(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called “Buffalo Braves From A to Z,” published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren’t so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material … so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)
The Buffalo Braves represented an opportunity for Nate Bowman. After years of wandering on the fringes of pro basketball, he had a clear path at a starting job for an NBA team. Unfortunately, he wasn’t up to the challenge. It’s all part of a too-short life that carries some sadness with it.
Nathaniel Bowman was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 19, 1943. He stayed in that city through high school, as he attended Kirkpatrick H.S. Details about Bowman’s high school career are tough to find, but his team did win a state championship in 1961.
After graduating from Wichita State, Bowman moved along to Wichita State University. He might have been impressed upon arrival by Ralph Miller, one of the best coaches of his era. The WSU coaching staff had gone to Fort Worth to see Bowman play, and noticed an unknown player named Dave Stallworth on the trip. Miller and his staff landed both of them.
Bowman joined the varsity in 1962-63, and saw regular duty. The 6-foot-10 center averaged 9.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. However, the star of the team unquestionably was Stallworth, who for some reason had played in the second half of the season in the previous year. The 6-7 forward averaged 22.6 points and 10 rebounds per game. The Shockers went 19-8 and were ranked fifth in the final AP poll. WSU was not invited to the NCAA tournament because it finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference. League champion Loyola (Chicago) eventually won the national title that year. Meanwhile, Wichita State lost to Villanova in the first round of the NIT.
The Stallworth-Bowman combination was even better in 1963-64. The pair averaged 26.5 points and 12.8 points respectively and jointly grabbed 19 rebounds a game. This time, the Shockers were not denied an invitation to the big dance. Wichita State beat Creighton in a first-round game, but then lost to Kansas State in the regional final in spite of 37 points from Stallworth and 12 from Bowman. With a tournament bid finally on his resume, Miller left for Iowa.
His replacement was Gary Thompson, and he was at the helm for one of the great seasons in Wichita State basketball history. The Shockers were ranked first in the country at one point in December 1964, and stayed in the top ten for most of the season. Bowman, though, wasn’t around to see all of it. He had to leave the team for academic reasons on January 22. The action came only two weeks before Stallworth departed because he had used up all of his college eligibility. WSU closed with three wins in six games, which knocked it out of the top 10. That probably should have been the end of any dreams of postseason success. But the team still won the conference title, and went on an unlikely run to the national semifinals. There the Shockers lost to UCLA.
The Final Four was nice, but the season is something of a “what if?” to fans of the Shockers. “Listen my friend, with Dave and Nate we had the best team in the country that year,’’ said Mohamed Sharif, then known as Kelly Pete. “Nobody in the country would have touched us.’’
Despite the early departures, both Bowman and Stallworth went in the first round of the draft. Bowman was selected by Cincinnati at No. 10, while Stallworth was the No. 5 choice by New York. Bowman’s selection was slightly curious, because the Royals had Wayne Embry, Connie Dierking and George Wilson as candidates to play center. Bowman never played for the Royals. He broke his ankle before the season started, and that kept him out of action until January. Then on January 29, Cincinnati assigned him to play in Johnstown (Pa.) of the Eastern League to return to shape. He played in nine games there.
The NBA expanded to Chicago in 1966. The Bulls had the chance to select two players from each of the nine existing franchises, and they did a good job of it. Jerry Sloan and Jeff Mullins were the top picks in hindsight. The Royals lost Bowman and guard Tom Thacker in that expansion draft.
The Bulls didn’t have much height up front, and that should have given Bowman an opportunity. It didn’t; he only played in nine games. Then he was waived by Chicago on December 3, and landed in Philadelphia. Nate never played a game with the 76ers, suiting up for the Asbury Park Boardwalkers of the Eastern League. Luckily for Bowman, the NBA kept expanding as more jobs were created. On May 1, 1967, the new Seattle SuperSonics took him in another expansion draft.
Nate never suited up for the Sonics, either. The center was waived on September 16, and signed with the New York Knicks the next day. Bowman’s story turns a little surprising at this point, as he actually found something of a home with New York. The Knicks already had Willis Reed and Walt Bellamy up front, but a team can always use another big man. Bowman played 42 games for the 1967-68 Knicks, averaging 6.5 minutes per game. New York moved above .500 that season for the first time since 1958-59 with a 43-39 record.
