Playing a game of Irish NBA trivia is limited. Both in the number of questions that can be asked and the likelihood anyone knows the answers.
For example: What former Irish international was drafted 17th overall in the NBA draft? One draft position behind Ron Artest (Metta World Peace) and one pick ahead of future NBA champion James Posey.
The answer is not Marty Conlon or Pat Burke the two most recognisable Irish NBA names, but rather Cal Bowdler.
Cal Bowdler was born in Virginia in 1977 to the daughter of a Belfast man. Admittedly, unlike some of the other players with deep connections to Ireland, neither Cal nor his mother knew much about their Irish roots as he grew up. Cal’s grandfather had been 60 years old when his mother was born and had passed long before Cal was born.
Growing to 6’10, Cal developed into a top NCAA talent as he committed to Old Dominion University in 1995. While at ODU, Cal blossomed into a top talent and his senior year in particular caught people’s attention. Averaging 14.7 points per game, 10 rebounds and 2.85 blocks, Cal was voted first-team all Colonial Athletic Association and was ranked 13th nationally in blocked shots and 14th in rebounding. Jim Moran who competed against Cal in college would simply describe him as a monster in college. His top performance came during that senior season when ODU faced the North Carolina Tar Heels. The Tar Heels were the third-ranked team in the nation and they narrowly avoided a major scare by scoring a layup with 1.5 seconds to go to win 63-61. Brendan Haywood who went on to be the 20th pick in the 2001 draft struggled in his matchup with Bowdler as he managed just two field goals in the game. Cal on the other hand put up an impressive line of 22 points and 11 rebounds on the night which helped his draft stock soar. It also helped that he had 18 double-doubles in his senior year and grabbed an incredible 20 rebounds against Seton Hall in the NIT. Bowdler was a serious player and a lot was expected of him.
Despite those expectations, coming into the 1999 NBA draft most would not have expected Cal to be a high-level first-round pick. The Atlanta Hawks came into the draft with four first-round picks (10,17,20,27). The Hawks at the time were an exciting team with Steve Francis and Dikembe Mutombo on the squad. They had recently just lost in the Conference Semifinals to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion New York Knicks and things were looking up. Going into the draft they traded their all-star guard Mookie Blaylock for a package that included the 10th pick in the draft and they selected Jason Terry who went on to play until 2004 for the Hawks before becoming a 6th man of the year in the NBA and eventual champion with the Dallas Mavericks. With the 17th pick, the Hawks picked Cal with the hopes that his athletic frame and good jumper could help form a strong frontcourt led by the former Defensive Player of the Year, Mutombo.
In his rookie year, Cal played with little pressure but also little opportunity as he averaged 2.7 points a game in 46 games. During his second season in Atlanta, Mutombo would be traded to the Sixers at the trade deadline but opportunities didn’t open any more for Cal as his scoring rose narrowly to 3.2 points in 44 games. An eight-day stretch at the end of March 2001 looked to hint at more being possible for Cal as he managed 11.8 points a game over a five-game stretch. The stretch was highlighted by 15 points against the Celtics and another 15-point effort against San Antonio’s twin towers of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Unfortunately, it quickly went back to business as usual and Cal’s final season was much the same as his previous two, as he averaged just 3.1 points a game in 52 games.
Reflecting on the draft pick, the General Manager of the Hawks at the time Pete Babcock had an honest appraisal of his own decision “What sticks in my mind is his game against North Carolina, his senior year. He shot the ball phenomenally well, he rebounded, he blocked shots in the game (he wasn’t a shot-blocker really), but he did a little bit of everything. It was probably the single performance that caught my attention more than anything else. We try not to draft based off of one game, so we went back and watched a whole lot of tape on him but that one game sticks out in my mind that he was capable of doing all of those things. We did all the background things and they were positive and we interviewed him and it was positive. Then when we had him he was a great teammate and his work ethic was off the charts. He was a notch below the NBA athletic standard in terms of speed and quickness and that’s what held him back a little bit…in retrospect If I had to do it over again, what I do is I go back and evaluate every one of our drafts that I was involved with, my entire career so 40 something years of doing it, why was I right about this guy or why was I wrong about this guy. With Cal, with all due respect to him, I was more infatuated with him than I should have been because the North Carolina game kept sticking in my mind. If you could do that against that high level of competition there's no reason you can't make the jump a be a role player. I wasn’t expecting anything else because we drafted him in the second half of the first round…I love the guy and think he’s a wonderful person and if we had to do it over again we probably drafted him too high but that was my call”.
