Bruce Bowen’s retirement was probably met with cheers from around the league, including both opposing players and fans.
The cheers were probably the loudest in Phoenix.
With Bowen retiring, it is only fitting to look back and try to decide his legacy. Unfortunately it is a legacy that is up for debate. On one hand we have an eight-time all-defensive team player who was one of the game’s premier lock-down defenders of his generation. Kobe Bryant routinely said that Bowen defended him better than any other player. On the other hand we have players such as Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki calling Bowen a dirty player, which is the perception that many fans around the league have.
It’s a difficult question to decide.
First, I’ll agree that Bowen sometimes toed the line that divides dirty from hard-nosed defense. He stayed as close to his man as he could at all times. Sometimes that resulted in him coming too close. To determine if what he did was dirty we have to determine if there was intent. There have been several high profile incidences involving Bowen. There was the mix up when he kneed Nash and the supposed purposeful kicking of Stoudemire. Several players have accused him of putting his foot under them when they shoot. He also had an altercation with Chris Paul that led to Bowen’s suspension, ending his consecutive game streak at 500. I challenge you to watch this view of the altercation and tell me that Bowen kicked Paul.
I, and no other Spurs fan, can deny these incidences happened. However, there are a few reasons why I never viewed Bowen as a dirty player.
First, I believe that the landscape of the game has changed so much in the past few decades that the league as a whole has become soft. The NBA of the 80’s, which some people loved and some hated, was a brand of basketball that was more physical. Players were not afraid of physical play and incidences like Bowen’s were more common. Now the NBA does not allow players to hand check and has cracked down on physical play. Just look back at the last postseason and the absurd amount of technicals. Players, and fans for the matter, are not accustomed to the nature of basketball that Bowen plays.
Second, throughout the 500 consecutive games Bowen played, only a handful of “dirty” plays can be identified. I have a hard time believing a dirty player would selectively choose five or six times to commit a dangerous, dirty play. These dirty plays would be more common and easy to pinpoint. Instead, some fans point out single moments. For example Suns fans point out the Nash and Stoudemire incidences.
Bowen is the type of defender all fans should want on their team, and I believe that all fans would have embraced Bowen if he was on their team. He was not blessed with exceptional height, speed or strength. Instead, he succeeded through hard work and focusing all his energy on stopping the opponent. He wanted to land as close as he could to a player to push them out of their comfort zone. A few times he landed too close, but I don’t think it was an intentional act with the purpose to injure. Bowen and Kobe probably had as many high profile match ups as any two players over the last decade, yet we have never heard Kobe accuse Bowen of being a dirty player. In fact, one could argue that Kobe is a dirtier player than Bowen based on the number of suspensions he has had for punching or attempting to punch players.
Put this in perspective. In 2000 Kobe received a one game suspension for throwing a punch at Chris Childs. In 2002, a two game suspension for throwing a punch at Reggie Miller. In 2005 he received two more games for throwing an elbow at Mike Miller.
I’m not trying to turn this into a rant against Kobe because I think he is an amazing player, but I want to show that opponents and fans have taken moments out of Bowen’s career and tried to paint him as a dirty player game in and game out when the same treatment could be applied to any number of players. Steve Aschburner of Sports Illustrated had an interesting article about Kobe earlier this year where he called Kobe a dirty player. However, he brings up a great point that a player is dirty when they commit a dirty play but only for that game. Bowen played many games without any altercation and one cannot claim he is a dirty player.
Aschburner writes, “Judge players by what they do, when it comes to such chicanery and mini-mayhem. If Bowen or Bell or Nocioni goes an entire game without incident, well, then he isn’t dirty, at least for a night. If Boy Scout Brandon Roy puts a knee into someone’s solar plexus and a smirk suggests it wasn’t an accident, then that’s dirty. Easy.”
I think that’s a good idea. Do not try to describe a player’s career and legacy by a handful of plays out of the hundreds of thousands game he played. Take a look at their entire career. What Bowen has accomplished is what all young athletes should take note of. He out worked his peers to become the defender he did.
When we look back and determine Bowen’s legacy, I hope we can see Bowen for what he was – this generation’s greatest lockdown defender year in and year out.