Brian Bowen II, a broken NCAA system, and a second chance with the Pacers

Brian Bowen II just signed a two-way deal with the Indiana Pacers after a season in Australia’s NBL. His past includes scandal and a dismissal from the NCAA, but the incident shouldn’t be what defines him.

Heading into his freshman year at Louisville, Brian Bowen II was a 5-star recruit. Ranked No. 14 on the ESPN 100 rankings for the class of 2017, Bowen had no shortage of offers: Tom Izzo from Michigan State, Steve Alford (formerly) of UCLA, and yes, Louisville’s Rick Pitino were just three of the names that wanted the Saginaw, Michigan product.

Bowen’s first choice was to head to Tucson and play for Sean Miller’s Arizona Wildcats, though. Well, except for one hitch: he’d sign on only if one of then-Wildcats Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins opted to go to the NBA, per Jeff Goodman’s initial ESPN report. Both Trier and Alkins decided to return to Arizona for another year, however, which left Bowen looking for a better situation to start his college career.

Louisville answered that call and Bowen committed in June, a month before the FBI’s probe into illicit college basketball recruit spending ended his collegiate career before it had even begun. The investigation revealed that Bowen’s father, Brian Bowen Sr., had accepted $100,000 in return for committing to the Cardinals. In the aftermath, Pitino lost his job, a few conspirators went to jail, and Bowen lost his college eligibility.

The university didn’t do Bowen any favors, either, by suspending him shortly after the investigation and declining to appeal for his reinstatement into the NCAA.

“I was upset,” Bowen said of Louisville’s actions almost two years ago. “Like, completely upset. Like, they just, you know, left me out to dry, honestly. That’s really how I felt.”

Bowen tried to take matters into his own hands by joining forces with South Carolina, a move that benefitted the Gamecocks just as much as him. He attended practices, hosted recruits, and did just about every single thing a good teammate should do.

Except play a game. The NCAA didn’t reinstate Bowen during the latter half of the 2017-18 season, and that was the official end of his dream to play collegiate ball.

He declared for the NBA draft in 2018, but withdrew before the big day. Instead, Bowen signed a deal with the Sydney Kings, an Australian NBL squad, averaging about 6 points in 15 minutes off the bench.

If you’re not familiar with the situation, let me get this out of the way right now: this isn’t a matter of a wrongful accusation, and I’m not going to claim as much. His dad admitted to taking the money and disclosed offers that he received from different schools, as well as the cash payments he took from Adidas when his son was in high school. The transactions did occur, and NCAA rules were certainly violated.

But Bowen insists he was unaware of the payments, a statement that was echoed by his father while under oath.

Of course, that fact, whether it is indeed fact or not, is meaningless to the NCAA. A relative of Bowen’s accepted money, and that means he’s out. It’s as simple as that.

But… why?

Bowen was a likely first-round draft candidate in a world where he was able to play out his freshman season at Louisville, but he wasn’t at the top of his class either. If a player with the stock of Bowen (roughly late first round to late lottery pick coming into college) is fielding six-figure offers from schools, it doesn’t take a genius to assume that the cash is being spread around to other young stars. Bowen was just one of the unlucky ones.

Let’s not even speculate on whether Bowen was aware of the transactions or not. It doesn’t matter. They were discussed, agreed upon, and executed entirely between the adults in the situation. A 17-year old kid just couldn’t coordinate such a grand scheme, even if he did know about it.

Given the rules in place, Bowen Sr. made a horrible decision with stakes that weren’t his to gamble. Profiting off of his son, at the risk of his future career, is inexcusable, but he did seem to be aware of that in court, when he began sobbing at the topic of Bowen no longer attending college.

But the ultimate problem is the rules themselves. There’s no reason why these young athletes, who provide millions in revenue to their respective universities, don’t receive a dime in their own pockets. If Adidas thought Bowen’s college commitment was worth $100,000, then Bowen should get $100,000. Bowen II, that is.

Instead, a corrupt system and a selfish act tore his future apart. I feel much less pity for Pitino, who was paid more than fairly for his contributions to Louisville over the years, and the Adidas employees, who were well aware that wire fraud is a felony.

Bowen, though, lost his chance at being a first-round draft pick, as the scandal and his subsequent season in Australia tanked his draft stock to the late second round. On June 20th, he didn’t hear his name called as one of the 60 draftees in the NBA class of 2019.

His two-way contract with the Indiana Pacers and Fort Wayne Mad Ants will be a modest, non-guaranteed deal once officially inked. Compared to the two-year guarantee and $1 million-plus salary of a first-round draft pick, Bowen has a right to feel cheated.

But he doesn’t feel like it defines him.

“There’s a lot of narratives out there about me, but once you meet me you can tell I have a pretty good character and everything,” he said following a pre-draft workout with Indiana on May 21st. “I like to be responsible and everything and I’m just going to show teams that I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”

Indiana didn’t end up drafting Bowen, as Kevin Pritchard opted instead to use his second round picks to beget more second round picks. But their interest in the wing was clear, as it only took a couple hours after the draft had concluded for Sports Illustrated’s Jeremy Woo to report a two-way agreement.

The Pacers provided Bowen with a second chance — though it feels inappropriate to call it such. Rather, let’s just say it’s a chance. A chance to move past the ugly battle for his collegiate career. A chance to earn back the potential money he lost after losing his eligibility in the NCAA. A chance to be a real NBA player despite everything he’s gone through in the last 2 years.

Let’s hope that he can make this chance count.