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Interview with Chris Bowles, Part II

Welcome to Part II of our interview with Chris Bowles, Director of Player Programs for the Portland Trail Blazers.  To read part I, click here.

In this interview, we discuss HBO's The Wire and ESPN's Black Magic.  If you are unfamiliar with either, you can read more about The Wire here and you can read more about Black Magic here. Both are highly recommended.

When we left off, Mr. Bowles was discussing the harsh reality that faces all NBA players: the game is a business and they can be traded at a moment's notice.
Blazersedge: Being traded is just part of the job.

When your skills diminish.  You might be the diesel or the daddy early on, but you become a pawn or a piece of the puzzle as your career matures and as you get older.

But a pawn utilized correctly can topple kings.

Blazersedge: A pawn can win the game... that's from The Wire, right?

Something like that.

D'Angelo Barksdale teaches Bodie and Wallace the rules of chess in Season 1 of The Wire.  All 3 men are so-called "pawns" and all 3 die before the series' conclusion.

Blazersedge: Have you seen The Wire?

Yes, of course. That's one of our favorite shows.

Blazersedge: I heard Jarrett Jack watches that show.  I went to school in Baltimore.

Say no more, you know what it is. Yeah Jarrett, Travis, Brandon, Martell, they all watch it.   James Jones doesn't watch it too much because he has the little ones, but yeah, we watch the Wire.  That was the topic of much conversation in January and February.

Blazersedge: What do you think about the way the media is portrayed in season 5?  The Blazers players are surrounded by the media everyday.  If I was in their position that kind of attention would wear on me and I would be, maybe not paranoid, but I would be second-guessing the media's motivations. Do you or the players talk about that at all?  Or do they just focus on the street scenes that the Wire is famous for?

I think through osmosis they got a different perspective on the media.  Season five was more of a political commentary, the media and political commentary more than any sports commentary. Ironically, that was my background [working for the Secretary of State in Georgia], the spins, when you release information.  What you release and what you hold to your chest.

I think because The Wire is reality TV to the nth degree, [it resonates with] young guys that otherwise wouldn't think outside the box, or give a second thought to a beat writer and his responsibility to his paper or periodical.

I think anytime a recreational endeavor such as watching a TV show can increase the sophistication with which you see the media as a tool and as an angle and as a vehicle and a machine, then that's best.  It makes for a more thought-out engagement when you do interact with the media.   I think that would be the case for the average viewer. Now some guys are just looking at it for purely entertainment value or the shootout scenes...

Blazersedge: ... or Omar jumping out a window...

Or the greasy, colloquial dialogue to just pick up a new slang word.

Blazersedge: That's a guilty pleasure for everyone.  Are there any characters that you relate to?

In The Wire? Marlo and Carcetti...

[Ed. Note: Marlo Stanfield is a major West Baltimore drug kingpin who has murdered his way to the top of the game.  Thomas Carcetti is the mayor of Baltimore who is equally as ruthless and as ambitious as Marlo in his drive for political power.]

Blazersedge: The hustlers.

One of the things I did appreciate about Marlo was that in the end it seemed like there was a redemptive quality, he was able to make the transition from asphalt to cash-falt, or from ashy to classy, from guttermost to uttermost and he found himself going from the corner to rubbing elbows with the power elite.  And if that's not the NBA, particularly from guys coming from very, very urban and oftentimes economic hardship type situations to having access to movers and shakers of America...

Blazersedge: ... Just like Paul Allen.  There was almost a mythic quality to Marlo's rise to power in that his "name was his name" and the whole city revered him.  I can see NBA players relating to that.

America has a unique love affair with its athletes dating back to Babe Ruth.  As a pro ball player you are able to create wonder and amazement in the minds and hearts of people, particularly you, you're the closest thing to a real life superhero that we have.

Blazersedge: Dwight Howard is Superman.

Say no more.  Point being.

Blazersedge: Did you see Black Magic, the documentary on ESPN?

[laughing] Yes, I saw Black Magic, Black Magic made me smile. I went to a historically black college. I went to Fisk University. Coach [Ben] Jobe played at my university. It's Division 3 basketball and I was pretty good but the amenities weren't there, the facilities weren't really up to par, you were playing essentially for pride and the love of it.

Blazersedge: And for your institution too?

Exactly. It was much more socially relevant than revenue relevant at that level. We had some guys that could play basketball but they were all guards because guys with the athletic ability and winning the genetic lottery who end up over 6'6" get chewed up by division 1 skills.  

But from 6'3" and under you had guys that could really go, guys from Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, The Bronx, Portland, and basketball has always been a rite of passage in the park. Your ballgame says a lot about you, it's a way to make friends and to bond, ironically before major schools were integrated the most creative and cutting edge and soulful basketball was being played at these historically black colleges and universities.  

