It was over before he could say boo.
In the space of 11 months, Russell (Boo) Bowers was injured, drafted (low), cut, sent to Montana -- the Continental Basketball Association -- and cut again, the day before Thanksgiving.
Last year's American Express has become Boo Who. He has been sitting at home in Westfield, N.J., waiting for the phone to ring. On the rebound from reality. "I think about it a lot," he said. "Lying here, I can't believe what happened. I think about the good years, and the dream almost coming to an end.
"What can I do now? Mostly that's what I give my thought to. I say to myself, 'I don't want to give up. I don't want to give up.' But maybe, it wasn't meant to be."
He is hoping for a tryout with the CBA team in Atlantic City, where they know about games of chance. The Allentown Jets, in the Atlantic League, want him. Coach Al Clocker says he hopes Bowers will be in uniform by next weekend. The Jets pay $50-$200 a game and play two games each weekend. Bowers says it's a lot better than doing nothing. He will have to decide soon. Meanwhile, he is borrowing money from his girlfriend.
True, lots of good college basketball players don't make it to the NBA, but that doesn't make it easier for Bowers. He is a victim of bad judgment, bad breaks, bad timing and great expectations. After all, he holds eight American University records, including highest career scoring average (22.1), and highest season average (26.9). No wonder he expected greener pastures than those of the CBA in Montana, where he found "more cows than people."
"I was a little homesick," he said. "There was no social life. I'm the type that likes to have fun. I like to go to clubs. It's like a farm life out there, all land and grazing. Not my piece of cake."
If that sounds a bit unreal, a bit unrealistic, that's how he was feeling. "One day in Montana I was thinking to myself, 'I think I'm the best off guard here. I'm an NBA player.' I just couldn't get over the fact that I was sitting up in Montana on a CBA team."
He scored 37 points in a scrimmage. But practice was something else. "I was just going through the motions," he said.
George Karl, the coach of the Golden Nuggets, had no patience for someone he thought would be a bad influence on his team. "He (Bowers) was a lackadaisical, lazy practice player. He gave the impression he didn't want to be here and maybe he didn't. I tried to stimulate him. He was the best off guard in camp.
"Lots of people in Great Falls, Mont., don't understand why I cut him. It wasn't a personality conflict between him and I. It was a conflict between what I wanted my team to be and the direction I thought he would take it in."
That is not the Boo Bowers known by his college coaches, Gary Williams and Jim Lynam. He is shy, they say, and hard to get to know, and that doesn't help with coaches who expect players to fit in right away. But lazy, lackadaisical? "Far from it," Lynam said.
"I know what people are saying -- that you have to put up with it if you want to get to the NBA," Bowers said. "I knew I shouldn't have been that way." But Bowers said he was so unhappy that he thought staying would have affected his game.
A player has only his ego, and his game, and Bowers had to change his. At 6-foot-5, he was big enough to play forward in college, but not in the pros. He went to a Bullet pre-draft workout in May. Bob Ferry, the Bullets general manager, said, "We thought he was a very good athlete but we just didn't feel he had a natural position. For the real, real good players in the NBA, the game is easy. For Boo, right now the game is very hard as a guard."
Bill Musselman, vice president for player development for the Cleveland Cavaliers, disagrees. "He's got a professional body. He handles the ball well enough. He's not a bad dribbler. His skills are good enough to do it."
Bowers was drafted by the Cavaliers in the third round, their second pick. Unlike some teams, they were not put off by the knee injury he suffered in the 10th game of last season. He was averaging 25.9 points a game when the medial collateral ligament in his right knee was stretched to the limit. The doctors decided not to operate; they put his leg in a cast. He did not play again until the first-round loss to Toledo in the NIT. He had four points and three rebounds.
He is convinced the injury hurt him in the draft. Gary Williams agrees: "I had three or four pro assistants call and ask how his knee was after surgery."
Donald Dell, the Washington attorney and sports agent who represents former AU all-America Kermit Washington, offered to represent Bowers. He declined, choosing a New Jersey attorney, Roy Greenman, who knew a friend of Bowers at American. "Greenman was just getting started out with me, as opposed to Dell, who has guys like Moses Malone," Bowers said.
Bowers thought Greenman would have more time for him. And besides, he thought he was going to be a first-, certainly a second-round draft pick. He wouldn't need an agent with too much experience. Now, Bowers says, if he had signed "with somebody with more connections, more experience, maybe right now I'd be playing somewhere."
Greenman says no amount of experience could have altered where Bowers was selected in the draft, or by whom.
At first, Bowers was happy about going to Cleveland. Owner Ted Stepien had not yet gone on his free-agent spending spree. In June, he went to the California summer league. At the beginning, he got precious few minutes, as did Mickey Dillard of Florida State, the second-round pick. Dillard went home. Greenman says he tried to get Bowers released so he could catch on with another team. They refused and Bowers stuck it out. When he finally got some playing time, he scored 30 points in one game, impressing both Musselman and Stepien.
Greenman began to get "conflicting reports from different people. The one I relied on was Musselman." Musselman told him that he and Stepien liked Bowers, encouraged him to come to camp, said they were trying to make some trades.
"Gerald Oliver, the California league coach, was being honest with me," Greenman said. "He said with 12 players on guaranteed contract, if he (Bowers) could go to Italy and get some money guaranteed for a year, it would be the best thing for him. He would get lots of playing time and develop his ability as a guard."
Later, Greenman says, Oliver changed his mind and encouraged Bowers to come to camp. In August, Bowers went to Italy and tried out for a team in Rimini. They were talking about a one-year contract for $55,000. Rimini was talking to another player; Bowers was thinking about the NBA. He decided to go to the Cavaliers' preseason camp.
He was there three days before he was cut. He never went full court. "Just dummy drills," he said. "I thought I would be given a good shot. I thought I had a 50-50 chance of making it. They lied to me. When I got there, it was a whole different story . . . The head coach told me it was because of the contract situation. He said they couldn't afford to keep me."
Don Delaney, Cleveland's general manager who was removed as head coach last week, said, "He lacked too many one-on-one skills. He couldn't beat out the people on the roster, if they were guaranteed or not." Dillard made the team.
Musselman said, "Everbody but the head coach liked him. The head coach had the decision . . . We didn't give him time and he needed time for the transition. With the numbers on the roster, because of the guarantees, the coaches were trying to go fast. Obviously, he didn't get a chance."
Bowers says he's not "going to keep on chasing." He'll give it one more shot. He has two more classes to finish before graduating from college. He wouldn't mind teaching gym.
"Only the real dreamers look at it as a lock," Lynam says. "He is enough of a realist . . . I don't like to see athletes portrayed as these poor guys. He'll stand on his own two feet. He's not going to be a guy standing on the street corner."