Last Saturday's on-court confrontation between Knicks coach Isiah Thomas and Spurs forward Bruce Bowen renewed an old question about a three-time member of the NBA All-Defensive first team:
Is Bowen a dirty player?
To be specific, is Bowen's habit of sticking his wingtips under his man when he's attempting a jumper intentional? Or is it merely the byproduct of a hard-nosed defender giving his all to contest a shot?
A sampling of former players turned NBA executives produced generally favorable views of Bowen's play. Yet while acknowledging that Bowen might come close to crossing the line, no one was willing to completely condemn "Eddie Scissorhands" (as Phil Jackson once dubbed Bowen) for his questionable tactics.
"He's a very tough, hard-nosed defender who crowds you and tries to get under your skin," said an Eastern Conference general manager who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He's basically a pest.
"[But] I don't think he's sticking his foot out intentionally. He's a defensive player. He does what he can to bother you and throw you off your game. But knowing him and knowing his character, I don't think he'd go out there and intentionally try to hurt somebody."
Said another East executive: "I see it as just a guy playing hard defense. Does he grab, hold and play physically? Yeah. But is he perceived around the league as a guy who goes out to hurt people? I don't think so."
Bowen's defensive tactics came to light again after Knicks guard Steve Francis landed on the defensive ace's foot while attempting a jump shot in a game at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 6. Francis sprained his ankle and missed three games.
Bowen has been accused before, most notably by Vince Carter and Ray Allen, of sticking his foot underneath shooters, and his reputation apparently wasn't lost on Thomas. When asked the day after the game what he would have done as a player had an opponent stuck his foot underneath his when attempting a shot, the Knicks' coach/GM said: "I'd beat the --- out of somebody. Really, I would --- murder them. ... There's certain things you don't do."
So perhaps it wasn't surprising that five nights later, in the team's rematch at San Antonio, Thomas went ballistic when he thought he saw Bowen stick his Nikes under Knicks guard Jamal Crawford on a jumper. An irate Thomas immediately pointed at Bowen on the court. The two exchanged words, with Bowen later accusing Thomas of having threatened to "break his neck." (Thomas denies having said that, though he acknowledges he told his players, "Next time he does that, break his ------- foot.")
Thomas also exchanged angry words with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, though after the game the two met at midcourt and shook hands.
Bowen, who would rather drink Clorox than talk about the subject, downplayed the incident. Still, temperatures in the AT&T Center were raised high enough that even Tim Duncan felt compelled to criticize Thomas for having created a scene.
"It's a bad situation when a coach puts himself in that position and goes after a player," Duncan said. "It's very uncalled for. I don't know what his intentions were with that and we have bigger plans than trying to hurt somebody. I would hope that people would understand and respect that and obviously they don't."