Tuesday , Nov , 28 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

Bruce Bowen: Watch Your Step

Bruce Bowen is not a dirty player.

In fact, I’ll take it a couple of steps further. Not only is Bruce Bowen the best defensive player in the NBA, he’s also the cleanest defender in the game.

Bruce Bowen is not a dirty player.

In fact, I’ll take it a couple of steps further. Not only is Bruce Bowen the best defensive player in the NBA, he’s also the cleanest defender in the game.

Yeah, I said it. And no, you haven’t instantly become dyslexic – you read that last statement perfectly fine. As for my mental state, well I suppose in the minds of quite a few people, that’s now in serious question.

Question my eye sight, my powers of discernment, and even my objectivity all you want, at this point I’ve come to expect it. But what shouldn’t be questioned is the absolute and unrelenting effectiveness of Bruce Bowen’s defense. Like it or not – like him or not – the man can straight up lay the lock down on any player putting sneakers to NBA hardwood. Period.

For the past couple of years now, as Bowen’s prominence as an elite defender in the league has risen, so has the scrutiny of his aggressive, and effective, tactics. More recently, however, some very specific shit has started flying every which way, all over the placement of Bowen’s foot.

I won’t delve into the ‘hokey pokey’ discussion, as I like to call it, just yet, but suffice to say, if the criticism is new, the subject of it isn’t.

The way Bowen plays defense now is the way he’s been playing it ever since I can remember watching him, with only slight variations. All the way back to his early days with the Miami Heat, he’s been locking guys down. One then can only assume his methods have been the same or similar since college and high school. The guy is born to do what he does and he does it better than anyone else.

The history lesson on Bruce Bowen runs deep and would likely do a lot to enlighten some of the haters screaming "dirty" at his game. From a rough childhood, to the comparatively lesser disappointments of going undrafted and bouncing around the CBA for a few years, perhaps knowing what makes up the man would sway some of the critics, but honestly, I doubt it.
The basis for what I’m saying isn’t Bowen’s character, although I’d vouch for that also. What I’m simply saying is this: Bruce Bowen is a hard ass worker, and where he resides now, as a top defensive player on a championship caliber team, is proof of that.

You can trace this back as far as you want, Bruce Bowen isn’t getting handed what he’s got – he’s crawling and scratching and fighting for every inch on his journey and every ounce of recognition. If that isn’t worth your respect, I don’t know what is.

When I watch a guy with a significant disadvantage in terms of athleticism, effectively guard a super human athlete with tremendous skill, I find it to be a thing of beauty, a paradox of basketball logic that only be viewed as inspiring and incredible. But then, perhaps not everyone sees what I see.

Perhaps, the view that many others hold is one that stacks Bowen in an entirely different category than the people he competes against on a nightly basis. Maybe the problem is people see Bowen as the bad guy. It’s not hard to see how one might reach that conclusion. Bowen has the unsavory task of defending the other team’s best offensive player every night – he’s the spoiler, the guy charged with stopping that marquee player in the other uniform from doing what he does best, which is score the basketball. Whether the so called ‘objective’ observer realizes this or not, you’re inherently not going to like the person viewed as the opposition, no matter what he does.

Remarkably, Bowen isn’t that big, isn’t that strong, isn’t that fast, isn’t that athletic, and can’t shoot a lick unless he’s wide open and standing in the corner. Somehow I see all those things as endearing traits. He’s making much of the little he’s got; bump up the lemonade stand from the lemons. Why do I admire Bowen for what he does? Because it’s about all he can do and he does it better than anyone else.

In the past few weeks, as issues of foot placement, and Steve Francis, and Isaiah Thomas have arisen, I couldn’t help but try to fathom how such a heavy amount of hate can be tossed Bowen’s way. I understand how someone getting their ankle sprained can get somebody heated, cause some controversy, I get that. What I don’t get is how someone’s character can get so easily brought into such an issue; what I don’t get is the liberty complete strangers will take when attempting to analyze another person’s motives; what I don’t get is people who would bring up decisions irrelevant to the matter, like Bruce breaking ties with his birth parents after a childhood of watching them addicted to drugs; what I don’t get is the overused erroneous and utterly ridiculous notion that claims someone’s actions on a basketball court can be indicative of a person’s character, as if what one does on a basketball court can be tantamount to a one’s whole moral person. If I’m ignorant, call me ignorant, but I don’t get that. I don’t think I ever will.

I keep thinking, shouldn’t we be praising this man? He’s worked his way up out of nothing to become an incredibly valuable asset to a top tier NBA team, and he’s a great role player in his own right. If memory serves correct, we – we being what I like to refer to as the ‘general basketball public’ – used to praise him. If memory serves correct, those traits, things that are actually shortcomings, things that I found to be admirable, were once viewed by other people the same I way I see them.

There was a time when Bowen was heralded for being a low paid, low maintenance player who simply got his job done night in and night out. What changed? If you guessed his game, his style, his demeanor, or his methods – you’re wrong. Like I said, he’s been doing what he’s going, the way he’s been doing it, for a long ass time. That hasn’t changed.

What changed, and what has subsequently become the problem, is that when Bruce Bowen started, he was viewed as nothing more than a scrub, and he’s probably viewed by many people in much the same way, even today. His aforementioned shortcomings, for as much as the can be seen as admirable, they’ve also been used to demean Bowen and players like him, to make him a second rate citizen in the league, to make him a scrub. And that’s fine so long as he goes along his ho-hum ways, not breaking the mold. But the problem came along when the recognition and praise for his defense elevated Bowen above second rate scrub status. Now he’s a damn fine ball player in his own right. And that’s a status the league’s superstars and even media aren’t willing to afford him.

