"Make your next move your best move." ~ Chris Bowles, Director of Player Programs, Portland Trail Blazers
Mr. Bowles, a native Portlander, joined the Blazers in 2005. Mr. Bowles serves as a liaison between the players, the team and the league. Or, as he terms it, he is a "friend, an older brother, a young uncle" to the young millionaires that make up our current roster. Transitioning into the fame and fortune that goes with being drafted into the NBA is no easy task; Mr. Bowles' job is to ensure that this transition runs as smoothly as possible for the organization and its players.
Mr. Bowles was kind enough to sit down with us Sunday evening after a home loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Our conversation went on for nearly an hour so this interview will be run in two parts.
In Part I, Mr. Bowles speaks frankly about:
-- How he came to the Blazers
-- His relationship with the players
-- Navigating the hurdles of NBA stardom
-- How and when he believes athletes should speak out on political issues
-- The charity work that players perform that goes under the radar
-- "Basketball Capitalism" and coping with the reality of roster upheaval
In Part II, to be run in the near-future, Mr. Bowles discusses:
-- Watching and learning lessons from HBO's The Wire.
-- His thoughts on ESPN's Black Magic documentary.
-- His time playing basketball at a historically black college.
-- His history growing up playing basketball in Portland with Damon Stoudamire.
Without further ado, here is part I.
Blazersedge: Please describe how you came to work for the Portland Trail Blazers.
At that time, the Blazers were going through what they were going through [with their public relations problems] and my sister was telling me that the Blazers were looking for someone that had a writing background and had media experience and was familiar with basketball. I ended up making a call to the Blazers when I was in Atlanta where I was working for the Secretary of State of Georgia. At the time, she was actually running for Governor so I saw the handwriting on the wall. I sent some writing samples to the Blazers and they thanked me and told me they would get back to me.
In October of 2005, when I was out here for the funeral I thought I should just stop by the corporate office and put some faces with some names and some voices.
I came in, the receptionist greeted me warmly-- the gatekeeper or receptionist at any business is a very valuable component, so take care of your receptionists and secretaries because they can make you or break you-- I told her who I was.
They interviewed me, started peppering me with questions, real-life player-related problem-solving scenarios and basketball scenarios and kind of put me under a stress test.
But it's basketball. This is Portland. I was born at Emmanuel Hospital.
Blazersedge: Me too.
They thanked me for my time, I went back to Atlanta and two weeks into November I got a call: "we have a position for you, what would it take to bring you out here?" I gave them a number, they gave me a number, next thing you know I'm on a plane back to Portland after 14 or 15 year hiatus.
Blazersedge: It must feel great to be back here in Portland.
It was kind of shocking, spending most of my adult life out east and down south I still stayed abreast of the Blazers. It's the home team.
A lot of the stuff, frankly, was embarrassing. As far as a lot of the communities that I was in, the only thing they knew about Portland was the Trail Blazers. That whole "Jail Blazer" and "Trail Gangster" thing was offensive to me on a number of levels, being a young black guy. That wasn't something that I was too proud about so if there was anything I could do to help change the perception, I was committed to rolling up my sleeves, turning my hat to the back, and doing that.
Fortunately, management, Kevin Pritchard, Larry Miller, Coach McMillan did something that is very rare in sports: basketball operations and business operations got on the same page at the same time and determined to shift this thing in a different direction. And we are seeing the results - not right now this minute after a loss to the Spurs- but we are certainly on the right train and the right track.
Blazersedge: A good portion of what you do is public relations, media relations, image-managing for the organization's players. As you mentioned, this was a persistent problem for the organization in the past. Recently, Greg Oden endorsed Senator Barack Obama for President. Is that something you encouraged? It seems like that would be a sticky situation for someone in your position.
We talk about music too. A guy told me awhile back that our next 3 presidents are here right now and chances are that the next 3 presidents have owned a hip hop CD. There's a generational shift. Baby boomers have had their time; their time is waning. We're in an instant society, a global society and our guys are connected via Blackberries, 2 way [pagers] and everything else. Playstations, Xboxes.
I just put out as many topics as possible to get guys engaged and get guys active and participating in any type of process that brings about the better good. I'm not going to say those conversations [led] Greg to endorse Senator Obama but we definitely discussed [Obama's] role, his posture, his carriage, his style, his conservatism, his ability to articulate himself and Greg saw fit to do what he did.
Blazersedge: Is speaking out politically something you would encourage all players to do?
I don't feel that [speaking out politically] is for every athlete. There's nothing worse than having a little bit of sense, being quasi- or pseudo-intellectual, because I'll get what you're trying to say, but it might come out all the way off base.
