Just about this time a dozen years ago the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers were in Denver to play the Nuggets in a regular-season game, but reigning MVP Shaquille O’Neal was avoiding the media after his team’s morning shootaround at the Pepsi Center.
He was changing his size-22s in a courtside seat when a couple of reporters sneaked past his bodyguard and asked if he would answer a few questions.
“I’ll answer all your questions,” he said, “if you’ll answer one for me.”
O’Neal pointed to a banner hanging high in the rafters.
“Who is Beck?” he asked.
There, next to similar banners with names O’Neal recognized — Issel, English and Thompson — was the stumper, the name emblazoned beneath the No. “40.”
Byron Beck was an original Denver Rocket, a hook-shot specialist center who was the first player drafted by the franchise that became the Nuggets. He was the only Denver player to go all the way from the franchise’s first season in the ABA through its first season in the NBA, which would be the final one of his career.
Beck retired with pedestrian career averages of 11.1 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, but for the Nuggets franchise his presence from its inception had been enough. Retiring his number made perfect sense to Nuggets management, so when Beck left the game in 1977, his number went straight to the rafters.
Had the Internet been around in those days, there likely would have been the same sort of catty online comments that accompanied the announcement Monday that Bruce Bowen’s No. 12 will be retired by the Spurs in ceremonies at the ATT Center on March 21.
One reporter who has covered the Heat since Miami joined the NBA as an expansion franchise took to Twitter to suggest, facetiously, that Miami consider a similar honor for Keith Askins, a defensive specialist guard-forward for the Heat for nine seasons. During that period, Askins averaged 3.8 points and 2.9 rebounds.
Retiring a number is the ultimate honor a team can bestow on one of its own and each franchise establishes its own criteria. This is evident when you run through the list of numbers retired by NBA teams and understand the various sentiments that produce such veneration.
The Nets retired Drazen Petrovic’s number and the Timberwolves retired Malik Sealy’s after tragic accidents took them in the prime of their careers. Similarly, the Celtics retired Reggie Lewis’ number after he died at age 27. The Royals (now the Kings) retired Maurice Stokes’ number after the 25-year-old All-Star forward’s career was cut short by paralysis from a brain injury precipitated by a fall during a game in 1958.
Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond played only two seasons for the Cavaliers. But he was from Akron, a basketball hero in Northeast Ohio long before his pro career, and he helped lead the expansion Cavs to their first playoff appearance.
The first number retired by the Blazers was that of Lloyd Neal, a rugged power forward with career averages of 11.1 points and 7.7 rebounds. Like Bowen, Neal was a versatile defensive specialist. His ability to guard the game’s top centers, even though he was 6-foot-7, made him beloved by the team’s players, coaches and fans, who thoroughly endorsed his recognition.
Defense was the hallmark of all four Spurs championship teams and Bowen was the best perimeter defender on three title teams.
Hanging Bowen’s number alongside those of David Robinson, George Gervin, James Silas, Johnny Moore, Sean Elliott and Avery Johnson doesn’t diminish those Spurs standouts. His offensive numbers may not be gaudy, but there is one number that screams for recognition: Eight.
That’s the number of times Bowen was recognized on the NBA’s All-Defensive team, a unit selected annually by the league’s head coaches.
Every coach who ever sent a high-scoring shooting guard or small forward on the court to be tortured by Bowen would endorse the honor the Spurs have chosen to give him.