Former 3x NBA Champion, long time San Antonio Spurs forward and premier NBA defensive stopper Bruce Bowen was in India from October 31st to November 6th to promote the NBA and the game of basketball through interactive sessions with fans and clinics for players and coaches. Bowen is the latest in the line of more than 30 retired or current NBA/WNBA stars to visit India in the last eight years.
Team Ekalavyas’ reporter, Vishnu Ravi Shankar, along with cameraperson Anukriti Bishen, caught up with Bowen in New Delhi for an exclusive chat a day after the NBA Jam event in the National Capital Region (NCR). We found the ex-Spur in a good mood – he was sharp, witty and patient with his answers to our questions. Read our exclusive full-length interview below as Bowen delves into the Spurs philosophy, Coach Pop’s methods, his defensive preparations and the NBA today, among many other things.
How has your experience been so far in India? What do you think of the response to your visit and the love for basketball here?
I think it’s been fantastic. Any time you get the chance to visit another country, I think there are a lot of pluses out of that. It’s an opportunity to visit folks, but more importantly, to spread the word of basketball and what it can do for you. I always tell kids back in the States that basketball has allowed me so much in life. It allowed me to get an education, it allowed me to travel the world and even after I’m done with it, it still allows be to travel the world and now educate others on my experiences so that they may be able to utilize something from that.
Tell us a little bit about your playing career. You spent your first few years with teams in Europe and then back in the NBA. However, you then settled down and your last nine seasons were with the Spurs. What made you so valuable to the Spurs organization and how did you find your niche in the Spurs roster?
I wasn’t drafted, and that didn’t bother me, because that was the reality. I think sometimes today’s kids are not dealing with reality enough. People tell them how great they are and when they have a setback, they don’t look at it as an opportunity to grow. I utilized France as an opportunity to grow as a basketball player. I utilized the CBA as an opportunity to get to my final destination, which was the NBA. Too many times, you have a lot of kids in the US crumbling under certain failures. They don’t utilize the failures as an opportunity to learn and to become better. When I was in the NBA, it was different. In college, I had to improve as a player and that was the biggest difference from all the things that I went through. I’d like to think that I improved in France or in the CBA, and continued the process even in the NBA, and once I got to San Antonio, it just so happened that everything kind of clicked. My brand of basketball fit their style and because of that, it allowed me to be there as long as I was, continuously trying to make sure that each and every day or each and every year, I get better. I don’t ever come to a point, where people go like ‘Oh man, he’s not even working hard any more’. I wanted to get better every season.
Coach Pop is considered among the greatest coaches in the NBA. How was your experience playing under him and playing with the big three of Tony, Tim and Manu?
Pop is a very simple individual. He’s a lot like an uncle or a grandfather to you. He doesn’t say too much and your friends are always looking at him and are like ‘Why does he look so mean? Why does he look this way or that way?’ But in the reality of it all, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He understands that it’s the little things in life that are valuable and it’s important for NBA players to understand that. That’s what he’s continuously stressing in an environment of basketball. He’s not the type of individual that’s going to promote himself. All he asks for you to do is your job, whatever your job is: if it’s knocking down 3 point shots, shoot the three pointer; don’t try to become something else. That’s where players get into trouble, players always think a lot more of themselves than they actually are and so that’s where the issues happen. But he has an uncanny way of just continuously communicating what he wants to people and that uncanny way is direct – ‘I want you to do this’. Instead of going around different places, he’s right to the point. You can’t say ‘I didn’t understand you!’ So it’s a situation where, when that happens, ‘Boom!, you understand what you’re dealing with. As far as Tim, Tony and Manu are concerned, I always thought it was hilarious when, maybe after our second championship, they started saying ‘the Big Three’. And it was funny because it wasn’t necessarily about the three of them, but it was about individuals helping one another to make sure that we get to the point where success happens. I get its been a group that has been together for so long that you can continuously say ‘the Big Three of San Antonio is doing this or doing that’. You need that in order to win in the NBA. So, it’s great to have been a part of that, but the most important thing I take from that experience is how we didn’t want to let one another down. It was more or less about – if I’m late, I’m letting them down. I had to do my job because they’re doing their job. If they’re doing their job, then we all hold one another accountable.
Let’s talk a little bit about defense. You were considered as one of the premier defensive stoppers in the NBA. How did you prepare for your defensive matchups? Did you watch a lot of videos and study opponent players’ statistics?
Yeah, it was a lot of videos. I wasn’t big on statistics. I needed to see it. Watching tape on a player, I knew their tendencies. I knew that late in the game, they were going to go to their strengths. In the beginning of the game, guys may try different moves, but we are all creatures of habit. In intense situations, we go to our strengths. So no matter what, I know where you want to go because of what I’ve watched. For Kobe, if he had the ball at the top of the key, he wanted to go to the right elbow. If he didn’t get separation then he would pump fake, pump fake to get you up. Dirk Nowitzki loves his left hand. So if I could keep Dirk from getting to his left hand, then my odds of affecting his shot would be greater. That’s what it all boils down to – trying to put guys in uncomfortable situations. So if I know Kobe wants the ball at the elbow, I’m going try to push him out to the 3-point line, so now I can take a step back because he doesn’t necessarily want to pull up for the three, he wants to get something going to the basket. It’s all about preparation – anything in life is about preparation – whether you’re in school or if you’re preparing for a new job – you study and that’s the same thing I did. I studied what they did. I saw how fresh they were – you know, if they got a day’s rest before me, I knew I was going to get a good player. But I know if they were coming in off a back to back, I’d have to jump on them early because they’re a little fatigued and maybe, if I wear on them, then they’ll say ‘Okay, that’s enough. I’ll be okay the next night’. So it’s all about preparation and understanding exactly where you are and what you’re doing.