At the time the Hawks were in a period of transition and Babcock also felt that the environment in the locker room didn’t help any of the young players settle into the NBA well “Without question, that was a huge factor for all the young guys, Cal included. They all faced the same thing. In 1999 we finished the season two games off the best record in the east. We beat Detroit in the first round, we played the Knicks in the second round and they swept us. It was discouraging but we were also banged up. We were told to break it up and get rid of the long term contracts and bring back just short one-year deals. We argued about that with ownership, that it was really premature but we were told that’s what had to be done. Steve Smith had the longest contract at the time so he was the first guy to go and bring back a one year deal. The only deal in the entire NBA that worked cap-wise was JR Rider. That was the only deal that worked and we didn’t want to make that deal at all. I told people publicly we were trading Steve Smith for the anti-Steve Smith. Steve Smith is the All American guy, a great person, involved in the community, great teammate, all-star player. Everything you want Steve represented. Jr was a great NBA athlete but he came with so much baggage. I told our basketball staff, we are bringing in a guy that we are not equipped to deal with his issues, we are basketball people, we are not psychologists, we are not sociologists. We can’t deal with his issues. The problem was all these young guys in the locker room were being influenced by JR Rider. That was a bad mix. Luckily Jr eventually straightened his life out and is doing well and I wish him the best but at the time it was a disaster for our franchise. If our young guys could have come in with Steve Smith and Grant Long and all those guys, it would have been so much better for them. They would have been around these guys who were leaders and set a great example instead they were around JR, it was awful our locker room was a nightmare.”
Steve Holman who is the long-time voice of the Atlanta Hawks agreed that timing was a big issue “In the late 90s we were very good, we had 50 win teams but would run into some Michael Jordan teams. We had Dikembe Mutombo, Steve Smith, Mookie Blaylock, we had some very good players, at the time around the 2000 mark when Cal got drafted alongside Jason Terry it was shortly after they had brought in JR Rider and things went downhill from there. They traded Mutombo, Steve Smith left and a lot of the core guys weren’t there anymore. Jason Terry never blossomed into what he turned out to be because of (JR Rider) and a lot of our young players were smitten with JR so we went nine years without being in the playoffs. Cal was right in the middle of that so that didn’t help his situation either”.
Overall Cal’s NBA career lasted just 142 games, which for your general player Is an incredible achievement but for an NBA first-rounder, it was disappointing. Holman felt that Cal himself recognised the disappointment “I don’t think he had the fire in the belly to compete and battle the way that he maybe could have. He had a child and was maybe occupied with that, and at the time he made a lot of money for a kid that group up the way he did and went to ODU. I think he thought that was something that might never end and as is the case with a lot of athletes it doesn’t last that way. I think that was part of his problem. He was maybe a little too complacent as a first-round pick and when I talk to him now over the last several years he wishes he could do it all over again.” Equally, if it was done again today Holman believes that the presence of the G League and the modern skillset Cal possessed would both have extended his career “If he had been around now he could have gone to the G League and had some time there and come back into the NBA but it was a different time then… if he came around now, his game would fit the NBA style perfectly. All big guys shoot threes and spread the floor and are part of the great offense we have now. I think he would have been more successful for sure.” Despite the tough time Cal had on the floor Pete Babcock still had hope that he could find a spot on an NBA team “I don’t remember thinking to myself he can’t do this. I knew his role would be limited but because of his worth ethic and his size and that he could shoot the ball, I was hopeful he would find a role he could play. Maybe that meant he spent his career as the 10th, 11th, 12th man on a team and play a few minutes here or there and in special situations but there are guys who make a nice career doing that. I don’t think I ever thought in my mind he cant play in the NBA, I reached a point in the short time we were together that he was at best going to be that 10th/11th/12th man on a team.”
Sadly for Cal, he was unable to deliver on the promise that scouts had seen and part of his joy and love for basketball would be taken away during his three NBA seasons. The business of the NBA was something that his Irish teammate Marty Conlon knew all about “you see that in the business of basketball, guys losing their passion. NBA scouts when I played 20 years ago when I played were really into cosmetics. He had broad shoulders, long arms and a graceful running technique. NBA scouts love that. When he walked into the gym you are like wow look at this guy he’s impressive. I just don’t know how much passion he had for basketball”.
When looking back at his NBA career. it isn’t those glimpses of promise that are remembered but rather a very unusual NBA record that Bowdler holds. On November 13th, 1999, in his rookie season the Hawks visited one of the top teams in the NBA the Portland Trailblazers. The Blazers were led by Damon Stoudemire, Arvydas Sabonis and Rasheed Wallace and were one of the top teams in the NBA that year. In what ended up a 36-point loss for the Hawks, Cal got to play 14 minutes and 37 seconds of the game in just the fifth game of his young career. In his almost fifteen minutes of game time, Cal pulled down two rebounds and hit one of two shots from the field, but it was his action in the foul column that sets him apart from every other NBA player in the history of the league. In what should be a technically impossible feat, Bowdler was recorded for seven fouls during the game, one more than the six foul limit allows. In the official NBA record books, Bowdler was attributed with all seven fouls an achievement that is effectively impossible to repeat and a record that looks to be safe in the hands of the Irish international for the future.
