The best unknown GM

The best unknown GM


The best unknown GM

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Jeff BowerHere’s a multiple choice test, which were always my favorite since I’d at least have some answer.

Who is Jeff Bower?

A. The star character in the TV show 24?

B. The lead singer in the old rock and roll group Sha Na Na?

C. The right fielder for the champion New York Yankees’ teams of the 1950’s?

D. The former longtime football coach at Southern Mississippi?

Technically, you could have gotten it right with D, who has been the more famous Jeff Bower.

I’m thinking about the other Jeff Bower, the anonymous one whose New Orleans Hornets open the NBA playoffs at home this weekend as the winner of the NBA’s toughest division, the Southwest with the Spurs, Rockets and Mavericks, with MVP candidate Chris Paul, one of the league’s leading rebounders in Tyson Chandler, an All-Star forward in David West and one of the top young teams in the NBA.

“My job is to work with ownership and Mr. (George) Shinn and the coaches to put the best team together we can,” says Bower. “It’s not about who I am. It’s about what the team does and who they are. I do not search out anything more than that. My satisfaction is in watching the team play hard and together and grow successful. I spent a lot of years as an advance scout. That’s an anonymous job, but a really important one. I have no problems stepping back to the side.”

The side is one thing. But Bower seems to do everything he can to get out of the team picture.

Most executives in team sports talk about putting the team first.

Especially during all their interviews.

Bower really does take this behind-the-scenes thing seriously. I asked several general managers about him and they said they really didn’t know him. They said they did know who he was, though. So I asked someone who’d made a trade with him, the BullsJohn Paxson.

“I don’t know Jeff well,” Paxson replied.

“Other than he’s a straight shooter and a smart basketball guy,” Paxson added. “No ego at all from what I’ve experienced. A genuinely nice guy.”

Aren’t we taught they finish last?

Not exactly last, but this New Orleans Hornets team wasn’t supposed to finish where it has.

Playoffs! As former New Orleans resident Jim Mora made famous. Heck, they seemed to be just glad to know what city was home. For two years it was Oklahoma City, that traditional NBA destination rich with such history as, well, a very important flyover for many years in the Finals. Then it was back to New Orleans, itself having lost an NBA franchise some two decades ago and never thinking it important enough between Mardi Gras to get another. Quick, someone sober up and find out where our NBA team went.

Finally, New Orleans got another team, though it seemed something of the booby prize with owner George Shinn, who’d become as welcomed in Charlotte as Sherman’s union army. Here, take our owner, please.

Having lost the Jazz in the early 1980’s for lack of public support, the New Orleans populace gave the Hornets a collective yawn. The new kids in town were at the bottom in NBA attendance. And then depression really set it.

Hurricane Katrina devastated the city with the levees giving way and the Hornets moved to Oklahoma City for two years and were embraced there to the point changes were made in the team’s lease to allow it to leave New Orleans upon its return if attendance faltered.

Yes, that’s certainly the recipe for team stability, which is generally required for team success.

So what is the sound of one hand clapping?

Yet, the Hornets have somehow made it all work. Coach Byron Scott is the leading Coach of the Year candidate. Paul is a top league MVP candidate. West is no longer the league’s most underrated player as an All-Star this season. Chandler is a Defensive Player of the Year contender.

It’s suddenly a team of stars put together by the guy whose ambition going into the NBA was to become a better college assistant coach.

Talk about your big dreamers.

“I’d always hoped to get to specifically be an advance scout,” says Bower. “I thought that was the best way to learn. I planned for after a few years to go back to college and coach again and apply what I’d learned. But this has worked out well.”

Do you suppose that’s what Bill Gates said about his little computer experiment with something called Microsoft?

Bower seems to be a humble man. He’s certainly not a GQ man. He’s bald. Shaved head, hip hop bald, though I doubt he has much of that music in his iPod. He’s generously built and apparently fond of the famous local cuisine. Let’s say his playing career is somewhat less impressive than that of the likely executive of the year, Boston‘s Danny Ainge.

Ainge certainly is deserving for his bold moves in recreating the Celtics.

Bower seems to be helping saving a franchise for a city.

The Hornets have been selling out regularly since the All-Star break, 12 of their last 17 after clinching the division Tuesday. Without a winning team, they would be packing up the moving trucks again next season.

“From the outside looking in, there’s something of the ‘How could this ever work out?'” Bower agrees. “We felt in coming back to New Orleans we’d do everything we possibly could to be successful and we believed with the players we had on the team we could be successful on the court. Early on the crowds were small. The people who were there were passionate. And the more we won, the more people took notice and as the people have gotten to know our players the games were sold out and we’ve got a loud, active home court advantage.”

As unlikely as it seemed for the Hornets, it certainly was more unlikely for Bower.

