Monday, January 5, 2009

Bowen Revisited

In the early days of 48 Minutes of Hell I published an ethical defense of Bruce Bowen and his style of play. At the time we had a much smaller readership than we do currently so I wanted to return to the topic.

Bowen is clearly in the winter of his career. Even Popovich, who will stubbornly play some veterans until well after they have begun receiving social security checks, has removed Bowen from the starting lineup and cut his minutes significantly (he is averaging 21.4 minutes per game compared to 30.2 last year). With Bowen nearing the end of his tenure as a Spur (he will likely retire after his contract expires in the 2009/2010 season), it's time to begin reflecting on the significance of his career.

Bowen will obviously be remembered for two things: His stifling perimeter defense and for being a "dirty" player. With almost no help whatsoever from the rest of the roster, Bowen's reputation alone has caused many basketball fans to conclude the Spurs in their entirety are a dirty team (the infamous Horry-Nash hip check, a single play, has helped to solidify this misguided notion). But the relative class of the franchise as a whole is not my concern: I want to directly address Bowen and his style of play.

Bowen is not merely an ethical enigma but a statistical one as well. For further thoughts on Bowen's unique relationship with the box score, make sure you check out Tim's piece from New Years Day.

My defense of Bowen has multiple parts so I want to break it down slowly and methodically.

The Court as Unique Ethical Space:

Sports do not abide by the same ethical codes that we have in regular society. The court (or field or ring) is an inorganically created space in which individuals abide by a set of arbitrarily defined rules. The codes of conduct pursued by the average individual are not valid during a sporting event and vice versa.

For example, it is illegal and for the most part unjustifiable to engage in fisticuffs in public. If I were to haul off and hit someone, I could be tried for assault. But in a boxing ring, such activity is not merely legal, it is essential. A boxer is encouraged to punch his opponent and praised for the skill and ferocity with which he does so. So it can be concluded that there is nothing inherently ethical or unethical about the act of punching someone. Its relative merit or demerit is directly linked to the social space in which the act occurs.

Every sport has an authoritative organization or series of authorities that determine the common laws by which a respective game is played. In professional football, it is called the National Football Association. In Boxing, it is some assortment of the several championship associations and the state boxing committees. In professional basketball we call it the National Basketball Association. The NBA decides what actions are legal and illegal during a basketball game. It is illegal to move with the ball if a player is not dribbling. It is illegal to punch another player. It is legal to redirect a shot if that shot has yet to touch the backboard or has yet to reach the top of its arc.

In fact, the NBA can even go back and declare specific acts illegal once the 48 minute period which it set has ended. For instance, last season Bruce Bowen was suspended for a game after kneeing Chris Paul in the chest, even though Bowen did not receive a foul call at the time. The league clearly displayed its power to review any on-court activity.

My point is this: If a referee does not call a foul and the NBA does not retroactively go back and impose some type of punishment, than the play is not unethical. The league has the ability to reflect on the action and dole out punishment but if it finds no fault in what occurred then there is in fact no fault. There is not an existent set of moral or legal criteria for the game other than the ones the NBA sets. There is no natural law of the hardwood. We as fans and as commentators can lobby for certain rules to be applied (for instance a great many of us, myself included, felt there should be some type of repercussion for an egregious flop, although I felt it should be internal to the game, not external such as a fine), but until they are applied there is not a moral foundation on which we may righteously base our ire.

In other words, if the league doesn't punish Bowen than he has done nothing wrong. And despite his reputation, the league punishes Bowen extremely infrequently.


When I first made this argument, a commenter noted that, although I made some good points, he felt I did not address the fact that Bowen is trying to hurt people while playing. Although my previous argument about the relativity of ethics in sports suggests that trying to hurt someone is not always wrong (for instance in boxing), I agree that this is a fair point: in basketball acts which are construed as genuinely malicious are looked down upon by the authorities that created and continue to revise the legal framework in which the game is played. What is problematic about this argument is that it is based off the notion that we can actually know Bowen's intention. I would argue that it is very difficult to decipher the relative benevolence or maliciousness of a player's intentions at any given moment.

For example, after David West injured his lower back while being picked by Robert Horry during last season's WCSF, the internet exploded with accusations of malicious intent on the part of Horry. I, as well as several other observers of the Association, felt West's injury was entirely an accident. Others felt Horry intended to injure West. My point is not to rehash the debate over that particular incident; my point is that thoughtful, respectful individuals can radically disagree about what they believe a player's intentions to be. The fact of the matter is, none of us other than Bowen himself know whether he intends to injure people when on the court and it is dubious at best to act as if you do.

