DALLAS — It’s easy to tell how much Denver Nuggets head coach Mike Malone respects Ryan Bowen, considering his initial response when asked about the former Iowa basketball standout.
“Not much. I lost a bet,” Malone responded with a smile when asked what Bowen, one of his assistants, brings to his staff before a recent game in Dallas. “I’ve been carrying his a** in Sacramento and Denver.”
Then, Malone, who has the Nuggets in the NBA playoffs and in second place in the Western Conference, got serious and discussed how close he and Bowen, in his second stint coaching in Denver, where he played between 1999 and 2004, have become over the past several years.
“Here’s a guy that played in the league for over nine years. He’s the same person today when I watched him as a player — a guy that just worked his butt off,” Malone said. “There’s a lot of people in Denver that (say) Ryan Bowen is one of their favorite players of all time because of how hard he played, how hard he competed every single night and he maxed out all of the talent that he had.
“He didn’t leave anything on the table.”
Bowen, 43, played for the Hawkeyes between 1994 and 1998. He and Malone have known each other since 2013, when Malone hired him as a player development coach in Sacramento. Malone was abruptly fired 24 games into the 2014-15 season, but when he got the Denver job in June 2015, he summoned Bowen to rejoin his staff.
“I was kind of a last-minute hire. He pretty much had his staff put together in Sacramento and I was looking, seeing what was available out there,” Bowen said. “I wasn’t around in the coaching meetings a whole lot. I was on the court, working with guys and didn’t get a whole lot to do with game planning and things like that.”
Bowen admits the friendship between he and Malone truly blossomed after Sacramento fired the now-Denver head coach, a relationship that now sees them also living near one another.
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“He got the job in Denver and he relied on me, just (had) a lot of questions about Denver in general,” Bowen said. “It’s evolved from there. We’re close. We have a unique relationship because obviously I work for him yet we live in the same neighborhood, so we see each other off the court as well.”
Bowen played 12 seasons as a professional, nine in the NBA and some abroad. But after Oklahoma City released him in November 2009, he returned to his roots and accepted a job doing video for Iowa Coach Fran McCaffrey in 2010.
Returning to Iowa alone was special, but he also returned to where he first caught the coaching bug from Gary Close, a former Hawkeyes assistant under Tom Davis.
“(I thought) I’d like to have the impact on these young kids as he had on me,” Bowen said. “That was why initially I thought I’d like to coach college. But after playing in the NBA for nine years and then you start working in college and you’re like 'I miss the NBA.'”
Bowen spent one season with the Hawkeyes before becoming an assistant in Denver in 2011 under George Karl, who he had previously played for. His first stint in Denver lasted two seasons, ending when Karl was fired in summer 2013.
However, Karl’s termination led Bowen to Sacramento to work with Malone. Bowen has now been back in Denver since 2015 and has also bonded with several Nuggets staffers who are fellow Hawkeyes.
“I love Iowa. Our video guy, Andrew Munson, is an Iowa guy as well,” Bowen said. “He was a manager at Iowa, so we talk Iowa every day. We come in and talk about what’s been going on. I think we quietly got Coach Malone to be an Iowa fan. He’s always asking us after every game how they did and things like that.
“There’s definitely a lot of pride. Our assistant trainer’s also an Iowa guy. (Jason Miller) was actually a manager when I played at Iowa. My freshman year, he was our senior manager for Coach Davis. We have this unique Iowa connection going on.”
With the Nuggets, he works mostly with their big men, a role he immediately embraced.
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“I don’t quite have the nurturing impact that a college coach has, but we still do (make an impact),” Bowen said. “That’s what I enjoy probably most about the NBA, it’s just about basketball. There’s a lot of things you don’t have to deal with that colleges have to deal with. We just get to focus our energy on player development and scouting opponents. It’s been a lot of fun.”
One of those bigs he works with is Nikola Jokic, 24, a 7-foot Serbian. He’s only in his fourth season, but is regarded as a big star.
“He’s incredible, just his feel for the game, his basketball IQ. it’s unbelievable,” Bowen said. “You watch him play and you don’t know how he sees the things he sees and how he does the things he does. We’re fortunate to have other great bigs. Mason (Plumlee) has been unbelievable. Paul (Millsap) is a great player. (I feel) very fortunate to have worked with these guys. I wish we could take credit for anything they’ve done, but Nikola is just an unbelievable talent.”
Each day, Malone sees the impact Bowen has, not only on the Denver big men, but on the entire team. And he’s proud to witness his friend and assistant’s continuing evolution as a coach.
“The biggest area he’s really grown as a coach, being able to do game plans, being able to present in front of the team, do a walk-through,” Malone said. “His confidence and his growth has been tremendous in the last three, four years.”