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A Checker's Career

Well-traveled Bowen is Spurs' defensive specialist, and his assignment, starting tonight, is Bryant

May 05, 2003|Elliott Teaford | Times Staff Writer

SAN ANTONIO — Guarding Kobe Bryant isn't tough.

Well, actually it is, but more about that in a few paragraphs.

Tough is getting to the NBA from Fresno.

It's watching Cal State Fullerton teammates and rivals getting selected on draft day, but never hearing your name called. It's playing in France. It's playing for Continental Basketball Assn. teams in Fort Wayne, Ind., Rockford, Ill., and Sioux Falls, S.D. It's getting cut and returning to France. It's playing a grand total of 33 seconds with the Miami Heat before landing in the CBA again, then, at long last, impressing Rick Pitino enough to gain a spot on the Boston Celtic roster in 1997-98.

Bruce Bowen is tough.

He had to be or else he would have given up a long time ago, leaving someone else to deal with Bryant tonight, when the San Antonio Spurs play host to the Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.

Simply reaching the NBA after several futile attempts offered no guarantee that Bowen would stay and prosper, as he appears to have finally done. The Spurs are his fourth team and that includes two stints with the Heat, although that 33-second appearance in 1996-97 hardly qualifies as a "season."

Nor did Bowen arrive with the sort of suffocating defensive game he now unleashes on opponents. No one who saw him average more than 30 points while playing in Europe, and that includes Frenchman and current San Antonio teammate Tony Parker, could have predicted Bowen would be considered one of the NBA's top defensive players.

"I've been blessed," Bowen said when asked about his long journey. "It taught me patience and perseverance. When I first came out of college, I wanted to be in the NBA, period. Why did I get overlooked? Maybe I wasn't ready. I went to France and I learned to score. I went to the CBA and learned to score some more. I went to the NBA finally and learned to play defense.

"As it turned out, that was my niche."

Indeed.

"We've got Tim Duncan here," Bowen said. "Here's our first option. We have David Robinson. We have rising stars in Tony Parker, Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili. I have a lot of different things to my game."

Somebody has to check Bryant, and Bowen is that man.

Bowen bristles when reporters ask him about defending Bryant, clearly uncomfortable with any labels placed upon him. He vowed to do his best while acknowledging the difficulty of his task. His personality is far different from that of Portland's Ruben Patterson, who so famously dubbed himself the Kobe-stopper.

In fact, Bowen has fared reasonably well against Bryant, holding him to a 30-point average on 45.1% shooting in four games -- all San Antonio victories -- during the regular season. That might not sound as if Bowen did a good job, but the Spurs were pleased with the effort.

"He's like our Deion Sanders," San Antonio's Malik Rose said, referring to the former NFL defensive back. "You remember when Deion was with the Cowboys? He never went into the huddle. He was so locked in on the one guy he was covering. That's just like Bruce. I know facing Kobe is a challenge he looks forward to. Kobe is going to get his numbers, but Bruce makes him work for it."

What makes Bowen so special? Standing 6 feet 7 and weighing 200 pounds, he would seem to be merely an average-sized player in a league filled with exceptionally tall people.

"He's got really quick feet and active hands," Rose said. "He has the talent and the heart and desire to play defense. Bruce wants to play defense. He takes the other team's best player out of the game. He makes him take 10 more shots than usual to get his points, which is a big difference. He makes him work so much harder."

Bowen won't reveal his secrets or his toughest opponents to face, but he will speak modestly about the challenge of facing Bryant.

"I just look to compete as hard as I can against him," he said. "It's the playoffs. He lives for these kinds of challenges. I'm looking forward to making things as difficult as I can for him. I won't tell you my toughest matchup. They may read this and say they're going to go at Bruce."

He smiled.

Bowen said he was a Laker fan while growing up in Fresno.

"In the 1980s, when I was a kid, I was like, 'Yeah, Lakers, let's go, baby,' " he said. "I don't like the Lakers now, but I'm still a California kid."

The Spurs have said during the last few days that this team is deeper, more athletic and more experienced that the ones the Lakers dispatched with a four-game sweep in the 2001 playoffs and a five-game victory in 2002.

And it's not as if Bowen can't score if asked.

He led the league in three-point shooting accuracy this season, hitting 44.9%. He has worked to be a better free-throw shooter, but made only 40.4% from the line.

Still, the Spurs will ask Bowen to chase Bryant around the floor -- not average 20 points. It figures to be a thankless job but, after all his trials and travels, one Bowen is grateful of having. He has one stop to make before taking the court, however.

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