The Basketball Court as Pedagogical Space:

In nearly every level of sports prior to professional sports (and even sometimes at the pro level), there is a strong pedagogical element. Coaches hope to not merely teach their players the rules of the game and the strategies/tactics it takes to prevail, but also to instill in them a level of character. Most youth associations and even some college programs promote some form of virtue ethics which are meant to crossover into your personal life. But at the pro level, the pedagogical nature of the game recedes rapidly. These are no longer boys; they are men. These are no longer students; they are professionals. They are paid to win basketball games and they are allowed to use whatever legal tactics are necessary to win games. It is not the responsibility of the NBA to attempt to instill in its players a moral fortitude which they will carry off the court.

As we noted time and time again here on this blog, the San Antonio Spurs have a "culture" or more specifically a level of character they look for in perspective players. But this has just as much if not more to do with what it takes to win as it does with being honorable for honor's sake. Having a moral code whose existence is directed towards the telos of victory is different than one directed at the creation of virtue.

The Quality of the Game:

Many people would make the argument that Bruce's style of play is problematic because of the way it effects the "quality of the game" or more accurately the quality of a fan's viewing experience. Some people like to call this the "dignity of the game" argument (often employed against the hack-a-shaq tactic) but the really issue is not dignity, the real issue is that the activity being committed is limiting your enjoyment of the game (in the instance of the hack-a-shaq by slowing down the pace of play to an almost unbearable level).

But unlike Popovich's oft maligned tactic (which even I have railed against at points), I would argue Bowen's "dirty" style of play actually increases the intensity and intrigue of a game: Is there any emotion more righteous than the indignation a fan feels when a player on his team has been subject to a "dirty" play? Nothing brings out the deepest degrees of partisanship like physical basketball. Yes, you may hate players like Bruce Bowen, but isn't he exactly the kind of player you love to hate? The guy whose existence makes your hatred so justifiable? Bowen's style of play does not undermine the quality of the game; in fact, it takes basketball (and basketball fandom) to the peak of its dramatic heights.

Notes for Commenters:

I understand that this is one of my more controversial stances and is likely to produce some pretty strong reactions in people. But this is a serious conversation I would like to have. If I feel a commenter has a made a legitimate point, I will try my best to address it, either in an updated version of this piece or in a later one. Note that the use of foul or offensive language will automatically disqualify you from having made a legitimate point.


Rodney P. Stablehorn said...

Your discrediting of the intent argument is right in line with a lot of legal argument. Legislative intent is sometimes employed in litigation to sway a judge to one side's point of view. However, this is considered one of the weakest and least persuasive methods of argumentation in large part for the reasons you cite. It is impossible to know what is truly in mens' hearts, especially when those men are the hundreds of politicians that make up the United States Congress and Senate. Thus by discrediting Bowen's detractors do you simultaneously discredit Antonin Scalia.

To add another point to your argument that Bowen's tactics enhance the emotional engagement of the game, consider the case of Kobe v. Bruce. For all the superstar winers out there (Ray Allen, I'm looking at you), Kobe acts as a counterpoint. Instead of allowing Bowen to burrow into his psyche, Kobe takes it as a personal challenge, consistently elevating his game against the Spurs. The Kobe/Bowen match-up provided excellent viewing once upon time. Alas, that time has passed, but we will always have the memories.

Anthony Wilson said...

That's an excellent point, Rodney. Earlier today they showed Game 5 of the Lakers-Spurs 2003 series on NBA TV. This was when Bowen was in his prime as a defender. Anyways, I thought of the battles between he an Kobe in those series', and specifically the series in 2004. I remember reading (in my hometown LA Times) after the final game of that series that Bowen had resorted to kicking (or maybe it was trying to trip, I don't remember definitively, but it was one of the two) Kobe as the Lakers ran back on offense. And he ended up taking a chunk out of Kobe's leg as a result. Anyways, no one knew of this until the series was over. All of the controversies Bowen has been involved in, all of the players he's had incidents with, who have complained about him, and he's never gotten to Kobe. He's never allowed Bowen to take him out of his game. And Rodney is right, over the years Kobe has played his best playoff basketball against Bowen and the Spurs. Kobe is an unflappable warrior, the best kind of competitor. But then again, we knew that already. Kobe is different. There's no one like him, so we shouldn't expect other guys in his position to play with the same determination and resolve.

