Saturday, June 9, 2007

Why people, myself included, don't like Bruce Bowen

Here is the link to Jemele Hill's article on Bowen. In the article she tries to break down, mostly by questioning Spur and Cavalier players, why Bowen is good and why people hate him. She keeps the article grounded in the info she gets from players. I wanted her to delve a little deeper and so I've resurrected my readerless blog in order to work my way through why I wish Bowen would become a high school teacher right now instead of, as he explains he would like to do, after he retires.

Bowen is a good person. He is into working in the community and contributing as best he can. No one ever knocks Bowen for not having a good heart. So what's the deal here? Why aren't people souped about having a good guy, when all we ever do is complain about all the nasty, naive, egotistical people in the NBA?

If we watched basketball to see people with the highest moral standards putz around with a ball, the Spurs would have a lineup of Kim Jae Dung, Muhammad Yunus, Jimmy Carter, John Hume and David Trimble, going up against the Cavs' Jodi Williams, Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, José Ramos Horta, Yasser Arafat and Yitzak Rabin. Click the link if you like - those are all winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. I'm guessing the basketball fans reading this (allow me to, just for a moment, delude myself into believing I have an audience) don't know who most of those people are. And although that's sad, it's also no surprise.

It's not a surprise because people like watching basketball, the game of basketball, played well. They are interested in seeing people who affect the game of basketball. Why do people get more souped about bball than life? Because it's easier to understand. There are rules that make the winners and losers clear. It's a real drag to try to figure out why so many bad things happen in the world. Too complicated, too frustrating.

Now let's take a minute and step back to break down why Bruce Bowen is in the NBA.

Here's an Eric Snow quote yanked from Hill's article:

"My man AI [Allen Iverson] used to call him 'Happy Feet,'" Snow said, "because he's always moving his feet. He's just irritating. He's always constantly moving, constantly has his hands on you. If there's ever a limit to what a defender can do, he'll always be to that limit."

So there's a skill. He is quick on his toes, is, perhaps because of physical gifts, able to move more quickly than most defenders, and more importantly, than most offensive players. He is also probably mentally talented. He has trained himself, learned the way his opponents move and is good at figuring out their next move and cutting them off before they make it. Man, that's pretty cool. This guy can do something that other people can't do. With a combination of some special physical skills and mental acuity, he plays some excellent defense. I like to see scoring, but I want to see players score by making amazing plays, not by running by lazy defenders for easy slams. I like to see players make amazing plays, be forced to be creative, to use their amazing talents to score. Bowen forces them to make amazing plays in order to score, and that's great. I'm happy, at least so far in this analysis, that Bowen is in the NBA. He makes me more interested in watching.

But Bowen does more than that - he takes advantage of the rules. He, as Snow explains, constantly has his hands on you. He will kick you, stick his feet under you. Anything to throw you off. Is that basketball? If referees were omniscient beings and could control every aspect of the game with exactitude, and I told you to tell these refs, program them to make the players play basketball as it should be played, would you tell these refs to allow Bowen to put his hands on players, trip, elbow, even jump kick other players? No, you wouldn't. You'd say those are extracurriculars, which until we found these omniscient refs, we had to deal with. My point here is that if the NBA was perfect, Bruce Bowen wouldn't have the talent to be in the game. Or he would at least be a much less useful player.

But wait, there have been other guys who make a good chunk of their living by taking advantage of the rules. Laimbeer and Rodman come to mind. Why don't we hate them like we hate Bowen (the players may have, but the fans didnt)? Well, unlike these excellent anti-heroes, Bowen shows no interest, no self-awareness about his sacreligious tactics, his antihero status. He doesn't laugh when he gets under your skin. He doesn't die his hair, get all tattooed, dress in drag, make controversial comments. He just goes out and in his even, long and expressionless face, does the same thing every night. He's robotic. How can I connect with or root for a player when, as far as i can tell, he has zero sense of humor? This used to be a knock on Duncan, but TD has learned to express himself more on the court, to chill out. Bowen is still as humorless as ever.

Furthermore, when you talk about Laimbeer, you're talking about a guy who led the league in rebounding and free throw percentage and was a force from the three point line. Rodman was perhaps the most dominant rebounder ever (18.7 rpg in 91-92, led the NBA in rebounding for 8 straight years). Bowen doesn't put up any stats, not even steals or blocks. He has been among the leaders in 3pt shooting a few times, but I can't count that since he only shoots from two spots. These other guys had other talents besides roughneck defense, which makes them easier to root for.

If Bowen isn't like Laimbeer or Rodman, who is he like? He's like Shaq! Now don't press click away just yet, read on for a bit and you'll get where I'm going. In the '90s, people thought Shaq took advantage of the rules, bowled over defenders, was successful more as a result of his size than his skill. He didn't play basketball the way it was meant to be played. He was no fun to watch. Over time, however, people have realized that Shaq's game has more nuance to it. He is a very good passer, a leader who inspires his teammates to play above themselves (just look at how he rallied a Wade-less Miami team above .500 in the latter half of this past season). Also, as Shaq has aged, he has lost some of his ability to dominate. He is still just as big, but he has lost some athleticism. By witnessing this, we fans have been forced to acknowledge that a lot more of Shaq's dominance had to do with athleticism and skill than with size. Bowen, in ten years as pro basketball player, is still the same one-dimensional schmo.

Let's do another hypothetical here. Let's give every NBA player, in addition to all the skills they already have, the, "I'll do whatever I can get away with to stop my man" attitude. The NBA would be miserable to watch. Almost all the creativity and fantastic athletic feats that we love to watch in the NBA would be stifled. Steve Nash would spend most of the game on the floor holding his balls. NBA rosters would grow to the size of NFL rosters just so they could keep enough healthy bodies available. On the bright side, ratings would dip so low that the general public would finally have a better knowledge of Nobel Peace Prize winners than of professional basketball players.

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