Interview with Chris Bowles

"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.

In October 2005, I had an uncle [Jimmy "Bang Bang" Walker] that was really socially and politically active in Portland who passed.  He was an uncle/father/grandfather/Santa Claus for myself and a number of kids in the North and Northeast Portland communities.  One of the unofficial mayors of North and Northeast Portland.  A real advocate of athletics for 40 some odd years.  He passed and I came out to help coordinate the media effort surrounding his funeral, his public memorial service.

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.

Two minutes away, a stone's throw. I'm comfortable here.  So, I handled the questions, thank you may I have another.  

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 feels a lot better now than it did then. I was a little bit taken aback the first time I walked into the Rose Garden and the crowd was booing the home team.  Empty seats.  

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.

I have all kinds of conversations with the players, from talking about their friends and entourages to politics.  We've had conversations about politics, where our country is going, the future of our country.  What is key is getting guys to understand that they are blessed and with that blessing comes a responsibility.  The average age on our team is like 23 years old: your 23 year old peers are 4,000 miles away fighting for a cause-- good, bad or ugly, it isn't for me to decide-- but it should produce concern or dialogue. These are your peers.  This is your generation; this is our generation.  

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?

That's kind of a loaded one.  Let's put it this way: if an athlete can articulate a position or a cause intelligently then I think there is a social responsibility to do so.  A guy like a Grant Hill, graduated from Duke University, well-read.  A guy like Tiger Woods, Stanford, grew up playing golf in country clubs-- there's a level of exposure.  Now if it came down to Grant Hill at 35 or 36 [years of age] advocating or giving voice or representing my cause or my neighborhood versus a 23 year old like a LeBron James, I would encourage LeBron to make his politics known via his checkbook, who he endorses privately.  But when you put a [microphone] in someone's face, I would much rather Grant Hill speak or represent my cause or a constituent base.  

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?

Brandon [Roy] is working on that.  Jarrett Jack is working on that.  I can pick up the phone and ask Brandon, `Who's your counselor at the University of Washington? Is there any chance that any of these appearances or any of the giving back or NBA Cares community work that you do can earn you independent study credit?  Can you write on some of the experiences you've had and turn that in?'  That's the angle that I try to take, more or less getting to know guys and finding out what they are passionate about on a core level.
 
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?
I connect our guys with causes that are near and dear to their hearts.  Brandon and Jarrett are really big in terms of youth advocacy.  Urban inner city youth, primarily.  James Jones and Channing will be sitting down with Kevin Johnson on our next Sacramento visit to discuss Kevin Johnson's St. Hope project, which is a community investment initiative down in Sacramento where he grew up and his charter school.

Blazersedge: I heard K.J. is running for mayor.

Exactly. That's a natural connection piece and if Greg is on the trip he would like to be a part of that dinner as well.  

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?

I don't think the two are incongruent.  The players know me as a friend, as an older brother, as a young uncle, but they also know me as a professional and they are professional athletes.  

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?
Not only do you represent your team but you represent your market or your community or your city when you sign on the line for that major life-changing family-legacy-changing contract.  

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.  

No question.  Kevin Pritchard, Larry Miller have put a premium on character as well as talent and it trickles down, man, it trickles down.  That commitment, that prep time you see our basketball brain trust putting in early in the morning.  The GM on the court with sweats, surveying and issuing rally cries and so on and so forth and its contagious.  With this group, nobody wants to break cadence. If we are on the 3, then everybody is on the 3 and we're trying to fall in line and that's one thing that I truly respect.

Because from October to April, this is your family.

Blazersedge: All day, everyday.

All day, every day.  Coming in, getting off a runway in the middle of nowhere when there's freezing rain at 3 o'clock in the morning when it's 40 degrees and going to an arena where 20,000 people are wishing you death on the court, that has a way of bonding you and bringing you together. Just as far as anything I can do to help guide and keep clear lines of communications, a certain amount of tension is healthy, a certain amount of conflict is good for you, in the resolution of conflict you grow and stretch, basketball is conflict between two teams but there's a way to compete, to compete with class, to compete with honor, to put forth that effort, even if you lose, you'll be proud of the way you fought, it's a process, it's a growth process and we're maturing into it.

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?

That comes up in my initial introduction, my initial meetings with players, because what I do, the rapport I am able to establish is totally relationship driven.  There is my job and then there's the time we spend and I'm able to know you and you're allowing me to know you as an individual and as a young man aside from what you do for a profession.  There's a rapport there, so I care about you whether or not you're here. Along that line, it's good to see [Former Blazer and current Spur] Ime [Udoka] come back.  A guy like [former Blazer and current Nugget] Taurean Green.  I met Taurean before we drafted him in Orlando at the pre-draft camp. It was just the 2 of us in an elevator and he introduced himself.  I said, `Young fella, I know who you are, I watch college basketball.'

Blazersedge: A two time champ.

Exactly. My job is more to affirm their humanity. If you feel good about who you are, you are going to make better decisions.  

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?

Which of us are sacred?  Which of us are sacred? You are a young millionaire because somebody is a billionaire that pays your check.  It's American, it's basketball capitalism and there's a free market there and you compete even within the team dynamic for things such as minutes. You compete against your peers at your position on other teams, often times it comes down to a numbers game that helps you and your representation determine what you are worth in this basketball market.  So, I think all of our guys are aware. They definitely have conversations about what the open market is earning guys that have comparable numbers, that are at comparable positions. They're all aware of the possibility or the ultimate reality at one point or another that you'll be traded.  And I don't think that's a point of anxiety for anyone.

Blazersedge: It's part of the job.

Exactly. The truth of it is, guys are free agents, they are registered agents of the National Basketball Association...

Blazeredge: ...signed to temporary contracts at any given point...

With franchises, exactly.  So their representatives, and their families, coming out of college or high school, they establish that right out of the get, and they know that.  That's part of the carrot to maintain and hone your skills.

...Part II coming soon...

--Ben (benjamin.golliver@gmail.com)

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