Rick said...

In support of your arguments about intent and the Spurs culture, it's important to remember who has been putting Bowen on the floor for so many years.

Popovich does not strike me, and his record bears this out, as the type of person who will tolerate dirty play with the specific intent to harm someone else. He does not suffer fools well, and has, as has been pointed out on this blog repeatedly, strictly limited the types of players that the Spurs will sign and play.

He may take an occasional flyer on somebody who is questionable, but that person doesn't see the light of day on the floor until they "get it." James White, or even Damon Stoudemire are recent acquisitions who didn't exhibit the right attitudes and were nailed to the bench, even when their skill sets might have been useful on the floor.

Pop does not run up the score, does not embarass people, was able to make fun of himself for the Hack-A-Shaq, and is an excellent example of what an executive in professional sports can do.

If Pop can sleep at night after putting Bruce Bowen on the floor night after night for so many years, I have a hard time believing that Bruce is truly dirty, or that he is intentionally trying to hurt someone.

Bruce has said repeatedly that he doesn't consider himself dirty. What he does is to do everything he can to make his opponent as uncomfortable as possible, because that is what makes people miss shots.

The biggest thing that makes NBA stars uncomfortable is not having the physical space to move around and perform. So, Bruce gets right up on them, and practically climbs into their shorts with them. When that happens, you are close enough that people can get tripped, they can get hurt, and they get angry.

I would be willing to wager that pretty much every fan who gets so mad at Bruce would love him in an instant if he signed up with their squad (maybe not as much now that he's lost a step, but the point still stands).

I personally believe that it's a testament to how well he does his job that people claim to hate him so much.

Anonymous said...

"If I were to haul off and hit someone, I could be tried for assault. But in a boxing ring, such activity is not merely legal, it is essential. A boxer is encouraged to punch his opponent and praised for the skill and ferocity with which he does so. So it can be concluded that there is nothing inherently ethical or unethical about the act of punching someone. Its relative merit or demerit is directly linked to the social space in which the act occurs."

The whole "because it's condoned somewhere means it isn't inherently unethical" argument seams pretty weak. With dog fighting or any organized, competitive scenario that may, for the sake of example, involve humans fighting to the death as the basis of competition, etc, it seems much more apt to conclude that the space itself is unethical because of the actions it condones, instead of saying that any action may be legitimized if only a group of participants organizes a space and authority for its (the action's) manifestion.

Graydon said...

I guess I wasn't trying to make an argument that sees sports as this completely nihilistic pursuit. Certain acts or events (such as dog-fighting) are completely unjustifiable, no matter whether the participants involved agree to them or not (part of what is so unjustifiable about dog-fighting is that the primary participants have no capacity to agree). I don't happen to include boxing in that category but if you do, we can discuss that separately (it is a worthwhile discussion).

I guess my point is that action has a context. Feel free to replace a punch with a tackle in football if you'd like and then reconsider the argument.

chippwalters said...

I'm in the Bruce Bowen fan camp and don't believe he's a dirty player. That said, he does have a habit of putting his feet under another player during a jump shot, which may not be 'dirty' but is borderline.

I believe he does this to affect the psyche of the opponent, but sometime it endangers their career (and thus their livliehood) with a serious ankle injury. While this isn't *illegal*, it certainly would be frowned upon at one's local gym.

I more like the way he tracks closely a driving player, then upon imminent contact, backs out quickly causing them to lose their balance-- kind of a much faster and harder to execute version of 'pulling the chair out from under' used in many post plays. Many times the refs call the foul anyway as they haven't seen this tactic before.

It's one of his signature defensive moves, and I hope someone else on the Spurs learn it before he retires.

The Dude Abides said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Dude Abides said...

The original post makes some good points, but it's mainly NBA legalese. While repeatedly "accidentally" sticking your foot underneath a rising jump shooter can legally be defended as "inadvertent" and therefore an action where intent cannot be determined, it's impossible to defend Bowen's kicking Amare Stoudemire's achilles in the 2007 playoffs as Amare went up for a dunk. Bowen raised his right foot off the ground heel-first and pointed his toes upward in a deliberate and unnatural act in order to make contact just above the dunker's foot. I've never seen another defender make this move in all my years watching pro basketball.

