His defense never rests
Bowen, 35, the NBA's top stopper, thirsts to improve
Posted: Friday February 9, 2007 10:22AM; Updated: Friday February 9, 2007 2:34PM
Also in the Weekly Quiz:
1. What makes Bruce Bowen the best defender in the NBA?
ANSWER: His teammates wandered off the court, laughing at and insulting each other as they climbed onto the team bus to their hotel. It was noon on Wednesday, seven hours before the evening's game in Washington against the Wizards, and Bruce Bowen was on the court, practicing his free throws and three-pointers with a Spurs assistant coach.
"Preparation, preparation, preparation,'' Brett Brown, who also serves as San Antonio's director of player development, called out to Bowen. "Twenty-five makes.''
That was the number of threes required by Bowen to complete his drill. The extended workout was ordered not by the team, but by Bowen. In between shots he breathed warm air into his cupped hands.
"Game 7, Detroit,'' yelled the assistant, drawing on a positive memory as he fed Bowen another three-pointer. Which Bowen then drilled, just as he had done in the decisive fourth quarter of the NBA Finals two years ago against the Pistons.
Rare is the day that Bowen isn't putting in extra time. When the Spurs are given a day off, he comes to their practice facility anyway for a full workout. On normal practice days he arrives early for a half hour of additional training before his teammates join him on the court. On game days, like this one, he typically extends his shoot-around a full 30 minutes after the others have left the building. The session ended Wednesday with the ceremonial wrapping of his waist by a Spurs trainer to relieve the aching in Bowen's lower back.
Bowen is 35. And yet he remains the best perimeter defender -- correction: he is the NBA's best defender -- despite his age. Instead of retiring, he is improving.
"It's a matter of will, that's all,'' Bowen says of the secret to good defense. "There was a time, when we were coming up playing, that the only way you got on the floor was if you played defense. Now I'm talking about guys like Glen Rice. People [today] would be, like, 'Glen Rice played defense?' But Glen did.''
Most players did, to varying extents. Now fewer and fewer do, it seems. Which makes Bowen more and more valuable to a team like the Spurs that thrives on a traditional approach to defense.
When Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has appeared at high school clinics over the years, he has always urged the least talented players to become good defenders. "Because if you can play defense,'' Popovich says, "I guarantee you that your coach is going to find a spot for you on that team.''
As an evangelist, Popovich admits, he is a failure. "I think it goes in one ear and out the other,'' he says. "Because everybody wants to be that other guy. When you're young and growing up, you emulate the guy who is blocking the shots, dunking the basketball, shooting the threes, getting the attention, and that's where we all gravitate because we're all human. But in Bruce's case, he figured out early that he wasn't all that skilled in some areas. He was intelligent enough to figure out what could be valuable to a team.
"It's hard for most of us to make that decision because you have to admit certain things about your game. And no matter what level most of us played at, we don't want to do that: We're all better than the coach thought we were, and we should have started and we should have played more. But Bruce has never thought that way.''
Bowen went undrafted in 1993 after averaging 16.3 points as a senior for Cal State-Fullerton. He played in France, the CBA and briefly with the Miami Heat before landing with the Celtics for the following two seasons. He then bounced from Philadelphia to Miami. Bowen was 30 when Popovich called him personally -- a salutation that honors Bowen to this day -- to discuss his impending move to San Antonio, where he has played every game for the past five years.
"I never looked at it as, 'This is ridiculous, man,' " Bowen says of his nomadic five years. And now that he's made his home in San Antonio? "I don't look at things that way, because if you do it tends to bring about a certain feeling that you're settled. And if you settle, then you don't have any desire to get better.''
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