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Bad rep beats rap

Bruce Bowen beat the rap again Monday, a knee to the groin of the two-time MVP getting merely a tsk-tsk out of the NBA offices. Everyone marvels over the way that Bowen deliver his blows – such as the shot to Steve Nash's private parts, the kick to Amare Stoudemire's Achilles' – yet stays long on suspicion and short on suspensions.

They've called him the chippiest player in the sport, but all those slow-motion indictments on YouTube still haven't caused him a conviction at league headquarters. As quickly as he crosses the line, the beauty of Bowen is that he'll leap before they catch him.

In this season alone, Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Isiah Thomas and now Stoudemire have, to different degrees, called Bowen a dirty basketball player.

Truth be told, he's Eddie Haskell in high tops.

"Michael Finley had more issues with Bruce than anyone before he came to play with him," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said by phone before Game 4 in San Antonio on Monday night. "Bruce is in other people's space more consistently than any defender I've ever seen. When you don't have to face that on a night-to-night basis, it provides a great deal of frustration for players who are used to getting the benefits of their space."

Finally, Buford said, "You don't want to be in the pickup game with the guy in high socks who's got his arms up and wrapped around you."

For all the charges, all the accusations, the league office never has nailed him. Isolated, there's a perfectly plausible explanation for everything he does. Yet all together, there's a compelling case that his constant entanglements with David Stern's brightest stars are no coincidence.

They accuse him of sliding his foot underneath a jump shooter, causing ankles to turn upon landing. When that happened this season, it cost Carter six games with a sprained ankle. "I'm sure he'll say it's an accident," Carter grumbled, and yes, Bowen said it was an accident. Happened with the Knicks' Steve Francis, too, and Isiah lost his mind.

In the end, Bowen, 34, knows this: When he's on the floor, you're thinking about him. He's on your mind when he's up in your face, and he's on it when he's nowhere to be found. Bowen loves it, because it means you're thinking about him, when you should be thinking about winning. Who else in the NBA is asked to cover Zach Randolph and Steve Nash in the same season – never mind all the Kobe Bryants, and Dwyane Wades and LeBron Jameses?

As much as anything, Bowen willed himself to make those stars know his name – and respect it. Bowen makes his living creating discomfort for the most comfortable stars in the sport. Whatever sense of entitlement the game's international icons feel, Bowen has a habit of stripping it away, play by play.

In his life, everything that conspired to keep him out of an NBA career hurtled him toward it. He fought so long, so hard, to get into the league, he was willing to do whatever it took to stay. For this, you have to admire him. As a kid in Fresno, he was shunned by his biological parents. As the Washington Post's Mike Wise once wrote, Bowen's father took the paychecks that Bruce earned delivering telephone books for booze. His mother once traded the family TV for crack cocaine. When Bowen resisted their reconciliations as an adult, his grandmother called him a "Satan."

He struggled to get a scholarship out of high school, went undrafted out of college and has stops in Rockford, Fort Wayne and Sioux Falls of the CBA between jobs overseas in France. Here's the thing with Bowen, love him or hate him: He keeps coming, and coming. He wears you down to a nub.

Seven years ago, the Spurs' coach, Gregg Popovich, recruited him as a free agent to the championship Spurs. What he did was take a good interior defensive team, anchored by Tim Duncan, and elevate it to greatness on the perimeter. In the past five seasons, Bowen hasn't missed one game. Along the way, he logged the hours in the gym to take advantage of the open shots that come his way alongside Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

Maybe he would've stayed with Rick Pitino's Celtics and Larry Brown's 76ers and Pat Riley's Heat if he could've made a jump shot. Of course, they would've been wise to give the time to develop it.

"He's outworked people to reap those benefits offensively," Buford said.

Mostly, Bruce Bowen has stayed in the space of the sport's biggest stars, squeezing and squeezing until there comes that uneasy sense of suffocation. And then, for good measure, Bowen isn't above kicking you where it hurts most, too.

All these charges, but no convictions. Bruce Bowen, the last tough guy, beat the rap again.