops.

"Before every practice, after every practice, whenever he could get in the gym, he was there working on his game," Popovich said.

Bowen turned himself into a deadly 3-point shooter out of the corners, becoming a key weapon in the Spurs' offense. When opposing teams began to run at him on the shot, he went back to work in the gym and learned to pump-fake, take a dribble-drive and make medium jumpers. And at the same time he was establishing himself as one of the premier perimeter defenders in the league while developing quite a reputation. He got under the skin of Vince Carter, Ray Allen, Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Francis, to name a few.

"Yeah, as a dirty player," Bowen said, nodding. "I took pride in the idea that I could get inside the heads of so many different guys that I went against."

But it was getting inside the heads of his Spurs teammates that made him valuable, endearing and enduring. He didn't often make headlines, but Bowen did always take hold of respect with his approach and attitude.

"Bruce did the same thing night in and night out, whether it was a preseason game or a championship game," Popovich said. "That's just who he was. That's why we want to honor him, because that's a quality that's not understood by a lot of athletes these days, that persistent pounding to get to where you want to be."

It seems an odd place for a stonecutter, up in the rafters. But you'd have to know Bowen and have to know the Spurs.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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