You Stick Your Right Foot in and You Shake it All Around…

And you wondered why I called it the hokey-pokey discussion.

Now here is where I begin treading on worn out ground. By now you know the story, you probably know it well in fact. There have been several players that have accused Bowen of knowingly and purposely sticking his foot underneath them when they rise up to take their jump shot, with the intention of having them land on his foot, potentially causing an injury.

This issue has unfortunately been dissected to a disgusting degree. We’ve got slow motion video break downs on SportsCenter and people comparing blown up pictures of different players taking shots against Bowen. And I dare not even estimate how many columns have taken this subject before I have. This all seems like two miles past crazy just to figure out where some dude is putting his foot.

To save you some the trouble, I won’t deny anything for Mr. Bowen because he is indeed putting his foot very close to, and at times even underneath players who take shots against him. He doesn’t do so on every play, and it never appears as though he makes a decided effort to do so, but his foot does find its way into the vicinity of the player who he’s guarding.

Nevertheless, I, nor anyone else, have any clue as to his motives. I have no reason to believe he’s acting with malicious intent to hurt another player, or that he wasn’t simply coached into a habit of using that method of boxing out. The idea that such a method isn’t taught simply isn’t true. I’ve played basketball nearly my entire life and I have most certainly been told by coaches to use methods like the one Bowen is being criticized for now. I’ve had it used against me in games on the high school level. Even at a highly regarded basketball camp here in Texas, run by NCAA Division I coaches, I was taught to box out my man immediately after he took his shot, in the same motion as contesting his shot if possible, which obviously involves putting your foot or feet very close to the other player’s landing space.

The issue here isn’t if he’s putting his foot where people claim he is, that’s been established. The issue is not even his motives or if his method is wrong, that’s also been established. Bowen has never been fined or punished by the league in anyway, despite multiple reviews of these incidents. If there was any wrong doing, it would have been dealt with by now.

The issue here is that Bruce Bowen is having calls made to his home to nag him about this. That just isn’t right. What the league is saying by doing this is, despite reviewing these incidents and finding no reason to declare any wrong doing, we, the almighty NBA league office, have to call you and pester you about this anyway, because our star players are asking us to. What this has done is create an ambiguous middle ground between letting Bowen stick his foot wherever he wants, but implying he shouldn’t.

That’s just flat bullshit.

If the league were to go to town on Bowen, throw the book at him, suspend him, fine him, and force him to take foot management classes, I’d actually have less to say about it. I wouldn’t like it, just like I don’t like a majority of the new rule ‘adjustments’ coming about lately, but like those other changes, they are what they are and nothing I say will change them. I’d deal.

And you know what? My guess says if the league did throw the book at Bowen, he’d deal with it too. Because all indication points to him being that kind of guy. He’d adjust and he’d find a way to be just as effective as he is now.

But that’s not what the league is doing. What the NBA is doing, is throwing a slight nudge and glance at Bruce Bowen to tell him, you’re a not a superstar in this league, so don’t piss off our money makers with all that good defense nonsense. Bruce Bowen is yet another causality in the league’s war against tough basketball. If I were paranoid I’d think the NBA wants to outlaw defense all together, or at the very least make basketball a non-contact sport.

Maybe you don’t like it, maybe you just listen to guys like Ray Allen and Vince Carter too much – guys who have been noted for their lack of defensive prowess – but there is nothing dirty about Bowen or his game. Bowen is the best defender in the league for two primary
reasons: first is mentality and constant effort, but second, and perhaps more vital than the first, his fundamentals. To make reference to one of Bruce’s teammates, he’s the Tim Duncan of defense. Stance, foot working, anticipation, he’s right on target on all of it. And yes, being extremely aggressive and playing physical ball is good defense. When you’re playing defense with perfect fundamentals, you’re playing clean defense.

People who say Bruce Bowen is dirty just don’t know good defense.

His style isn’t nice and it isn’t friendly. But since when is a competitive sport supposed to be either of those things?

I don’t know of any other way to say this, but it just seems that all this fuss over Bowen’s foot placement and overall style is just one more step towards ‘wussifying’ the game. So let me be clear, to any player who has complained about Bowen, to any member of the media who has questioned his tactics, to any fat fan who’s never played a game of basketball in his life sitting on his computer criticizing Bowen on some message board or calling into some radio show, to anyone who has ever played basketball ever and thinks what Bowen is doing is wrong… the next four words are yours: man the fuck up.

Bowen is a damn good defensive player who can shut players down, and people should start learning how to deal with that and stop complaining. This isn’t about his character or whether or not he’s dirty, because if it was Raja Bell or Ron Artest for that matter would have been brought up first. This is a matter of players and even fans getting sick of how good this man is at playing defense, despite his lack of athleticism or pedigree.

Players complaining about their ankle after a game against Bowen’s defense makes about as much sense as players complaining about Allen Iverson’s crossover after he breaks their talocrural joint in all kinds of nasty ways. It’s a skill, if you don’t have it or can’t deal with it, then suck it up. And unless the league actually takes a real stand and starts calling Bowen for violations on these so called wrong doings, that’s the stance I take.

You may not like it, some of the NBA’s marquee players may not like it, hell, maybe even the league itself doesn’t like it, but Bruce Bowen is Bruce Bowen, he’s always played the way he plays and he always will. So get used to it.

And watch your step.