It's been a great year so far for former Spurs forward Bruce Bowen, who retired in 2009 after helping the team win three NBA championships in five seasons with his tenacious defense.
After getting inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame last month, Bowen will reach another milestone in his career Wednesday night when his jersey number (12) is retired after the Spurs' game against Minnesota.
Bowen will become the seventh Spur to be so honored, joining Johnny Moore (00), Avery Johnson (6), James Silas (13), Sean Elliott (32), George Gervin (44) and David Robinson (50).
Bowen spoke to reporters Monday before being honored at a luncheon at the AT&T Center, where a replica of his jersey will be hoisted to the rafters Wednesday night.
"It has been quite a year in 2012," Bowen said. "The number 12, get it? You guys get that? I just figured that out last night."
Bowen's sense of humor and his ability to keep things in perspective always have been among his most endearing qualities.
"It's a year of honors, but this one here takes the cake," he said, turning serious. "I don't think I've ever had anything bestowed upon me quite as special as this. And it's for so many different reasons that I say that, as far as my path and me being an example to other guys coming in.
"Hard work does pay off, even though you may not think you're getting what you necessarily should get, it's just a byproduct of staying the course and look at what happens. I'm thrilled about this."
Bowen made NBA's All-Defensive team seven times
Bowen's career was a testament to his perseverance. Undrafted after completing his college career at Cal State Fullerton in 1993, Bowen played overseas and in the CBA for four seasons before suiting up for his first NBA game with the Miami Heat in 1997.
He played in Miami, Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia for parts of five seasons before settling in San Antonio. While he obviously had skills, Bowen quickly became a favorite of Spurs fans with his lunch-pail, blue-collar work ethic.
The Spurs never quite had a player like Bowen, a relentless lockdown defender who always guarded the opposition's best perimeter player. In short, he embodied the Spurs' philosophy that winning basketball is grounded in outstanding team defense.
Bowen earned a spot on the NBA's All-Defensive team in seven of the eight seasons he played in San Antonio, making the second squad in 2001 and 2002 and the first unit in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.
"He was the one who gave the Spurs the defensive identity that we had," Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich left no doubt about how valuable Bowen was to the team.
"He was a piece of the puzzle that was very necessary to get done what we did get done," Popovich said. "I don't think it would have happened without him because he gave us an edge night in and night out, and set a tone for our team that they followed.
"Through three championships, to do that over that many years and always guard the toughest perimeter player on the other team and enjoy doing it, was quite a bonus for our squad. There aren't that many people in the NBA who relish that position and can do it for that long."
Bowen was consummate pro on, off court
Bowen, 40, still lives in San Antonio and works as an NBA analyst for ESPN.
Bowen's smothering defense helped the Spurs win NBA championships in 2003, 2005 and 2007. Whether it was guarding such stars as Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Ray Allen or hitting a 3-pointer from his favorite spot in the corner, Bowen understood his role and was a model of consistency.
"What he did for all those years, as I said, was difficult for anybody to do," Popovich said. "And he didn't just do it because he was that gifted. He did it because he had the character, the will and the desire to get it done. And he worked in that regard, whether it was his diet, his workout regimen, his consistency.
"But even beyond that, he was among that special group of players we've had that was a professional both on and off the court. In the community, he was a stalwart. He was somebody who gained a lot of respect for the things he did for people, not to be on camera or anything like that, but he enjoyed working with all the groups he worked with and he knew that was part of his responsibility. And he did that as well as he played on the court."
Bowen said whatever success he had reflected the "trust and camaraderie" he shared with Tim Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker, a.k.a. "The Big Three," and the Spurs' coaches.
"I think it's the relationships that were developed in the midst of good times and bad times," Bowen said, when asked what he thinks he'll remember about his career with the Spurs years from now. "It's those moments that make those celebrations that much more special."
Ginobili chuckled when he recalled what it was like to go against Bowen in practice.
"It was so annoying," Ginobili, drawing laughter from reporters. "Especially my first two years. I was on the second team and he was on the first one. He was trying to show me that he was the one who owned that spot, and he was rough. He was trying to show me what the NBA was about.
"It was a great, great test for me. I had to go against him every day and I learned a lot. Of course, going against the best gets you better. The first few years, it was about every practice. It was good."
Ginobili: Bowen got into opponents' heads
Ginobili said Bowen had an uncanny knack for wearing on opponents mentally as well as physically.
"He could get on your nerves and get you off your game because he frustrated you, and that was one of his best things," Ginobili said. "He used to get into opponents' heads. He was amazing at that."
While Bowen was consistently one of the NBA's best defenders, he didn't set out to be a defensive specialist when he joined the Spurs.
"I never looked at it like that," Bowen said. "Unbeknownst to people, I had my days of scoring prior to playing in the NBA. But it was a matter of wanting to be on the floor, and if you could do something that could maybe warrant that, then you may have an opportunity to fit in with the group.
"It wasn't necessarily about me saying, 'Hey, I'm going to go to defense' because this isn't football where you have an offense and a defense. But it was something that was my role. And each year here, I appreciated it more and more, especially after the championships."
Bowen proved to be as durable as he was outstanding, starting in 500 consecutive games from Feb. 22, 2002, until March 14, 2008. The streak was the longest in the NBA at the time and is the longest in Spurs history.
Bowen was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in June 2009 in the four-player deal that brought Richard Jefferson to the Spurs, but he never considered playing for another team after getting released by the Bucks five weeks later. Fittingly, he retired as a Spur.
"I wanted to do it here because I love the city," Bowen said. "I love the way the way community has just opened its arms to me, and really provided me a home. Sometimes people say home is where the heart is, and my heart is here. California is where I'm from, but my heart is here."