This is the first in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, LJ’s 4-point play or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.
Today, we begin the series by showing how, for the want of a half-game, Bruce Bowen failed to become a New York Knick.
Bruce Bowen certainly had an interesting career in professional basketball. After graduating from California State University, Fullerton, where he played for four years, Bowen went undrafted in the 1993 NBA Draft. He then spent most of the next four seasons bouncing back and forth between Europe and the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). In 1997, he finally got his big break, getting signed to a 10-day contract by the Miami Heat. Bowen only played 1 game for the Heat that season, playing 1 minute and having 1 block.
The next season, 1997-98, however, he got picked up by the Boston Celtics, where, at 26 years of age, he had his first real season in the NBA. He played pretty well for the Celtics that first season, but he took a significant downturn in 1998-99 and the Celtics let him go after the season ended. For the 1999-2000 season, he signed with the Philadelphia 76ers. Bowen’s problem on both the Celtics and the Sixers was that he had very limited offensive skills. He was really designed for one thing, offensively – hitting the open three pointer on a kick out. The Celtics did not have much use for such a player and while the Sixers did have Allen Iverson driving and (occasionally, if his teammates were lucky) kicking out, Larry Brown was happy with the player he had at small forward, George Lynch – a strong defender who had a more varied offensive game than Bowen. And with the Sixers having such a putrid offense overall (they ranked 25th in the NBA in offensive rating in the 99-00 season), they could not find ways to keep Bowen on the floor. He averaged less than eight minutes per game for the Sixers in 99-00.
However, one game that he did play sizable minutes was in a 74-70 victory over the New York Knicks early in the 1999-00 season, and you better believe that Jeff Van Gundy remembered how well Bowen played both Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell that game (Houston shot 5 for 16 and Sprewell shot 6 for 18).
The 1999-2000 season saw the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat in a pitched battle all season long for first place in the Atlantic Division and a #2 seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The Heat started strong while the Knicks had a tough time early on with Patrick Ewing missing the first 20 games of the season (and Marcus Camby also missed a few games – heck, in the aforementioned Sixers game, the Knicks starting center was Andrew Lang!). After 20 games, the Heat were 15-5 while the Knicks were 11-9. However, the Knicks were just starting a five-game winning streak and by the end of the calendar year in 1999, the Heat were 19-9 and the Knicks were 18-12.
Neck and neck they went, with the Heat always staying one step ahead of the Knicks until, after a Knick victory and a Heat loss on February 21, 2000, the Knicks finally passed the Heat. The Knicks had a record of 32-19 as compared to the Heat’s 32-20, putting the Knicks in first place by a half game, their first time in first place since the fifth game of the season! The Heat took back first place two days later and held on to the spot for the rest of the season.
You might be asking yourself, “Why does this matter?”
It matters because of what else happened on February 21, 2000.
You see, the previous week, the Chicago Bulls had come to the same realization that most others had come to much sooner, which was that trying to rebuild a team around a 31-year-old Toni Kukoc was probably not a good idea, so they finally traded away the final star player from the last Chicago Bulls three-peat. Kukoc was traded to Philadelphia in a three-team deal involving the Sixers and the Golden State Warriors. The deal was basically strictly Kukoc for the Warriors’ first round draft pick in 2000 (which ended up being the 7th overall pick – the Bulls then flipped it for the 8th overall pick, Jamal Crawford), while the Warriors picked up Larry Hughes and the Sixers got Kukoc. For salary cap purposes, the Bulls also received Bruce Bowen and John Starks. While they held on to Starks (and by the time they waived him, Starks was no longer eligible to play in the postseason), they quickly waived Bowen, as they really had no use for him.
Pat Riley had seen Bowen in 1997, and Bowen also had a strong showing against the Heat in a December 1999 game, where he helped shut down the Miami perimeter game, so he was interested. Van Gundy, obviously, was interested. Both teams put in waiver claims, but by virtue of being technically in second place when his waiver claim came due on February 21, 2000, the Heat were awarded Bowen’s services.
He was a factor in the 2000 Playoffs but was an even bigger part of the 2000-01 team, where he became a starter and his ability to hit the three on the kick outs fit right in with a team offense built around Alonzo Mourning in the middle. He also made the All-NBA Defensive Team (second team) for the first time in his career. He would then sign a big contract (for a guy like Bowen, at least) with the San Antonio Spurs for the 2001-02 season (another team where he would get open looks from kick outs in the middle, courtesy of future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan), where he would go on to make the All-NBA Defensive Team a remarkable seven years in a row, the last five being first team selections. From the start of the 2002-03 season until the end of the 2006-07 season, he started every Spurs regular season and playoff game as the Spurs went on to win three titles in those five years.
Can you even imagine what would have happened had the Knicks just been slightly behind the Heat in the standings that night? Would his game have fit in with the Knicks offense? Would the Glen Rice trade have still happened? Would Shandon Anderson ever have played for the Knicks? So many possibilities, and all because of the want of a half-game.
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!