Bruce Bowen: The Long Climb to the Rafters

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday.

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Bruce Bowen
(D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images)

Bruce Bowen, retired Spur, is making news again. In the tail of an NBA comet named Jeremy Lin, Bowen garners noteworthy mention.

The story of Lin’s ascent from obscure Harvard grad to NBA phenom has spawned sidebars about the best undrafted players in league history. Every Top 10 list I’ve seen includes Bowen.

Unwanted out of Cal-State Fullerton, Bowen became one of the great perimeter defenders of all-time. Dismissed as a one-dimensional player, he led the NBA in three-point shooting in 2002-2003 and retired with three championship rings.

His No. 12 jersey will be hung next month in the AT&T Center rafters. The story of how Bowen secured a place in Spurs lore alongside The Iceman and The Admiral is remarkable. Behind the light of Bowen’s legacy is a journey that began in shadow.

Fresno, Calif., 1992 …

Bowen picks up the phone and calls the head coach at Cal-State Fullerton. Donny Daniels answers. Bowen disguises his voice, lowering it an octave, and delivers a confident pitch.

“This is Bill Engel,” Bowen says, “coach at Edison High School. I’ve got this kid you’ve got to see. He’s really good. About 6-6, 180 pounds. He’s going to be at a tournament near your university. Bruce Bowen. ...”

Daniels bites. Days later Bowen drops 38 points in a game, wins tournament MVP honors and changes his future. …

Before Daniels showed up, Bowen had an offer to play for Division II Cal-Poly Pomona. Afterward, Bowen secured a scholarship from the school of his choice. “True story,” he says. “I don’t know why I wanted to go to Cal-State Fullerton. I just did.”

Even then, Bowen was creative and resourceful. Determined, too. He needed to be. After four years in college, the NBA ignored him. In response, Bowen took his game to Europe. He averaged 30 points his first season in France but didn’t get along with the coach. Bowen played two more seasons in France, spent a third in the Continental Basketball Association and was once cut by the Fort Wayne Fury.

The Bowen resume looked hopeless. Who in the NBA would take a chance on a guy cut in the CBA? The Heat, it turns out, plucked him from the Rockford Lightning of the CBA and signed him to a 10-day contract in 1997. Bowen’s stat line: One minute and one blocked shot in one game.

The NBA door now open, Bowen bounced from the Celtics to the 76ers and back to the Heat over the next four seasons, a journeyman with this assessment from the DraftExpress scouting report: “Below average athlete and all-around talent. Learned how to become a good enough spot-up shooter from the corners to not be a complete offensive liability.”

If his story had ended there, he would have been celebrated in Fresno for rising from nowhere to the NBA. But Bowen wanted more and found a way to stand out.

After one game against the Knicks, Heat coach Pat Riley said Bowen had made five of the best defensive plays he’d ever seen -- all in one half. A reputation grew. Bowen could shut down Allan Houston of the Knicks and Paul Pierce of the Celtics and he only got better once he joined the Spurs.

Flash back to the 2007 NBA Finals. The world tunes in to watch LeBron James lift Cleveland to a championship. Bowen ruins the party and the coronation of King James, limiting The Chosen One to 36 percent shooting in a series the Spurs sweep. 

Acclaimed for his D, Bowen could also knock down the three. In Game 2 of the 2003 Western Conference semifinals, Bowen torched the Lakers with seven three-pointers and 27 points. He made 44.1 percent of his attempts from behind the arc that season to lead the league.

“I would come in before everyone else at practice and work on my shooting,” Bowen recalls.
“A lot of times (assistant coach) Brett Brown and I would go in at 10 o’clock at night and leave at midnight.”

Bowen also worked overtime on defense. He stayed late at practice and guarded teammates in games of one-on-one. At home, he reviewed videotapes and studied the tendencies of the stars he’d defend -- Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Ray Allen.

As his defensive legend grew, so did his popularity with fans. In between games of the 2003 Western Conference semifinals, Bowen studied for a final exam at UTSA. He appeared at schools and encouraged children to read. He started a fitness program to fight childhood obesity and created a foundation to give scholarships to low-income students.

Once, fresh off a plane from Las Vegas, Bowen drove to Our Lady of the Lake University and delivered an impromptu speech to hundreds of middle school and high school students at Thiry Auditorium. He charmed with his personality, inspired with his story and brought down the house with his humor.

Now, 20 years after he recruited himself to Cal-State Fullerton, Bowen approaches the final leg of a journey no one saw coming. The NBA was a dream. But his jersey retired and rising to the rafters? Bowen marvels: “I never felt anything like this could take place.”