The refrain this season has become a chorus: Bruce Bowen cheats. Bruce Bowen is dirty. Bruce Bowen is a thug. The aggrieved represent a who's who of the NBA-Vince Carter, Ray Allen, Carmelo Anthony-and the list is sure to grow before the Finals are over.
The accusations don't bother Bowen. Want to know why San Antonio's veteran swingman is so good at frustrating scorers? It's because he's spent his life looking for people to latch onto. Having to stick close to someone isn't a job, it's a reward.
Still, Bowen says, "Everyone wants to be liked." The same way he wanted a home, a family, a career. Most of us want all that too. It's just that most of us didn't grow up as the only child of a drugaddicted mom and a drug-dealing, alcoholic dad who weren't together much longer than it took to conceive, the way Bowen tells it. He never knew from one day to the next where he'd be sleeping or where his next meal was coming from. By all rights, he should be just one more dope-slinging badass haunting the west side of Fresno.
It's hard to imagine that now, as he stands before the cameras each game night, in his perfectly knotted tie and tailored suit, speaking so eloquently. But the man you see today was even harder to imagine back then. Dietra Campbell, his biological mom, handed him over to relatives or friends for years at a time. Bruce Sr. was hardly around, living the life of a street hustler in LA. So Bowen cobbled a family out of strangers who opened their hearts to a boy desperately trying not to go wrong. "I guess my way of acting out," he says, "was clinging to people."
So if there's one element of these accusations that sticks in Bowen's gut, it's that he's a thug who's looking to hurt people. The truth is, that's what he was destined to be-and what he has fought his entire life to keep from becoming.
BOWEN'S PRACTICING his Spanish at the heart-or corazon as he calls it-of his self-made life: the kitchen table in his four-bedroom house north of San Antonio. It's the day after the Spurs' Game 4 loss to Phoenix in the Western Conference finals, but there's no reason for alarm, on or off the court. Salsa music floats from the entertainment center. The table centerpiece in front of him is a fishbowl of sand and seashells. A 1940s-style promotional print that reads "Visit Cuba" hangs on the wall behind him. A portrait of Bruce and his Cubanborn, Miami-raised wife, the former Yardley Barbon hangs over the fireplace. Yardley, six months' pregnant with their first child (a boy), bustles around the kitchen with her mother, Margarita, while her father, Rolando, shakes out a rug on the back porch. Black beans and oxtail stew simmer on the stove. A steaming bowl of white rice waits on the counter as fresh chunks of avocado marinate in a plastic tub. Bruce laughs and tells stories, with a smile that's a long way from his hard-eyed, tautlipped game face.
A long way from Fresno.
Not that he's forgotten his hometown. Also at the table are his Uncle Kevin and Aunt Mona, in from the old 'hood. They aren't blood relatives; neither are his "brothers," Quinn and Rodney Crozier, or the folks he calls Mom and Dad, Robert and Sondra Thrash. But Kevin and Mona Tatum took an interest in Bruce when he needed it, just as the others did, and made him one of their own.
His makeshift family began to come together when he was 9. He was a dollar short for a basketball game at Edison High, until he ran into Quinn outside the gym. "Remember, you said borrow ," the then 20-year-old told Bruce as he handed him the dollar. "That means you're going to pay me back." It took a year, but Bowen paid up.
He was a nomad in those days, living off and on with Dietra or her sister, Mary Jane, or their mother, Florella, when he wasn't being passed along to the Croziers. Bowen says his dad started coming around when he heard about his son's prowess as a high school player. But by then Bruce had had enough family support. To this day he says he doesn't know where his dad lives. "He could've easily gone the wrong way," says Quinn, who now works for Pacific Gas and Electric and moonlights as an NCAA ref. "He just wasn't one to make excuses. He took ownership of his life when he was 11 years old."
If Bruce Sr. and Dietra were examples of family misery, the Tatums were a testament to unity. Kevin was the janitor at Edison; Mona worked as a library aide. They raised three kids and pursued teaching degrees on the side, and still had time to welcome Bruce with tacos and Kool-Aid when he came calling.