A primary example that showed me that an athlete's acumen and specialty is what he does on the basketball court came 9 years ago. The Spurs were playing the New York Knicks. World championship during the lockout season. Bob Costas was interviewing Larry Johnson after the game and Larry Johnson said something to the effect of `The Spurs are America's team, everybody loves them and wants to see us lose.' `They look at us,' essentially, `as a bunch of runaway slaves where [the Spurs] are the good house Negroes.'
I cringed when I heard him say that. I understood where he was going, in terms of `we're more of an urban dictate and they're more conservative and mainstream acceptable,' but how he phrased it and put it together was all wrong.
Consequently, I don't necessarily want an athlete speaking out on my behalf compared to someone of the quality of a Hillary Clinton, or a Barack Obama or a John McCain who has been schooled and who has a political science background.
Blazersedge: Is going back to finish their college education something that you make a priority in your interactions with the players? We've heard that Greg is going back to Ohio State this summer, is that something other Blazers are doing as well?
Blazersedge: I'm sure the same thing goes with the charity work that the Blazers do. We've hard about Team Oden. What other projects are Blazers currently working on?
Blazersedge: I heard K.J. is running for mayor.
Channing Frye has a concern and is very engaged in helping find treatments and cures for MS. He has 2 aunts that are affected by MS.
You try to find causes and struggles that are near and dear and personally affect our players. It humanizes them, it gives them more of an appreciation for what it is they have and an appreciative player, a player that respects that this isn't given, is one that is going to be a lot more gracious off the court and that's a guy that doesn't operate from a place of entitlement that realizes that he's been supremely gifted. If he's able to provide joy for somebody else by playing basketball, that they can tune out or plug in to a different reality for 2 hours, then that's part of their ministry and that's part of their rent for being on this planet.
It's a game. You loved the game, you played it for nothing. I try to get guys to think back what it was like when they were 12, and they were just doing it, pure, for the passion, for the love, for the camaraderie and as a rite of passage in their neighborhood: To get on the court with the older guys when they were in high school.
That's a recurring theme and that puts the game into perspective. If you can play with that same passion and that same drive and that same grounding when you're in a stadium with 20,000 people and you're making a million dollars on the first and 14th [of the month], then you have part of the fuel and part of the grounding and you [are on your way to becoming] a people's champ.
That dedication is one of the things that make guys great, and legendary, able to transcend basketball, a Larry Bird had that thing, a Magic Johnson definitely had that type of thing, Michael Jordan had that to a degree, that's the purity of the game.
Blazersedge: Is that a difficult message to sell: "remember how much you loved this game when you had nothing" in this corporate culture on the NBA where there is a dress code and so much of their life is structured. Do you think it's possible for the players to balance their professional obligations and their individual passion?
They enjoy getting paid, there's nothing wrong with getting paid. Professional basketball dictates not only do you master dribbling, passing, defending, shooting on the wood, it also dictates that you master professional carriage off the court.
Blazersedge: That "carriage" as you term it has been a hot topic in Portland for quite awhile. It seems that the local community is really coming around to this team again. What do you tell the players when it comes to dealing with a community that may still be jaded in some ways?
You never get a second chance to make a first impression and we are well aware of the fact that bad news travels faster than good news and stays around a hell of a lot longer.
My major message for them is keep that in mind, in thought, in deed, in what you promote about yourself, and what you put out about yourself, whether it's the friends you keep, the products you endorse.
I'm 35 at the end of the month, I can look back at some of the decisions I made at 25 that were regrettable. But I learned from them. But I didn't have the burden of a microphone in my face or paparazzi or camera phones following every move or every mistake that I'll chalk up youthful indiscretions. Your 20s are primarily spent messing up and figuring out, learning from your mistakes. My message to all of the guys is lets not do anything or make a rash decision at 23 or 24 that they might look back and regret at 35 or 36.
Make your next move your best move.
Blazersedge: That line of advice seems to be directly in line with the talk of a changed "culture" that General Manager Kevin Pritchard has talked so much about.
Because from October to April, this is your family.
Blazersedge: All day, everyday.
Blazersedge: Given this tightness and the culture, how do you prepare players for the possibility or the inevitability that there will be turnover on the roster this off-season?
Blazersedge: A two time champ.
Also, it is a business. My message is: this is the business you chose.
Blazersedge: So the approach is honesty about what might happen but not necessarily focusing too much on it?
Blazersedge: It's part of the job.
Blazeredge: ...signed to temporary contracts at any given point...
...Part II coming soon...