There are very few people that instantly fall in love with a sport and want to enjoy it for the rest of their lives. Jeff Bower is one of those people Yet, it seems that as soon as he got to know the sport of basketball, he knew he didn’t just want to watch it and be a fan — he wanted to be a part of the action.
Jeff Bower started out his career at Penn State University as an assistant coach for three seasons until he decided to join the staff at Marist College in 1986. Marist has grown in popularity, athletic prestige, and facilities over the years, but back in the 1980s it seemed strange to move from a well known school like Penn State to go to a mid-sized college in Poughkeepsie, NY.
“I was a young coach who saw the potential that Marist had particularly with the people that were involved,” Bower recalled. “It was a great opportunity for me from a standpoint of coaching. We wanted to build something [at Marist].”
In fact, he couldn’t have come to the coaching staff at Marist at a more perfect time. He would become the assistant coach to the most prolific athlete in Marist sports history, Rik “The Flying Dutchman” Smits, former second overall pick in the NBA Draft. Bower would stay at Marist until 1995, later taking a break from the game for a number of years.
When he later realized that he needed to bring basketball back into the picture, Bower became a part of the team then-called New Orleans Hornets from 1995-2010. He started out as a scout for the organization, but eventually became the general manager of the team in 2002. He rebuilt the team successfully during his time there, most notably when he drafted Chris Paul in the 2005 NBA Draft.
Bower continued developing the team even after New Orleans was hit with tragedy in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath, the team was forced to move to Oklahoma City for some of the 2007-2008 season. However, the team remained intact and kept their core players. When they moved back to New Orleans, they finished the season with 56 wins and Bower finished in third place in the running for NBA Executive of the Year.
Although he had different experiences with Marist and the NBA, he still felt the passion of the game on both ends. “I loved the emotion and the relationship building in the college game, and I loved the technical and mental challenge of the NBA game,” Bower said. “Two totally different sets of rewards when you talk about college basketball and professional basketball.”
There was also one season when Bower took over the Hornets as head coach during the NBA Lockout Season, marking a transition year for him. “When you’re on the court, you are dealing exclusively with people. It’s something that takes a lot of thought, even before you step on the court,” Bower said. “In other roles, it’s more analytics, more process driven but less connection as you would have to step back from the personal side of things to try to make the best decisions for the organization.”
Bower was very successful with the Hornets, but after he left the organization in 2010, he felt like he wanted to go back to where it all started in his career — college basketball. He came back to Marist in 2013, this time to become the head coach.
“I came back because I believed in the mission of Marist College and the ability of the basketball team to create an atmosphere and an environment that everyone can be proud of,” Bower said. “I have great memories from Marist and I wanted to try to help restore those same feelings to this generation of people.”
Bower only stayed with the Red Foxes for one full season, but nonetheless enjoyed his time with the Marist community, as he did back in the Rik Smits days. “I really have deep pride and respect for everything that Marist is about,”Bower said. “I look at it as a school that has a different set of values that people leave there with than when they come.”
Bower went back to the NBA and became a general manager once again, but this time with the Detroit Pistons. He was behind the Tobias Harris trade, which would later lead to trading Harris for NBA All-Star Blake Griffin. Riding on those successes, Bower stayed with the organization until the end of the 2017-2018 NBA season.
After all the college and NBA experiences that Bower went through he believed strongly in one thing: “I feel very fortunate to have had a chance to be in a number of great places and work with great people. And the main goal has always been to be a part of the group that has given me the opportunity to work with them in the sport.”
Edited by Dan Statile & Meaghan Roche
Header image courtesy of Marist Athletics