Who did you think was the toughest player to guard?
Michael Jordan hands down because of his ability to think on the floor. Michael was a student of the game. He knew what you wanted to do and he knew how you’d defend it. He knew some of your strengths as far as what you wanted to do but he was going to enforce his will of what he was going to do because he was that good. And he had a never-quit attitude. All the other guys I played against, they quit at some point. They may not say it, but I knew, because I was dealing with them. I was very observant. So I know that when Kobe catches the ball and he just swings it to someone else, I know that I’ve won.
IMG-Reliance plans to launch a professional basketball league in India soon, around 2016. The focus has been on other sports lately in India – the soccer league that has just started has become big. A lot of foreign players, who were former soccer stars, are coming to play in the league in India. You seem like you’re in top shape. If you were offered the opportunity to play in a league in India, would you be interested?
(Jokes) How long is the league going to last? That’s what I gotta know! (laughs) Well, you always got to listen to hear what they have to say because you never want to close your doors on anything. But, if anything, I could help talking to guys, instead of being out on the floor – like a mentor or in the front office or something; because if they get me out there now, they’d be like ‘Hey, I thought he used to play defense! He’s not doing anything!’ (laughs hysterically).
What are your thoughts on the defensive rule changes in the NBA today? Nowadays, shooters have the right to a certain amount of landing space on their shot and defenders can’t encroach on that space. Also, the league has generally become stricter on body contact. What do you think of this? Has the NBA gone soft?
I don’t think the NBA has gone soft. I think more of the players have become a lot more soft. There were rule changes every single year I was in the NBA as far as defense was concerned. I remember there was no hand-checking anymore or what was called tactile touching – so you could touch the guy but you just couldn’t guide him. It’s all just about staying within the confines of the rules. During training camp you’d have your coaches tell you exactly what you could or could not do. So as you’re going through your defensive drills and you do something that you’re not supposed to, you’d have coaches tell you, ‘You can’t do that. We gotta play defense like this’ (stretches wingspan). So, I find that when I hear people complain about the new rules or whatever, its only because they didn’t prepare for it. If you’re preparing for the things that you should, then there’s no excuses out there. So don’t make excuses. Abide by the rules. Simple as that!
Let’s talk about the NBA today. Are you following the NBA and if you are, what are your predictions for this season?
Yes, I follow the NBA and it’s been fantastic being here right now, because on Sony SIX, in the mornings, they’re showing two games. So I get the chance to stay on top of what’s going on in the NBA. It’s tough to say who’s going to win each and every year, because you don’t want to discredit what other teams are doing. Everyone’s talking about Cleveland right now, but I don’t like jumping on the same bandwagon that everybody else is on. I’ll be like ‘Chicago then! I’m saying Chicago!’ (everyone in the room laughing). But in honesty, Chicago has a very good ball club with Pau Gasol there. He can take the pressure off Derrick Rose and you have a lot of role players that would be good with him. You have Kirk Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy, Doug McDermott, but most importantly you have Joakim Noah there as well. He’s a guy who can defend, but also, he’s not just a defender, he’s an offensive guy who knows how to do things. Once he and Pau get to know one another, I think that they’re going to have a special bond there. Cleveland is good too, but it’s going to take time. I’m not necessarily sold on Kevin Love’s scoring. In Minnesota, he had big points but there wasn’t anybody else there – his points were empty. Now, you add Kyrie Irving to the mix – two guys who’ve never been to the playoffs – who’s going to share the ball, who wants to hold the ball. We know that Kyrie is good when he has the ball, but late in the game, he may not have the ball. So how effective will he be when he doesn’t have the ball. All these different questions, that’s what basketball is about. So it’s hard to say – ‘So and so is going to do this’. On the flipside, I don’t want to discredit the team who just won it all, be it Miami last year or Spurs this year But you also got to look at the LA Clippers – a young, athletic team. Athletic teams give older teams a hard time, because you just can’t teach quickness! You can teach the fundamentals, but as you get older, others get quicker! I think the injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – those would be the blessings in disguise to other teams as they start their playoff push. Golden State, I still think they need to defend better. You still have to deal with Portland. Now, Dallas has added Tyson Chandler again to go along with Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis and Chandler Parsons. So there’s a lot of good stuff in the game right now. I will say that this year is one of the most exciting seasons that I’ve been a part of since I’ve been outside the NBA.
Final question about the Spurs style of play. They are the most international team in the NBA with the number of international players on their roster. Coach Pop also integrates a lot of European style of play with the Spurs. What do you think of this and how do you think it compares to the other teams in the NBA?
I don’t think it’s a European style of play. He’s drawing up a fundamental play and you have players who are fundamentally sound who understand the concepts of what he’s talking about, which allows that to take place. You know, lets drive the basketball and kick it to the guy who’s open. Body movement, ball movement, that’s what it takes to get guys wide open shots, not somebody just pounding the basketball to create on his own. I think because of the willingness of the culture in San Antonio, that’s what allows them to be even more special. I think they were one of the first teams to really start the process of going overseas and stashing players for a while. Manu Ginobili was drafted as a second round pick, but didn’t come the year he was drafted. When he finally comes over, this is after he has become player of the year in Europe. That’s a nice way to allow someone to mature and when the team is ready for him to come over, then they do that. So I think it is truly special because it’s nothing grand – it’s very simple and fundamental. Its simplicity and having players that understand that it’s more important to get the other guy to get a better shot than one shot that is OK for you. So it’s better for a Matt Bonner to get a wide open shot than you taking a contested shot. Everyone understands that now it’s about dealing with all the hubbub around the team. Because now they’ve won it all – what are they going to do next year?
Bowen also had a special message for Indian basketball fans at the end of the interview. He said “Visit ekalavyas.com for everything in basketball in India!”