Their perseverance and resourcefulness-today they are both elementary school teachers-inspired Bowen. When they tell a story about collecting loose change in a jar so they could take their kids to the circus, Bruce bolts out of the kitchen and returns jiggling a plastic cup filled with coins. His odd jobs as a 12-year-old included selling packs of cookies for Mexican Ray, a neighborhood wheelerdealer who drove a pistachio-colored van with a horn that trumpeted "La Cucaracha." The packs cost 99 cents, but a skinny, sad-faced kid with a fund-raising sob story could move them for $3. "If you stopped, I had you," Bruce says. "I was good for $20 a weekend. We got to keep a dollar and Ray got the other two. He really cleaned up."
FOCUS ON Bowen during a game, and you lose track of the action. If point guard Tony Parker crosses halfcourt and goes left, Bowen cuts to the far right corner. If Parker goes right, Bowen swerves left. While everyone circles and dribbles and spins, he waits, shuffling a few feet left or right to make himself available for an emergency kick-out. When a shot goes up, and all eyes and bodies shift toward the rim, Bowen is already running back on D.
At the other end, too, he is doing his job if the ball stays elsewhere. His tools of the trade are quick hands, quick feet and an understanding of the pushing, poking and whispered taunts that distract a scorer. He locked up Suns forward Shawn Marion, who had averaged 19 points a game during the regular season, 21 versus Memphis in the first round and 23 against Dallas. Bowen held him to 7.8. "I can change games by putting a glitch in the other team's offense," Bowen says. "I take pride in that."
But one man's glitch is another man's mugging. Bowen's annoying tricks-the constant face-guarding, the hands tugging at the jersey, always above the waist but on the side away from the refs-doesn't just wear on opponents physically, but mentally. Both Carter and Allen sprained ankles landing on Bowen's foot, and they have suggested he intentionally placed himself in their way.
"I don't think he tries to hurt guys," says Suns radio analyst Vinnie Del Negro. "I've never seen him take a guy out. He will push and shove and grab, but that's different." It's also worth noting that most of Bowen's detractors share a common bond: they've never been known for playing much defense themselves.
"I'll always respect them, because when you don't, that's when they light you up," Bowen says. "But after a couple of years in the league, I realized they were going to say what they were going to say. I know who I am and what I'm about, and that's all that matters."
As a teen, Bowen learned about work ethic from former Raiders running back Calvin Young, who returned to Fresno after he retired to coach Babe Ruth baseball. When Bowen showed up a few days late for practice (he had hoped to hook up with a different team), Young said he'd call if they needed him. "That was a long walk home," Bowen says. Young eventually did call, but he held firm to his ground rules, most of which had to do with push-ups on the spot for any infraction. When Bowen watched a ball land 10 yards foul without giving chase from rightfield, Young called for time, ran onto the field and told Bowen he wouldn't play if that ever happened again. Two pitches later, Bowen ran down an even longer foul ball, then waved it at Young. "Should've been out two pitches ago," the manager said.
Baseball was his first love, but sprouting to 6'7" pushed Bowen to basketball. After receiving offers from D2 schools only, he called the hoops offices at D1 San Jose State, Cal State Fullerton and Pacific, pretending to be the Edison High coach. Whoever answered the phone was told to come check out "the Bowen kid."
Fullerton bit, and Bowen eventually secured his D1 ride. Once again, he was on his own. But while attending services at Christ Center Ministries in LA, he met the Thrashes. Bruce's faith had been steadfast since he put on Grandma Florella's glasses and pretended to read the Bible, mimicking the preacher he'd seen in church. The Thrashes quickly embraced him just as the Croziers and Tatums had, opening their arms to a college student away from home. Bowen called them Mom and Dad out of convenience at first, but the meaning deepened a year later when they invited him on a family vacation. "He's one of us now," they said.
Just when life seemed good, Bowen was faced with rejection again. During his sophomore year, a majority of the Titans tried to force out the coach, John Sneed. "I'm not for or against the coach-I'm here to get an education," Bowen said at the time, trying to steer clear of the turmoil. When the mutiny failed, his teammates froze out Bowen for most of his junior season. But when Brad Holland replaced Sneed the following year, Bowen led the team in scoring and grabbed first-team Big West honors.
