Bruce Bowen wasn't a pricey pickup, but the Spurs are at a loss
by Ian Thomsen
Tim Duncan is among the front-runners for the MVP award, while a
reenergized David Robinson has lifted the Spurs into title
contention. But equally vital to San Antonio last month during
its 13-game winning streak--the longest in the league this
season--was the play of 30-year-old forward Bruce Bowen, who is
among the NBA's best bargains.
As a defensive specialist the 6'7", 200-pound Bowen provides the
same toughness on the perimeter that Duncan and Robinson do
beneath the basket. It is no accident that the Spurs were 38-12
at week's end with Bowen in the lineup, as opposed to 11-12
during his seven-week absence in January and February with a
broken finger on his right hand. All he will cost San Antonio
this season is his salary of $715,850, plus the price of a
round-trip ticket to China.
The Spurs were desperate for a stopper like Bowen after Kobe
Bryant torched them for 33.3 points per game during the Lakers'
sweep of last season's conference finals. They'd hoped to fill
that role with multidimensional Derek Anderson, who was limited
to 41 minutes in the series because of a separated shoulder. But
Anderson declared his intention to sign with the Trail Blazers
last summer, prompting the Spurs to work a sign-and-trade with
Portland for Steve Smith, a terrific spot-up shooter but no match
for Bryant on D.
Last July, San Antonio coach and general manager Gregg Popovich
sent head scout Lance Blanks to Beijing, where Bowen, a free
agent, was participating in an NBA-sponsored goodwill tour of
China. "We needed to show him that we really wanted him," says
Popovich. All his former coaches--Rick Pitino with the Celtics,
Larry Brown with the 76ers and Pat Riley with the Heat--had raved
about Bowen, but none had made keeping him a priority. Blanks
persuaded Bowen to sign a two-year, $1.5 million contract.
After Miami lost Bowen to San Antonio, Riley tempered his raves
considerably, pointing out that Bowen had the lowest offensive
production among starting small forwards in 2000-01. Of Bowen's
energy, athleticism, leadership and defense, Riley said, "I
believe that these things can be found and taught."
With Bowen in the starting lineup, the Spurs got off to a 20-4
start; after Bowen broke his finger on Jan. 9, they dropped 13 of
their next 24. "You really don't know how good Bruce is until he
isn't around," says Robinson. At week's end Bowen was averaging a
paltry 6.9 points while shooting 36.9%, but Popovich looks beyond
the numbers. "He is not a great shooter," says Popovich, "but he
can make the big shot."
Bowen has always been an in-your-face defender, but the security
of having shot blockers like Duncan and Robinson has made him
even more aggressive. During San Antonio's 108-90 victory over
the Lakers on March 20, Bowen held Bryant to 20 points and forced
him into seven turnovers. Before the game Bowen had asked
reporters to refrain from calling him a Kobe stopper. "Not
smart," he said. "All that does is fuel his fire."
On Sunday, Bryant took revenge, scoring a game-high 31 points in
the Lakers' 96-95 win, their seventh victory in eight games
against San Antonio. Kobe stopper or not, L.A. still has the
Making a Difference
Shareef Abdur-Rahim is quiet by nature. But last July, when the
Grizzlies sent him to his hometown team, the Hawks, in a
multiplayer deal for the rights to rookie Pau Gasol, he resolved
to become a vocal leader. "I'm the kind of person who looks at
himself and asks, What could I have done better?" says
Abdur-Rahim, 25, who grew up in suburban Marietta.
His first project in Atlanta was to seek out 21-year-old guard
DerMarr Johnson, who had endured a frustrating rookie season. "We
had mutual friends who asked that I look out for him," says
Abdur-Rahim, who had his locker moved next to Johnson's. After
their first workout last summer, Johnson was on his way to a
fast-food lunch when Abdur-Rahim headed him off. He brought
Johnson home to eat and began to teach him about a proper diet.
The 6'9" Johnson was averaging 9.4 points in 37 starts at week's
end, offering hope that he'll develop into the spectacular
slasher the Hawks envisioned when they picked him sixth out of
Abdur-Rahim attributes his maturity to his upbringing and to his
devotion to Islam. After Sept. 11 he established a relief agency
for families victimized by the attacks, Rebound America, to which
he will contribute $100 for each of his boards this season
($62,700 through Sunday). To Abdur-Rahim, the terrorists had
nothing in common with Islam. "The media puts out a misperception
by calling them Muslim terrorists," he says. "They weren't Muslim
terrorists any more than Timothy McVeigh was a Christian
terrorist. They were misguided people."
The 6'9" Abdur-Rahim doesn't have the hops of many of the
league's young stars, but he can run the break, shoot the three
and finish in the paint. As important as Abdur-Rahim's
team-leading 21.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, says coach
Lon Kruger, is that he practiced and played for five weeks
despite a painful hip bruise. "Other guys might not have,
especially in a losing situation like ours," says Kruger, who
credits Abdur-Rahim's leadership for the team's winning record
(13-11) since the All-Star break.
Abdur-Rahim has won an Olympic gold medal and been named an
All-Star. Next season he hopes to make his postseason debut
alongside point guard Jason Terry and center Theo Ratliff, who is
expected to fully recover from a right hip sprain that limited
him to three games this season. Who knows--the rumors that the
Hawks will bring in Jerry West as G.M. might even prove true.
(Team president Stan Kasten declined to comment on West.) If
Abdur-Rahim can lead the Hawks back to respectability, Atlanta
fans should take pride in him as a local kid made good. "He's
been an All-Star on the court," says Kasten, "and a Hall of Famer
Play of the Week
One for the Aged
On March 26 John Stockton turned 40. Not only did he become the
10th player to appear in the league at that age, but he also
scored 20 points, handed out six assists and scored the go-ahead
layup with 4:21 left as the Jazz recovered from a 15-point
third-quarter deficit to beat the visiting Rockets 109-105. Among
the refs working the game was former NBA point guard Leon Wood,
who in 1984 was drafted No. 10, six spots ahead of Stockton.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER The 6'7" Bowen isn't much of a scorer, but on most nights that's also true of the man he's guarding.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Tired of losing, Abdur-Rahim vowed to be a more vocal leader when he came to Atlanta.
around the Rim
Nets coach Byron Scott intends to play Kenyon Martin in the last
two games of the regular season, even though a flagrant foul
could result in a two-game suspension that would sideline him
during the playoffs. "I feel he has had his last incident," says
Scott.... Many scouts think the Hornets will reach the Finals,
which raises the question, Will fans in Charlotte buy playoff
tickets should the NBA's Board of Governors approve the team's
move to New Orleans in its vote on April 9?... In addition to
winning the slam dunk contest and the rookie game MVP award
during All-Star weekend, Jason Richardson saw what it will take
to lead the Warriors out of their doldrums. "No disrespect to my
teammates, but I've learned by seeing how hard the All-Stars
work," says Richardson, who vows to improve his defense this
summer.... Have you missed Mark Cuban's rants about the refs?
Cuban, who hasn't been fined since Jan. 8, says he hasn't had to
harp on the officiating system because gaffes by refs (including
Lamond Murray's game-winning catch-and-shoot bucket for the
Cavaliers with .5 of a second on the clock) have made the case
for him.... The Lakers' rivals are drawing hope from the recent
sight of entry passes sailing over the outstretched hand of
Shaquille O'Neal, who's hindered by his arthritic right big toe.
Says coach Phil Jackson of Shaq, "He's looking like, Is this
worth my effort to go up?"