After the Hawks decided not to renew his contract, Bowdler moved his talents to Europe and signed with Bologna in Italy before quickly moving on to Siena after breaking his foot in his first two weeks in Bologna. In their first year in the Euroleague. Siena remarkably made it to the Final Four. Bowdler averaged almost ten minutes a game that season and even played briefly in the semi-final loss to Benneton in Spain. Despite the Final Four experience playing time was limited at club level and it was instead with Ireland that Cal got to play his most carefree and best basketball “Siena brought me in as an insurance policy. They had already built a Euroleague Final Four calibre team so they kinda just brought me in in case someone got hurt so I didn’t play a whole lot. So I spent most of my time training, at that time I was in incredible shape and so when the opportunity for the national team came I was in the best shape I’d ever been in. I hadn’t been playing a lot so physically and health-wise I was in incredible shape. My sights at that point were trying to make a big play to get back to the NBA the following summer for summer league so I was definitely playing at a different level at that time, probably the best of my career if I’m honest”.
Playing for Ireland
During his stint for Ireland, Cal top-scored against top nations like Croatia and Germany, even managing 25 on his debut against the Germans a real measure of the calibre of player he was.
Despite the limited playing time at the club level, the energy and excitement around European basketball were exactly what Cal needed after being jaded by the NBA experience. The business of the NBA can chew up and spit out players and Cal had lost a love of the game while in Atlanta. Europe was different though and Cal was instantly taken by it “When I came to Europe first I got to see the passion and the pride that all of the countries took in their teams, it’s not the same in the United States. To me, it was awesome because everywhere you went the home team had such incredible passionate support from its fans and I thought that was really cool. And then as I played more and learned more about the national team structure and the passion that went behind that. So when I got an opportunity to play for the Irish National Team I thought man this is going to be awesome. This is going to be an opportunity for me to be part of something that has an entire nation passionate about it, excited about it and feeling part of one community, so I was really excited about it.” Aside from the fan support and energy, Cal knew that the legacy of representing a country was something he couldn’t miss, especially considering his grandfather’s roots in Belfast “When you’re asked to play on a national team representing a country it’s a tremendous honour, players look at it as an honour, the community and country itself look at it as an honour”.
Sadly Bowdler’s career both for Ireland and in Europe ended up being very short, lasting just three years until 2005. A torn hamstring, detached retina and torn quadriceps all hindered him and eventually the wear and tear proved too much as Cal struggled to regain the love of the game “It was all the nagging injuries. I was out 6-8 weeks or 10 weeks maybe and I would work my way back in and the season is over. I did that three years in a row. I ended up taking a year to mentally recuperate. It takes such a high level of commitment to maintain the level of shape you have to be in, to maintain mentally the level of competition you have to be in, so at the end of the year, I just didn’t feel I had the same drive to put in the amount of work you have to put in to be competitive and successful. If you’re not willing to put that time in you’re not going to get anything out of it, you’re going to end up hurt or worse so I ended up just not going back to play anymore after that. I’ve done a lot around basketball since then but I haven’t played.”
Post Playing Career
Cal has had several different jobs since retiring. They included a play by play announcer and working in ticketing for the Hawks. He is currently a member of the Atlanta Film Society and the Atlanta Hawks Diversity and Inclusion Council.
Overall, Bowdler’s career was relatively short and raised a lot of questions about what could have been. With his mobility, he may have been a player better utilised in the modern game than at the time he arrived in the NBA. Despite that, he can say that he was a first-round draft pick and was drafted seven places ahead of Andrei Kirilenko and 39 places ahead of Manu Ginobili. He made a huge impact for Ireland on the court and in his short European career, he managed to reach and play in a Euroleague Final Four. His Twitter account highlights that he’s an NBA record holder which is something that will forever be associated with his NBA career but it’s important to remember that there was a huge amount of talent there too and he deserves to be remembered in the same conversation as Pat Burke and Marty Conlon although he didn’t quite reach the same heights as the others. Pat Burke himself probably sums up Cal best “Here’s a guy who had a better frame than Marty or I. As broad as can be, with a huge wingspan, he was more athletic than all of us. But just something maybe at that point in his life he wasn’t running on full cylinders to have the drive. He was happy to be there, I don’t think Cal had it in him to be negative or to be sore on anything…I always say he was an old soul, a throwback, it’s like he always would say this is cool… At times that laid back, attitude could frustrate though especially because Cal’s unique ability was clear for anyone to see. You felt like saying it would be so much cooler for the team if you really picked it up because you could lead all of us…he had all the pieces to be that guy and NBA scouts knew it too”.
Cal will be remembered in different parts of the basketball world for many different reasons good and bad, but for Ireland, he showed a nation what a top-level player could do and had it not been plagued by injuries and personal issues away from the court he could have been the player to lead Ireland into a completely different level. He was that gifted.