SACRAMENTO — Ky Bowman stared at his brother Michael’s face on a video screen. Ky was in the lobby, while his brother was being detained somewhere else in the Craven County Jail.
It was September of 2014. Michael had just been jailed for stealing Apple products from an elementary school, costing him a football scholarship at South Carolina. As Bowman watched the screen, Michael told his younger brother, “Do what you love. Play the sport that you love. Don’t play for others.”
At that time, Ky was a three-star prospect committed to play wide receiver for North Carolina. His older brother’s advice prompted him to shift his focus to basketball. After a standout three-year career at Boston College, