An interview with Bruce Bowen: From dirty to dapper

Bruce at his dapper best - Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images - Used with permission

Dr. Andrea Duke recently met with Bruce Bowen to talk about his image and how it's progressed throughout his career as a player and the most recent change as he's getting comfortable in his role as an analyst on ESPN.

It's no secret that I'm a Spurs fan. I can remember when games were held at HemiSphere Arena and then the AlamoDome, with the team wearing hot pink/teal/black uniforms. Like many other San Antonians, I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when the Spurs won their first championship in 1999. With the franchise being the only professional team in town, basketball was all I knew and the Spurs were the only pro-team my family followed.

I have cried when the team wins. I have screamed at referees when they make ridiculous calls. I have met players and got so excited that I made a complete fool of myself by blabbing nonsense. These actions are the epitome of the mood management theory, which basically states that we consume entertainment to "minimize the life and intensity of bad moods and maximize the life and intensity of good moods."

In other words, we are addicted to sports because they make us happy (i.e., winning), but because we invest them with so much importance, they also have the power to make us depressed. But most fans become emotionally invested in their favorite team to the point where the belonging and happiness from being a fan overshadows any misery of losing.

Additionally, because so many positive emotions and opinions are carried within the heart of the dedicated fan, the team and players as viewed as perfect and untouchable. They are placed on pedestals and admired to the point that, to the fan, the athlete can do no wrong. This applies both to on-the-court actions as well as those outside the lines. For example, if a favorite player kicks another player on the court, most fans "hoot and holler," supporting and defending him, while the media will villainize.

A perfect illustration of this comes from NBA Legend, Bruce Bowen.

Google his name and you will find over 68,600 videos and stories from media personalities, players, coaches and general managers labeling him a dirty player, a pest. One article compiled his Top 5 Dirtiest Plays, commenting:

Bowen's a legend on the Internet for tormenting players with his medieval style attacks. Granted he's one of the best defenders in the league, but he's evil. He can no longer justify his actions as a fair, clean player. He now needs to admit he has a problem.

But meet him in person and you will quickly find a funny and intelligent man. To teammates, his reputation surrounded the words "hard worker" and "amazing defender," which was the focus in a Sports Illustrated piece on Bowen:

If anything Bruce is too nice. If he were an a------, nobody would say anything about him. They'd be afraid he'd punch them in the face. ... But Bruce isn't like that, so Vince Carter and Ray Allen and Rip Hamilton feel they can say what they want about him. But, trust me, I've known Bruce for a long time. There's not a dirty bone in his body.

Bowen was notorious for being the first one at practice and the last one to leave, taking on additional workouts to improve his fitness and accuracy. Then, to fans, he was a tough and physical defender. With San Antonio composed of blue-collar workers, locals appreciated his work ethic and drive - Bowen would do what was necessary to beat his opponent on the court by "doing [his] work early" and "focusing ever more on the fundamentals."

His image as an athlete is quite interesting, as it hits every portion of the spectrum, revealing Bowen has a man of many labels.

Last week, I met with Bowen to discuss his varying image as an athlete, and now as an ESPN Analyst. As soon as we sat down, we discussed juicing, his new interest in life. That morning, he drank a celery/green apple/carrot juice, and shared some with me (opinion: there was way too much celery in that juice!). Bowen has also introduced the mixtures to his two sons, with hesitations from the boys of course. As a certified health nut myself, I could have talked hours with Bowen about kale and nutritional benefits of different foods, but I resisted, turning instead to discussions of another passion ... sport media.

And yes, I got in a question about the bowtie.

What do you think about your image as a dirty player, as a jerk on the court?

It's who I am. When you get betrayed by the media, it hardens you. Reporters will do whatever it takes to get the story, be nice when they need to be, but then go back to ripping you. It's the reality of the game. I was mature enough to understand, to take the good and the bad. People's negative perceptions of me are because of the media, it influences the viewer. They judge a book by its cover, living in the moment. Media discusses what's hot, newsworthy at the time, and that may not be about reality. And when people would see me doing good deeds out in the community, they would assume it was all for show, just one day when I'm a good person. But look at my career and my work with HEB and AT&T - that's not for show. I truly believe in what I am doing and trying to make a difference in the community. So that doesn't go along with my image shown in the media, but that's who I am.

And now, you are a retired professional player, an ESPN Analyst. What do you think is your image now as a member of the sport media family?

When I retired, I had to let go of the past and make a new image for myself. I can't go back and be a player, I am retired and done with the game. There needed to be a transition, and I prepared myself for several years for life after basketball. So many players lack the preparation for post-professional life. Everyone needs to get ready for the future. The guys are so used to the routine - get up, practice, video, more practice, weights, home - that they don't know how to live now. I was ready. So now, I focus on being the best I can be at ESPN. I knew I needed to create something to offer myself post-basketball.

Talk now about life as an ESPN Analyst - how has that changed your image?

ESPN has been incredible in teaching myself and other players about the self-brand. We all need to know who we are and what we want to show to the public. But when I first started at ESPN, they wanted to put me in a box, portraying me as a certain type of defender with certain statistics and facts after my name. I actually asked the producers to add in additional accomplishments to my "box" when introducing me so I could correctly be recognized and marketed. Defending was my job, but there was much more substance to me.

Ok so explain the bowtie because that is such an important part of your image now.

Yea, it makes me different, huh? I have always been on an island by myself, always been like that. I auditioned for the job in a bowtie because I wanted to be different. That's how I presented myself and that's what I as going to be - I was going to wear a bowtie on air. And most people recognize me because of that or make a connection between a bowtie and me. I have used that imagery for something more - when I speak, I use it to represent a certain theme: "Being Optimistic Wins." So while it's part of my name and it's my signature look, it always represents something more meaningful.

Our society is so quick to believe media stories as reality. We listen to and watch programming on athletes and teams, and the mediated narratives are what we perceive to be true. We don't know the athletes personally, so all we know about them is from what media present to us, what "frame" they will carve for the individual (see Framing Theory). Such construction of our social reality by sport media typically leads to stereotype creation for athletes. In other words, when media portray Bruce Bowen as a dirty player, so those who do not identify as Spurs fans will similarity believe Bruce Bowen is a dirty player.

Yet, for Bowen, the reality is not what was presented. Sure, he was an aggressive defensive player, but not someone that purposefully tried to create havoc on the court. But we only understand this difference because of testimony from Bowen himself - he gave personal insight into his reality, which contradicts his image in the media. Without the ultimate truth from the athlete him/herself, the only interpretation we have is mediated.

No matter what people think about Bowen, his history of playing fundamental basketball earned him numerous accolades and three championships, a resume worthy enough to win him a seat at the sport media powerhouse table of ESPN, the same outlet that frequently creates labels for athletes. And as he told me, Bowen has used this platform to present his true self, which has changed perceptions of viewers.

Plus do you really think someone who wears a bowtie and does jazz hands on live, national television can be labeled as the bad guy? I think not.

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