Floor-burn Leader

Not blessed with big-time talent, Nuggets forward Ryan Bowen survives in the NBA on all-out desire

found on cnnsi.com, written by: L. Jon Wertheim


Even on the NBA 's lowest-scoring team, Denver Nuggets small forward Ryan Bowen doesn't look for his shot. He's content to rebound and pass and take charges and set screens and buff the court with his body in chasing after loose balls. The running joke in the locker room is that the 6'9", 220-pound Bowen might be averaging 3.5 points per game, but he does everything short of singing the national anthem. Turns out, even that's not out of his range. "Oh, I'll do it one of these days," Bowen says. "In high school in Iowa I was all-state show choir."

Though the Nuggets are in the throes of another bleak season, the franchise struck gold with Bowen. Much about him—his nonexistent offense, his love of country music, his show-choir past—militates against his playing pro basketball, but the way he orbits the court like a windup toy, sacrificing nonvital organs for his team, explains why Bowen doesn't merely play in the NBA , but starts. And if his name is foreign to fans, opponents have taken note. Miami Heat coach Pat Riley has called Bowen the best hustle player in the NBA . During a game against the Nuggets last season, the Indiana Pacers ' Reggie Miller turned to his coach, Isiah Thomas , and said, "We've got to get a [player] like Ryan Bowen."

Bowen recalls his coach at Iowa , Tom Davis , once giving his minions a

blueprint for making it to the NBA :

"You have to be good at everything, and great at one thing."

Bowen went through a mental checklist. Was he a great shooter? No. Passer? No. Re-bounder? No.

"One thing I can be great at is hustling," he says.

"I'm one of those guys-old-fashioned, maybe—who thinks that if you're not going to hustle, why bother to play?"

After graduating from Iowa in 1998, Bowen was drafted by the Nuggets late in the second round. The team sent him to Turkey to work on his game. His team, Oyak Renault, practiced in a car factory and often had to wait for the plant employees to finish their lunchtime pickup game before taking the court. Living in a modest rented house, he was awakened some mornings by his neighbors' goats. During games he occasionally had to duck batteries thrown by opposing fans. Bowen didn't complain. He led Oyak to the playoffs, and the next season he earned a spot on the Nuggets' roster. Now in his fourth season—the longest tenure of any current Denver player—Bowen graduated from 12th man to role player to starter. His progress hasn't been lost on Nuggets fans. In a recent Denver Post poll Bowen was voted the team's most popular player.

Though Bowen was averaging 2.88 steals per 48 minutes—10th in the league-through Dec. 21, and even won a game against the Phoenix Suns earlier this season with a buzzer-beating layup, his true value has been his professionalism. While his teammates commandeer the film room and hold Xbox tournaments after practice, Bowen, 27, lifts weights or shoots extra jumpers. He has made it his mission to take the Nuggets' foreign-born players—Brazil's Nene Hilario , the Republic of Georgia's Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Yugoslavia 's Pre-drag Savovic—under his wing. Ryan and his wife, Wendy, have donated a block of seats in the Pepsi Center for every home game to underprivileged Denver -area kids. "We're such a young team," says general manager Kiki Vandeweghe , "and Ryan sets such a good example for these guys."

He also provides comic relief, albeit inadvertently. In a game against the San Antonio Spurs last month Bowen hit a long jumper and, it appeared, ran downcourt giving an earful to his defender, Steve Smith . The Nuggets bench was astonished. Trash-talk? Bowen? The Opie look-alike who listens to Diamond Rio and Garth Brooks before games? During the ensuing timeout teammates crowded around and asked what he had said. "Oh, I just told him, 'That was the first three-pointer I've made all season!' " Bowen recalls. "I was so excited." Smith 's response: "Well, maybe you should shoot more. You've got to shoot it to make it."

Bowen knows better. There are other ways to make it in the NBA .



All-Hustle Team

In addition to Ryan Bowen, here are five other players whose contributions go beyond the numbers (stats through Dec 21).

Player, Team




Malik Rose , Spurs




Though undersized (6' 7") and limited offensively, he's a spark plug

George Lynch , Hornets




Jump shot could break cement, but his zeal is endearing

Jerome Williams , Raptors




Nicknamed Junkyard Dog because he cleans up all the garbage

Ron Artest , Pacers




Blossoming into a star in large part because of his hard work

Jon Barry , Pistons




Loves taking a charge; understands and excels in his reserve role