I also remember Bowen kicking Kobe in the thigh, but I'm recalling a different series than the two series in 2003 and 2004 mentioned by commenter Anthony Wilson. The incident I remember has never been shown on YouTube, perhaps because it happened in the 2002 playoffs during Bowen's first season as a Spur and prior to his acquiring a "dirty" reputation among NBA fans. Kobe completely faked Bowen out on this particular play with a sudden stop and pullup jumper, and as Bowen's backward momentum took him toward a "butt landing" on the floor, prior to hitting the floor he "inadvertently" kicked out and up with his right leg, making contact with Kobe's thigh. This was a similar type of kick that you see an NFL punter make, straight-legged with a high finish. I had never seen a similar action by another defender, and have not seen one since. My friends and I all thought this was a dirty play at the time, and all of us liked and respected the Spurs despite being Laker fans (the respect is still there, but none of us like the Spurs anymore, all because of Bowen).

Also, one of Bowen's other actions is something I've never seen another defender do before or since. This was his famous flying karate kick to Wally Szczerbiak's head after Wally faked a three. I'm sure everyone has seen that one.

In conclusion, I would say that while Bowen insists all of these incidents were inadvertent, I would say that they're too unique and coincidental to be anything other than deliberate. Just because the same organization that suspends two non-Spurs for leaving the bench while not suspending two Spurs for leaving the bench in the same playoff game has only suspended Bowen once for dirty play, doesn't mean that he hasn't been consistently dirty over the years.

Brad said...

I appreciate the intent of the post and its creative understanding of sport as its own world with its own rules (and thus ethics constituted by different rules). I also don't view Bowen as the all-time dirty player that many do, so I'm happy to see his grit, hard work, and scrappy defense defended here.

However, to construe "right play" as that which is not condemned by the NBA simply cannot stand. The NBA is not omniscient or all-wise; moreover, and more importantly, it is not apolitical. The politics of the game and the game's rules are intimately related to the politics of the Association. Are the interests of the NBA always in "handing down a ruling" that is fully in keeping with what happened on the court? Of course not. If we see with our eyes, and there is general consensus of agreement, that a play was unsportsmanlike or illegal, yet the NBA does not rule against it, that ruling does not change what happened or its true character. The game is constituted by what happens on the court, and the rules for what happens on the court exist outside both the court action and the NBA. Of course, the NBA is intimately related to the rules, but they cannot be construed as wholly "over" the rules.

An excellent (albeit possibly esoteric for this forum) analogy would be the relationship between ethics, the church, and the Bible. The church may, in one context, say Action X is right or wrong, but its authority is not final, because the church itself is constituted by a text -- yet the church wrote the text, and continues to write supplementary texts to it!

Similarly, basketball is and was a game before the NBA; we “know” basketball when we see it because we know the rules of the game external to it; yet the NBA does have authority over its games and continues to supplement and rewrite its own texts/rules. Thus when something “illegal” or “wrong” or “dirty” happens in a game, yet the NBA does not “text” that event as wrong, our construal of that event is not deligitimated by the NBA’s inaction. (Remember, too, that because the NBA is a living entity existing over time and in many places, in the future the NBA might “correct” a previous “overlooked” ruling or non-ruling. Was it, then, always wrong, or only at the time of the ruling?) There is a kind of textual natural law to basketball that simply cannot be limited to what the (politics of the) NBA says or does not say about each and every event that happens on the court.

Does that mean Bruce Bowen is a dirty player? I’m not sure. But the lack of condemnation from the NBA does not prove he is not.

Todd said...

Good article. Spurs are a stand up franchise and do not support thugs or dirty players. Just players that work hard and set an example.

Lots of Kobe fans on here calling him dirty, when in fact Kobe has been known to throw a few elbows at other players.

He also has been known to whine about being traded, and has been in many legal problems outside of the case. Not to mention the adultry incident.

Who would I rather be an example to my kids on and off the court?

Anthony Wilson said...

I hope you're not trying to argue that Bowen is NOT selfish, Todd. There's no question he is.

And yeah, Kobe has been known to throw an elbow from time to time. But Kobe realizes that's part of the game, as he explained after the Raja Bell incident in Game 5 of the 2006 first round against Phoenix. But Bowen goes above and beyond that, and what makes it worse is when he feigns innonence afterwards. I'm not saying the guy wasn't an exceptionally talented defender; he absolutely was. But he is also dirty.