He’s from Pennsylvania and his dream always seemed to be coach at Penn State. He was an assistant there in the early 1980’s on a staff with future NBA coach Brian Hill and then moved on to Marist College in Poughkeepsie, a quaint town on the Hudson River north of New York City and where the Smith Brothers of cough drop fame are buried. Didn’t know, eh? Like much of New York, it was settled by the Dutch. It was made famous, sort of, by one Dutchman, the dunkin’ one, the PacersRik Smits at Marist. Bower became an assistant at Marist and then associate head coach during the Smits reign. Does it get better than that?

But that small college experience was a lesson.

“We had to be creative, some up with ways to do more with less,” recalls Bower. “Those years recruiting we were going against the Big East schools, looking at kids on the fringe to make up a team. They had more resources, but every now and then we’d be in the right place.”

Bower decided to leave college, albeit briefly, for the most anonymous of lives, that of the NBA advance scout. It is one of the loneliest, least rewarding, drudge work jobs in the glamorous NBA world. Advance scouts, as the description suggests, head out ahead of the team, on their own, making notes about future opponents. They chart games for the plays a team runs and keep notes on players for future trades. Sometimes it’s a Noah-like existence with 40 games in 40 nights. They generally travel on their own without the amenities of the team plane and camaraderie of the group. Few know who they are since most haven’t played or been big time college players or coaches. The pay is low grade and room service isn’t particularly special.

Welcome to the NBA!

No big deal. Bower was going back to college, anyway.

Bower did hang around longer than he anticipated, working up to scouting director and an assistant under longtime executive Bob Bass. He was called general manager for a time, though Bass was still above him. The Hornets even issued a press release in 2003 saying Bower, then on the bench briefly as an assistant in the ever changing wacky management world of the Shinn Hornets, was returning to Penn State to be an assistant coach under a friend, Ed DeChellis.

Penn State assistant? Hornets executive? Yeah, Penn State assistant.

Incoming coach Tim Floyd persuaded Bower to stay on as an assistant. But it was a dysfunctional team in revolt against Floyd, who was dumped after a season. Star Jamal Mashburn had to retire with injuries. Bower went back to personnel and then was named actual general manager to replace Allan Bristow for the 2005-06 season. Yes, welcome to rock bottom.

The Hornets were 18-64, which was the good news.

The hurricane struck and the city was devastated. Players and coaches couldn’t even reach their homes. The league transferred the team to Oklahoma City. What? No one ever had heard of it as an expansion possibility. No NBA team ever had played there. Wasn’t there rodeos and stampedes?

But Bower was doing his job in personnel, quietly, of course, and the Hornets had drafted West at No. 18 and then lucked into Paul at No. 4 in 2005. That enabled the Hornets to move from 18 to 38 wins in Bower’s first season running the team.

The team was accepted in Oklahoma City with its collegiate and collegial atmosphere. But the Hornets still had a major stigma. They were cheap. They didn’t spend on players. Players wanted to leave. Shinn was a divisive figure.

Perhaps it was too much, but credibility is expensive.

The Hornets made a major deal to pay Peja Stojakovic, shocking many with the $62 million contract the Pacers wouldn’t pay after the deal for Ron Artest. Bower also dealt franchise favorite PJ Brown for underachieving Chicago center Chandler. The vision of a team was coming together. Paul was a penetrating guard who could sink the defense and pitch to a shooter like Stojakovic. Paul also had proven adept in his brief time as a pro and in college to create high percentage shots for big men.

Just go to the rim, Tyson. I’ll find you.

West had developed a solid jumper where he could step out and had to be defended, creating space for Paul to penetrate and for Chandler. They gave West a big extension and dug around for Jannero Pargo.

Some teams collect stars; some teams get pieces to fit. The latter generally is more successful.

“We knew we had some pieces we could count on with West and Paul,” said Bower. “We wanted to add players with a style of play and skills to blend with those two and add talent to the roster. With free agency, we sent a message that we were interested in improving in as quick a manner as we could. That summer was a big turning point for the team.”

It would take a year to occur.

Stojakovic needed surgergy and suddenly the signing looked like a disaster, though Hornets doctors were confident Stojakovic would return. The team gave Oklahoma City a spirited last season, but fell short of the playoffs late as Paul also was hurt.

“Last year, they had a little success but it was short lived because of the injuries,” said Bower. “But that experience helped the team grow by fighting through everything and not being eliminated until the 80th game. The competitiveness and resiliency showed and getting healthy they’ve been able to show the potential of coming together.”

We’ve been counting them out all season. Everyone has been counting them out for years. Charlotte kicked them out. Katrina ran them off. They left Oklahoma City behind. They didn’t know if the city ever would care. But they haven’t been beaten yet.

By the way, those answers were Jack Bauer played by Kiefer Sutherland, Bowser from the oldies revival group Sha Na Na, Hank Bauer of the Yankees and the forgotten Jeff Bower from Southern Mississippi. The Hornets’ Jeff Bower is the man now.

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