I wore a Kobe Bryant shirt to meet Bruce Bowen and lived to talk about it

Why the hell did my closet only have a Kobe shirt as a decent top? I didn’t know if the universe wanted me to suffer or die at the hands of an NBA player, but my cabinet picked the wrong day to narrow down my wardrobe options.

I certainly didn’t want to wear anything associated with the 2000s Lakers, not with Bruce Bowen around. Being the rational young adult that I am, I scrapped the Kobe shirt and went for an old, tight-fitting shirt. I’d rather wear a tee that transforms into a crop top when I’m sitting than be cropped by Bowen out of the face of the Earth. But I brought the Kobe shirt just in case the old top felt uncomfortable.

It turned out carrying that extra shirt was a bad idea. The old one got all sweaty from the MRT ride, so I had to change back to my Kobe shirt.

And so I went to Bruce’s presser in a shirt with a big-ass Black Mamba logo at the front. The last thing I wanted to do was to remind him of that 0.4-second shot, yet that’s exactly what my shirt was screaming out.

It felt like I signed my own death sentence. How dare I unwillingly try to offend a guy who’s a foot taller than me, and could probably hold my neck in one hand like he’s gripping a basketball two feet away from his body?

Why did I feel unsafe? Maybe it’s his reputation that scared me. If you didn’t have the luxury to watch Bruce, then I have the perfect two-word summary to describe how he played the game: GRITTY DEFENSE. He’s fearless, didn’t back down against anyone. Not against Kobe. Not against LeBron.

His stats won’t jump out as defensive. He only averaged 2.2 defensive rebounds, 0.8 steal and 0.4 block per game throughout his career. But don’t let those numbers fool you: He could and would lock down every player assigned to him on D. No wonder he was part of eight all-defensive team selections throughout his career.

And so I went to the presser thinking that my life, or at least a few of my bones, were on the line.

Keeping it simple

“That’s a joke, guys. You can laugh.”

Wow, Bruce cracked a joke. Honestly, that’s not how I imagined him to be. I thought he was uptight and timid, but he’s not. As suffocating as his defense was during his heyday, he was so loose and jolly when he talked to the media. I released a big sigh of relief when I knew that I might get out of the press room in one functioning piece.

But more than being a tough defender, Bruce clearly had a deep understanding of the game. From LeBron’s transformation in Miami to key points in the 2018 Finals, Bruce had something substantial to say about every question that was asked to him. Tit for tat—a complete response for every query, no matter how vague those queries were. I was blown away by his great basketball mind.

Then I realized, Bruce’s knowledge of the game should not come as a surprise. It takes more than just incredible physique to become an elite defender in the NBA level. And with Bruce, I understood that his defensive prowess came from how he processed the game. That’s what separated him from the rest of the pack in terms of defense.

Bruce’s defense was best showcased when he was assigned as LeBron’ main defender throughout the 2007 NBA Finals. “I was a older and I knew a lot more than him at that time. He’s young, and I have no problem with that. He was such a physical specimen. He was 6’8, 260 (pounds), fast as point guards. It was more about understanding what his strengths were,” Bruce said.

He knew what to take away from LeBron’s at that time. According to Bruce, although young LeBron already showed excellent playmaking skills back then, he lacked consistent shooting. The Cavs’ main man still averaged 22 points per game, but he was limited to 35.6% from the field, and 20% from the three-point line. Moreover, LeBron averaged close to six turnovers during that series, while his teammates were limited to less than 60 points per game. The lockdown defense of a 35-year old Bruce was one of the reasons why San Antonio swept Cleveland for the title.

Bruce stuck to defense as his main ticket throughout his career. He never had a season where he averaged double digits in points or more than eight shots per game. Perhaps, he accepted this role throughout his stint as a Spur because of San Antonio’s basketball culture which he belonged to.

The words ‘simple’, ‘fundamental’ and ‘boring’ were attached to the Spurs ever since I watched the NBA, and Bruce knew that. He readily admitted that San Antonio thrived through simplicity, consistency and continuity—values that were preached by Gregg Popovich and RC Buford. “Playing golf, you know they say, a simple round, a boring round can lead to under par score. It’s when you try to be creative is when you hit out of trees and things like that,” he said.

The Spurs maybe ‘simple’ and ‘boring’, but no fan could possibly argue about the success that this franchise achieved with this culture. San Antonio won five titles under Gregg—one in 1999, one in 2014, and three in the mid-2000s when Bruce was still part of the roster.

On the youth of this basketball-crazy nation

Bruce was well aware of how big basketball was in the Philippines. “I’m thrilled about the excitement from a lot of Filipinos here that are huge Filipino fans, and the numbers show,” Bruce said. According to him, the Philippines has the league’s largest following outside the US, with 6.7 million followers on the NBA Facebook page, and another three million on the NBA Philippines page. “I think when you talk about fan support and people understanding what’s going on here, I think it’s tremendous,” he added.

With such a huge fanbase in the Philippines, Bruce know that his presence can help inspire the youth of the country. “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way,” said Bruce as he quoted an 80s hit song.

The former NBA star led a basketball clinic of 40 boys and girls at the NBA-revitalized basketball court at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines College of Engineering last June 2. The clinic was part of the efforts of the NBA Cares program in the Philippines. Bruce loves to be a part of this kind of programs as it gives him the opportunity to reach out to young ballers. “To me, it’s the joy of being around kids, it’s the joy of seeing their faces, it’s the joy of seeing uninterrupted love. It’s not about what they can get out. It’s about what we’re able to get to them and allow them to continue to nurture whatever it is that we’re giving.”

For Bruce, it’s just a matter of paying it forward, and hoping that these kids will one day pay it forward to the future generations of basketball fans. “If they can see an NBA guy coming back or coming to their country and giving them the time to interact with them, something they enjoy doing, I think it only encourages them to say, ‘you know what, I can’t wait til I can do something like that’. And it becomes a recycling situation,” he said.

It’s not everyday that the Philippines is visited by someone like Bruce, an accomplished NBA player who’s willing to share his experience and expertise to the nation. Opportunities like this will certainly help basketball grow here in the country, both as a sport and as a culture.

I’m just glad he didn’t notice my shirt at all. Maybe his age affected his basketball vision. Maybe he didn’t care about that  at all. Or I probably just overreacted (I think I did). Anyway, what’s important was Bruce Bowen was introduced to this basketball-crazy nation, and I was able to go home unscathed after the media availability.

But I swear I would never wear another Kobe shirt near him again if ever he comes back.