AFTER A GAME-DAY
SHOOTAROUND IN FEBRUARY IN WASHINGTON, while his teammates were leaving the
court to board the bus back to the hotel for an early lunch, Bruce Bowen was
shooting jumpers. Thirty-five years old and with two championship rings in his
collection, he was working as hard as the rookies and bench-enders.
preparation, preparation," Spurs director of player development Brett Brown
called out to Bowen. "Twenty-five makes."
That was the number of threes required by Bowen to complete his drill. In
between shots he breathed warm air into his cupped hands.
"Game 7, Detroit," yelled Brown, drawing on a particularly positive
memory as he fed Bowen another three-pointer, which Bowen then drilled just as
he had done in the fourth quarter of the deciding game of the NBA Finals two
years earlier against the Detroit Pistons.
Rare is the day
that Bowen isn't putting in extra time. When the Spurs cancel practice, he
comes to their 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
shootaround a full 30 minutes after his teammates have left the building. He is
among the league's oldest players, and yet he remains one of the best perimeter
defenders—correction: He is without stipulation the NBA's best defender.
matter of will, that's all," says Bowen of the secret of good defense.
"There was a time, when we were coming up, that the only way you got on the
floor was if you played defense."
Most players did,
to varying extents. Now fewer and fewer do, it seems. Which makes Bowen more
and more valuable to the Spurs, who thrive on a traditional approach to
defense. His victims over the years have included Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Steve
Nash and, in the 2007 NBA Finals, 22-year-old LeBron James, against whom the
6'7", 200-pound Bowen yielded one inch, 40 pounds and almost 15 years. In
spite of Bowen's deficit in size and speed and age, his defensive contributions
to San Antonio's third championship in five years were every bit as valuable as
anything Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Gin�bili provided at the other end of
Bowen has made
the NBA All-Defensive team in each of his six years in San Antonio, and this
made the third straight season that he has finished as runner-up for the
Defensive Player of the Year award (given this year to Denver's Marcus Camby).
He has emerged as proof that not only does defense win championships, but it
also provides the makings of a good career. Whenever Spurs coach Gregg Popovich
has appeared at high school clinics over the years, he has urged the
less-talented players to become good defenders like Bowen. "Because if you
can play defense," says Popovich, "I guarantee you that your coach is
going to find a spot for you on that team."
As an evangelist,
however, Popovich is an admitted failure. "I think it goes in one ear and
out the other," he says, "because everybody wants to be that other guy.
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
undrafted in 1996 after averaging 16.3 points as a senior for Cal
State-Fullerton. He played in France, the CBA and with the Miami Heat before
landing with the Boston Celtics for two seasons. He bounced from Philadelphia
to Chicago (briefly) and back to Miami. Bowen was 30 when Popovich called to
personally recruit him to sign with San Antonio as a free agent—a gesture that
Bowen honors to this day. He has played every Spurs game for the past five
looked at it as, 'This is ridiculous, man,' " says Bowen of his nomadic
tour of professional basketball. "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."
while other NBA players complained that they could no longer play proper
perimeter defense because of a rule interpretation that outlaws hand-checking,
Bowen was fulfilling his desire to not only beat his opponent to the best spots
on the floor—"doing my work early"—but also to continuously seek
improvement. Despite his age, he had, according to Popovich, "maybe his
best year" at the defensive end by focusing ever more on the