By Mike Wise
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
The locker room was almost vacant prior to Game 1, except for an NBA player and a reporter.
"How was the wedding?" Bruce Bowen was asked.
"Beautiful. Real nice." He had married Yardley, his longtime girlfriend, in her home town of Miami last summer. "A perfect day.
"And you? How's D.C.? You okay with everything?"
Seventeen years have gone by, 17 years of hoop, heartbreak and everything in between.
Bowen was the first great athlete I interviewed at my first job. In 1988, he was the star of Edison High School's varsity basketball team. Two nights a week he and the Tigers doled out pride and hope for a neighborhood in West Fresno, Calif., that had little of either.
I doled out hyperbole, bad headlines and underdeveloped film for the Sanger Herald, a 5,000-circulation weekly newspaper southeast of Fresno. Twice a year, the local high school team would run up against Edison. Bowen, Edison's best player, would grow, mature and cling tightly to the greatest offensive basketball players in the world, like dryer lint, before he would let them score.
I could be wrong, but I think Bowen's entire high school team could dunk the basketball. The Tigers did not run through layup lines in pregame warm-ups; they ran revivals. The masses -- old and young people from the community -- fell over themselves in the stands. The adults were slamming the ball through the rim just as much as those proud, black teenagers, whom they all lived through vicariously. The bass thumped through the gymnasium on foggy January nights in the San Joaquin Valley. Not a ticket went unsold.
Bowen and his teammates did not discriminate in beating down other schools. By tip-off, most visiting teams were toast, mentally. That's just the way it was at Edison. He was a superior player, the kind who would make any young writer ask himself, "Is this guy good enough to ever play in the NBA?"
I had no idea then, but the gangly kid asked himself that, wondering if he had been blessed and nurtured enough to leave his environment and survive. Bruce Bowen was blessed, but he was barely nurtured. He still managed to survive.
Imagine your biological father cashing checks you had earned from delivering phone books as a child, taking your money to pay for alcohol. Or coming home from school one day to find, at age 13, that your biological mother had swapped the television for crack cocaine.
When life became dangerous, Bowen's uncle Darryl would come pick him up. "He was the only one who didn't leave me hanging," Bowen said. "He and sons are my brothers."
Bowen's reality, he revealed a couple of years ago over lunch and on ABC in a halftime feature during Game 2 on Sunday night, was looking for his biological mother on the streets, parenting her because she could not parent him. His biological father would show up from time to time, coming by a baseball game after five years of not seeing his son, and boast, "Hey, that's my boy." Bowen would just shake his head, move on and not look back.
"People have this idea of me coming from a good family and a good upbringing because of the way I speak and handle myself," Bowen said. "But that wasn't my reality. I don't think a lot of people want to know the reality."
The 2005 NBA Finals are two games old. After knocking down a plethora of three-pointers and locking down Rip Hamilton to help the Spurs to a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, Bowen marched to the interview room in coat and tie, thoughtfully answering questions about his game.
"You're guarding Rip on one end. How do you still have legs down on the other?" he was asked.
"It's a situation where I've had many obstacles in my life and I have no time to cry for myself, or worry or complain," Bowen said. "On the court, I'm an NBA player. That's enough incentive for me."
The coping skills he developed as a child carried him through a professional odyssey going on two decades. Undrafted after his senior season at Cal State Fullerton in 1993, Bowen withstood seven years of the NBA telling him to give up the dream. Among a long list of rejections, he was cut by Pat Riley and released by current Pistons coach Larry Brown when both were in Philadelphia.
He went to France and back until his defense caught Riley's eye again in Miami. In 2001, the Spurs signed Bowen to a three-year deal. In 2003, he helped the franchise to its second NBA championship in four years. He had everything he ever wanted, including a family to replace the one that neglected him as a child.
Today, Bowen is estranged from several of his biological relatives, including his parents. Bowen returns to West Fresno each year to put on a free basketball camp at Edison, which has made for some uncomfortable moments. His grandmother tried to arrange yet another truce between he and his biological mother. She referred to her grandson as "Satan" for shunning the family that shunned him as a child. "Can you believe that?" he said. Bowen waved her away, uninterested in reconciliation.
He calls Robert and Sandra Thrash, a couple he met at church his freshman year in college, his father and mother. They came down from the SBC Center stands and hugged him after Game 2, along with his surrogate brother and sister, Kevin and Mona Tatum. Bruce's cousin, Ryan Bowen, a former major league pitcher, also came down and clutched his cousin's hand and embraced him. Yardley, due to have the couple's first child in September, joined the group later and kissed her husband.
"It's a boy," she said, smiling. "We're going to name him Ojani."
Sometimes in this business, you run into a kid from one of America's most impoverished neighborhoods. Talking to him in front of a locker room on a cold night, you worry how he will turn out, how he will provide for his own son -- whether he can even overcome his environment.
Seventeen years later, you catch up with that kid, who became a good-hearted, incredibly strong-minded 34-year-old man -- a survivor of his childhood as much as his profession.
And you realize, standing outside another locker room with him, that no one will ever have to worry about Bruce Bowen's children the way you worried about him.