I often thought back when I was at Fisk in 1991 that had the Fab Five gone to a Howard or a Hampton or a historically black college that gets an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, would they not have been the Fab Five?  These guys were blue-chip All-American ball players.  Essentially they were pros in high school. That's 1991 before the most modern Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal and Kobe would make the jump from high school to the pros.  Even now, you see a kid like Stephen Curry, not recruited, overlooked...

Blazersedge: ... passed by, really, by Duke and Carolina...

Davidson is a small liberal arts school, 1500 people maybe.  There were 1500 people at Fisk. I recognized that I was really good when I got hooked up with guys like Travis Ford who was at Kentucky or Billy McCafferty who was at Vanderbilt, they were like where is this guy coming from?  

Part of that is just growing up in Portland, playing against Damon and Terrell Brandon and the circuit of guards dating back from whenever -- I'm not going to go back to Snapper Jones, because that's a different black and white television, I don't know if there were jump balls after every possession or every made basket or what... Snapper's my man, he's been a mentor to me and I'm just playin' -- but without question, Black Magic was educational.  How it spoke to opportunity, it was certainly thought-provoking.

Blazersedge: What did you think of the portrayal of the NBA in Black Magic?  There was some airing of dirty laundry nationally for the first time with some of the blackballing that was going on with the St. Louis Hawks.  It was pretty ugly.

I don't think that's just exclusive to the NBA, man, that's American.

Blazersedge: But you don't hear about it with the NBA very often.

You hear about it in baseball and certainly in football but the NBA is not exempt.  The NBA was a product of the times, just like any other institutional organization.  I love this game but I see its flaws also.  That was a step in the evolution of pro basketball.  By the same token, you had other upstart leagues and for whatever reason they didn't make it.  So, to the victor go the spoils. I salute the NBA, I love the NBA.

Blazersedge: It is providing a lot of opportunity for a lot of people.

Exactly. For a lot of people.  What you do with this opportunity, what you do with this vehicle is your choice: you can pull your family in the direction of affluence and create circles of affluence and better yourself or you can take this vehicle and drive it off a cliff.

Blazersedge: People go both ways. Blazers have gone both ways.

Exactly. That's your right as an American.  I just see the NBA at that time as being a product of the times and the society that we were living in.  Basketball, baseball, football, the team sports were integrated well before the military.   Sandlots were integrated well before the military.  Kids see the love of running and jumping and playing with their peers. Sports, even from the ancient Olympics, was used thousands of years ago to bring communities together and I don't think the NBA is any different in that regard.

Blazersedge: Take us back to the Portland playgrounds for a minute before we wrap this up.

Jesuit High School. Class of 1991.
Blazersedge: Jesuit, man, you must have the trophies stacked up?
No!  I like to think we were the fertilizer for their future athletic success. It was all boys at the time.

Blazersedge: I went to Beaverton.  Jesuit was always killing us.

I mean Beaverton was nice when I was at Jesuit... there weren't as many high schools to draw from so Beaverton had a monopoly on all the talent back then.  

[Before that it was] Beaumont Middle School.  I played AAU ball from 11 to 14 and under with Matt Dishman and the Urban League. Our backcourt was Damon Stoudamire.  Terrell Brandon was on the older squad.

Blazersedge: That team wasn't losing a lot of games.
Oh no.  We only lost when we went to the nationals against Chris Webber, Jason Kidd, LA County.  Our tallest guy, our center at the time, was 6'2". Damon might have been about 5'4" at shooting guard. I was all of 5'5".   Damon was making it rain.  When we got against those larger markets we just didn't have the size to compete.  Ray Ross, who went to Oregon State awhile back, was playing too.  We just had some tremendous athletes at that time.

Blazersedge: Does Portland get the credit it deserves as a basketball town?

Portland always has had a basketball circuit.  Portland puts out guards, particularly guards with mid-range games. In Portland, you do learn how to dribble the basketball, or wiggle, or boogie as we call it on the blacktop.  You learn how to put the ball in the basket over bigger, faster, stronger taller defenders.  That's the park rite of passage.

Blazersedge: That's a rite of passage shared by players going back hundreds of years.

Take it back to Dr. Naismith when he created the game.  Our goal is vertical as opposed to horizontal like it is in a ground or land grab sport like football or soccer.  That's the vertical premium created by putting the basket ten feet in the air as opposed to setting up goal posts that you run the ball over.  This put a premium on passing and sharing the basketball.

Blazersedge: Creativity.

Exactly.  Teamwork, camaraderie.  An indoor sport invented back in New England during the late 19th century because the winters were so cold.  The young men at the YMCA would get rambunctious when they couldn't go out and rip and run and play the more aggressive sports during the winter but they still had that aggression.  So they came up with an indoors sport that puts a premium on community, passing, teamwork and is less aggressive: the concept of basketball.  And the rest is history.