Theory: Bruce Bowen's detractors don't really hate Bruce Bowen. They hate that Bruce Bowen isn't on their team.
In the wake of Bowen's most recent incident with an opposing team's star -- this time a tangle-up with the Hornets' Chris Paul, which earned Bowen a one-game suspension for an incident that likely wasn't as much his fault as appeared at first glance -- the "Bowen is the dirtiest player in the league and must be stopped!" sentiment seems to have come across the national media and the general fan populous with greater vengeance than ever before.
Somehow, even though I'm certainly no Spurs fan by any means, I can't seem to get on the anti-Bowen bandwagon. My guess is that it's because I know that given the choice, I would take this guy on my team any day of the week. It is the contention here that most around the league would likely be hard-pressed to say they wouldn't do the same.
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We have long canonized the antics of those with bigger names and bigger stat-lines under the happy umbrella of 'gamesmanship.'
John Stockton, long known for doing more than anyone's fair share of holding, clutching, grabbing, palming and a variety of other underhanded acts on the floor, has his dirtiness referred to in jest, largely thanks to the fact that he is one of the greatest passers of all-time and ran a beautiful pick-and-roll offense for nearly two decades with Karl Malone. By the midst of his own heyday, the single-minded competitor known as His Airness, Michael Jordan himself, was getting away with anything and everything he wanted to, and he wasn't immune to doing whatever he had to do in order to have his way on the floor, either verbally or physically. Those are just two of the game's many greats whose legends have been long augmented by the tales of tugging shorts, holding jerseys, tapping shooters' elbows and generally following the edict that is "Ref didn't see it, I didn't do it."
It just so happens that guys who are placed on pedestals for this sort of on-court conduct happen to be the ones who had something to offer for everyone who watched them play. Michael Jordan was the best player of his generation, and the magical powers of number 23 -- particularly on the offensive end -- left fans everywhere in awe. The same is true of Stockton's passing and the offensive talents of other stars who have similarly gained praise for their 'gamesmanship.' We might hate that they are getting away with it on the nights that they play against our respective teams, but we are consistently left in awe by the rest of their work, and we know that nearly all the time we watch them. And just in case we didn't, the media and NBA are all too happy to throw that down our throats, because that is what the NBA does these days: It markets stars and high-flying offensive performances.
Bruce Bowen doesn't fall into that category. Perhaps he doesn't engender love from fans around the league because he isn't a star and because his game isn't particularly pretty to watch. Bowen doesn't provide a joy for fans to watch on nights when he isn't playing against their team. He is just a pest who runs around and makes the best player on the opposition crazy every night. He occasionally shoots the corner three, but other than that, the man isn't a scorer and doesn't look to shoot. If the average fan isn't actively watching Bowen instead of the ball, especially on defense (and the average fan probably isn't), more likely than not, the only time he will notice Bowen is when controversy arises.
Bowen is just a man doing everything he can to survive. He works his tail off to do everything he can to hang in and give his team the best chance possible to win, and sometimes he scratches and claws and tugs and holds along the way, perhaps occasionally crossing lines of propriety, perhaps not. He doesn't (to our knowledge) take performance enhancers or do any of what this country's sports-watching populous (and apparently Congress, too) has come to consider 'cheating.' No, Bowen just does everything he can inside the lines to naturally gain himself an advantage, a behavioral pattern that qualifies under our current social structure as craftiness rather than cheating.
In fact, it's odd that this guy isn't the one who inspires love from fans around the country, as his game is the type with which most of us are likely able to identify best. The vast majority of non-basketball players can't dunk a basketball. They can't hang in the air and maintain the power needed to execute an up-and-under reverse lay-up. They can't shoot a basketball with pinpoint accuracy from 25 feet away from the hoop. They can, however, hustle. As a six-one dude with no quickness or jumping ability, it is hard to envision myself looking down on the rim anytime soon. It seems a lot more palatable to see myself sprinting around with everything I have to give and trying to be as much of an obstacle as possible for the opponent, as successfully as I can manage to push myself to be.
In a league full of too many players considered to be coasting along on natural talent alone, Bruce Bowen is the guy whose hard work is his greatest virtue (which isn't to say that he is free of natural basketball skills, just that the ethic stands out above all else). This is the guy who never gives up, who puts out the effort needed to lock down virtually every star in the league on the perimeter. This is the scrappy guy who does the glamor-less work needed to make his team better.
That he happens to be a great teammate and person doesn't hurt either. Off the floor, Bowen is rumored to be one of the nicest and most personable guys in the league. He has been a shining star near the head of the league's charity efforts for several years now, as Bowen works tirelessly to give underprivileged youths the opportunities he didn't have as a youngster. He doesn't run into trouble with the law and doesn't wise off to the media. No, all he does is keep playing hard on the court and working hard off it.
Great defender. Solid guy. Hard worker. Winner. Crafty, dirty or perhaps gamesman-like, depending on one's perspective.
I'll take my chances with this guy.