Around that time, Bowman made one lasting contribution to the Knicks: He gave Walt Frazier a nickname. “I think Nate Bowman first called me Clyde,” Frazier wrote in his autobiography. “It was right after the release of the movie about depression gangsters. It was called ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ Before the film ever hit the theaters, Nate would get on me about my mod clothes. Then in Baltimore I bought this $40 cocoa-brown hat made of Italian velour with a wide rim. The first time Bowman laid eyes on it, he pinned the nickname on me. ”
A midseason trade proved crucial to the Knicks in 1968-69, as Dave DeBusschere was acquired from the Pistons for Bellamy. That allowed Reed to move from center to forward, and increased Bowman’s playing time to about nine minutes per game. The Knicks gelled that season, finishing 54-28. A close loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals gave New York the feeling it could play with basketball’s best.
That good feeling only increased in the 1969-70 season. New York got off to a great start and coasted to a 60-22 season. Bowman played in 81 games, a career-high, as he gave Reed a few minutes off each night. The Knicks reached the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Reed was injured in Game Five, and Nate received a little playing time as a replacement. However, New York eventually switched to a small unit with Cazzie Russell and Stallworth, Bowman’s former college teammate, taking turns as subs. It worked, and the Knicks took a 3-2 lead with a Game Five win. Bowman started Game Six and played 29 minutes, scoring 18 points (a career best) and grabbing eight rebounds. However, Los Angeles evened the series. That set up Game Seven, with Reed’s famously inspirational appearance at the start of the game. He played 27 minutes, and his suitably inspired teammates ran away with the game and the title. Bowman earned a championship ring in the process.
Those good feelings lasted about six weeks. It was time for another expansion draft, and the Knicks didn’t want to lose Stallworth. They worked out a deal for the Buffalo Braves not to take him, as instead they selected Don May. Bowman and Mike Silliman then were traded to the Braves for cash. Just like that, Nate had gone from an NBA champion to a brand-new team with little immediate hope for success.
Bowman stood out upon arriving in Buffalo, and not just because of his 6-10 height. He dressed like a cowboy, complete with designer Western shirts and a Stetson. Bowman won the starting center spot at training camp for Buffalo, and he was in the lineup for an Opening Night win over Cleveland on October 14. In fact, he scored 12 points in that game – the only time he was in double figures in a Buffalo uniform. Soon after that, Nate lost his starting job to Bob Kauffman. An injury ended his season prematurely, having played 43 games.
The Braves brought Bowman back to training camp in the fall of 1971, but he didn’t last long as they waived him. Buffalo had drafted Elmore Smith in the first round of the NBA draft, crowding Bowman out of the picture. Nate found work in the American Basketball Association, signing with the Pittsburgh Condors on December 8. That team needed all the help it could find in a 25-59 season. Bowman did average 12 minutes a game there. And that was about it. He turned up briefly on the roster of the Wilkes-Barre Barons of the Eastern League in 1972-73. Bowman played in 261 professional games with four teams, and scored 745 points and had 878 rebounds.
While stories about Bowman’s activities after basketball are scarce, there’s one good one that popped up from an unlikely source. Singer Natalie Cole once used Bowman as a bodyguard. The two were on the 26th floor of a fire at the Las Vegas Hilton that eventually killed eight people and injured 350 in 1981. Cole called for help which was slow in coming. They wrapped themselves around soaked bedding. It was at that point that Bowman told Cole about his love for her.
In Cole’s book, she recalls him saying, “Natalie, I love you, and I’ve been in love with you since I started working for you. We ought to make love here and now because it’s the last chance we’re going to get.” She answered, “If we’re gonna die and it comes down to the choice of sex and getting high, I’d rather get high.” Cole started smoking crack cocaine, and fireman had to force her out of her room. They were evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the building. Bowman supposedly suffered lung damage in the incident. Cole later said that this was the moment in her life when she “hit bottom.”
Nate died on December 11, 1984, at the age of 41. A heart attack was the cause of death. Bowman had done a little acting since retiring from basketball. On this day, he was suffering from chest pains while filming a television commercial for Miller Beer, and was rushed to the hospital. Bowman died in the emergency room.