The Dude Abides said...

LOL@Todd--Your "lots of Kobe fans" is really just two. And I suppose you think we're Wally Szczerbiak and Amare Stoudemire fans too? Or Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, and Steve Francis fans? All of Kobe's elbows are done in order to clear space. They're offensive fouls if the defender is not within his space. They're no-calls if the defender is. They're also part of the game, and certainly not career threatening. Jordan threw those same elbows.

Have you ever seen any defender other than Bowen make the same three plays I mentioned? I'm talking about kicking a dunker's achilles as he goes up for a dunk, kicking a jump shooter's thigh while falling backwards, or doing a flying karate kick to a spot-up shooter's face after getting faked? Also, the kicked achilles in question was on the same leg that had microfracture surgery. I'm definitely not a Suns fan, but that play was a flat-out attempt to end Stoudemire's career.

Anonymous said...

Most of Bowen's "dirty" plays, viewed individually, could be written off as unintentional, incidental, or heat-of-the-moment. But taken together, it's hard to claim that there's no intent there. He's clearly trying to get away with as much as he can regardless of any moral or ethical restriction. He's bending and breaking rules meant to protect players from injury to gain an upper hand. He's attempting to circumvent the rules. Some people call that a veteran move; others call it cheating.

Players have a code of ethics beyond league enforcement, as verified by the many players who have spoken out against his tactics. They feel wronged not just because he fouls them (players are fouled all the time), but because they feel he crossed the ethical line. No one has been complained about more than Bowen. I think that *defines* him as dirty.

We weekend warriors have this code of ethics and concept of dirty players too. Would you like to go to the local Y and be defended by someone putting on their best Bowen impersonation? Really?

chippwalters said...

"Kobe is an unflappable warrior, the best kind of competitor."

While I have to admit liking Kobe, I don't agree with the above statement. He quits in big games too quickly--witness last years playoffs against Boston, and the previous years final game against Phoenix. Also he still has problems pulling the trigger too fast on important possessions.

Just look how he played in the 4th quarter tonight. He had a stellar game going, then the Hornets decided to double team him, and all he could do is force terrible shots. Took his team right out of it.

He needs to develop a decent post game, like Jordan had. That way his teammates can get him touches closer to the basket, and if a double comes, he's more apt to create something.

Remember, it was only a couple of years ago when we routinely saw Kobe trying to dribble out of triple teams rather than pass, much like he did tonight.

That said, he is a great finisher, and has a very strong belief in himself. I personally don't think Bruce is any dirtier a player than Kobe. Who had more technicals last year? Who was suspended more times for flying elbows or other dirty play?

Lastly, I, too have watched the Amare and other videos. I've actually had the good fortune to sit on the floor and see those guys up close. Man, are they ever fast. To think Bowen could've possibly targeted Amare's ankle is just silly. Not one time in a hundred could someone kick anothers ankle when those guys are both moving that fast.

I also play hoops 2-3 times a week, and even at our slower pace, it's awful hard to try and kick someone intentionally when they're on a full run. Elbows, sure-- those are easy. But, I disagree with those who believe Bruce was purposefully trying to kick Amare.

Anthony Wilson said...

I have to disagree, Chip. When I called him a warrior I was referring to the fact that nothing can take him out of his game, not even Bowen's cheap tactics. Last night he went inferno in the third, then NO started doubling, plus he went cold. He passed out of the double teams to his teammates, who repeatedly missed shots. You can't blame last nights loss on Kobe.

I also think he has a very good post game, he just doesn't get to show it often because the Lakers already have a killer low-post threat (Gasol) and can even throw the ball in to Bynum. Kobe tried posting Posey last night; when he catches the ball deep with his back to the baskey, he's the best in the game at that little step-through move to the middle for a layup.

I don't forgive Kobe for quitting against Phoenix, but in the Finals last year his team was down by 30 points pretty much the whole second half. What was he supposed to do? At least he didn't completely stop shooting, like the game against Phoenix; he was still engaged in the game, not detached even when he was just moving the ball, and he didn't stop shooting, he just kept misfiring.

Of course, I'm a Lakers fan; I've watched every game for the last nine years, and the guy has played Superman and come through for us so many times in so many different situations, I have to defend him.

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