Of course, the NBA wasn't exactly lacking for slashing scorers. So after graduating in 1993, Bowen bounced from France to the CBA and back to France. Desperately lonely, he talked into a recorder for hours, chronicling his days and then sending the accounts back home to the Croziers and Tatums. Quinn eventually bought an 800 number so Bruce could call from overseas, and the Thrashes flew to see him. He averaged 30 ppg in France and 11 in Rockford, but still there were no NBA takers. He couldn't help wondering how come. Isaiah Rider, Lucious Harris and Bryon Russell had all made it, and he hung tough with each of them in the Big West.
Finally, in the spring of 1997, Bowen landed a 10-day contract with the Heat. At last, a chance to apply his cookieselling chops again-only instead of telling a customer what he wanted to hear, Bowen showed Pat Riley what he wanted to see. Every day he hounded and locked up the starters in practice. The effort earned him one minute of playing time (in which he blocked a shot), a spot with Miami for the remainder of the season-and the beginning of a career. Three years later, after stints with the Celtics and 76ers, the Heat picked him up again. By the end of the season, he'd earned NBA second-team All-Defense honors. That caught the attention of the Spurs, who were looking to counteract Kobe Bryant's annual spring decimation of their team.
Two years later, in 2003, Bowen and the Spurs were sporting championship rings.
THAT'S ABOUT the time the blood relatives started coming around. They saw the contract numbers and wondered where their cut was. Aunt Mary Jane suggested that Bruce buy Dietra's house, but when he drove by to check it out, he found a crack den.
Bruce Sr. figured he earned something with the $100 he once gave his son to buy some clothes at a swap meet. Besides, wasn't it the old man's athletic ability-good for a few highlights at Merced, Calif., CC and the LA Pro Summer League in the 1970s-that Bruce had inherited? Okay, so he also stole $1,000 in checks his son earned one summer delivering telephone books. But what's the old saying? Blood is thicker than water?
"Not for me," Bowen says. "Blood dogs you. That's my experience."
He helps those who help themselves. He put a cousin and nephew through college. Knowing how Young's discipline helped him, he holds a free hoops camp every summer in Fresno. The rules-no cursing, no tardiness, no messing around-are more important than the drills. The punishment is pushups, naturally, and then a long walk home. "We're not looking for the next Kobe," he says.
But going home is still tricky. Each year, one member or another of his biological family has shown up to rant in front of the campers about what Bowen is not doing for them. He tries to handle the disruptions calmly. "I've made peace with that stuff," he says.
Yardley has helped. When they met in Miami during his second stint with the Heat, he flew in Kevin and Mona for a series of double dates. "I knew what that was about," Yardley says.
She was the final piece. The Barbons escaped Cuba in the 1980s Mariel boat lift. Bruce returned with them on a recent trip to reconnect with family, bringing essentials such as toilet paper, clothes and batteries. Bowen was blown away when he went to Havana and saw the array of photos that all the relatives had of his bride. He now has his own collage of loved ones. It took him a month to make. "My Circle," as he calls it, hangs on the wall outside his bedroom. There are more than 300 photos in it, but don't waste your time looking for Dietra or Bruce Sr.
The Circle and his faith keep him from lashing out at his accusers, be they opposing coaches, players or officials. Bowen is amused by Allen's claim that his tactics have ruined their friendship, seeing as the only time they ever spent together was a trip to Disney World during a meeting for the Mothers of Professional Basketball Players. (Bruce was there with Sondra.) Bowen swallowed his disappointment when Nuggets interim coach Michael Cooper, his role model as a defensive stopper and three-point marksman, dismissed his three-point shooting in a Spurs win as a fluke. Likewise, he's never cursed at a referee. In Game 4 against the Suns, Bernie Fryer called a tripping foul when Bowen duped Amare Stoudemire into what he thought should have been a traveling violation, as well as a phantom holding foul when he forced Joe Johnson into a turnover. "But that's not why we lost," Bowen says. "We didn't get back on defense." Somewhere, Calvin Young is smiling.
Not just at the game, but at the man who is about to become a father. The Bowen baby is due in September and will be named Ojani, a combination of the names of two Barbon relatives. "No more Bruces," says Yardley, matter-of-factly. Bowen nods as he ladles a spoonful of black beans over his rice. Then he looks up and smiles. Never has anyone looked so content to be the last of a breed.
Then again, they couldn't make another one if they tried.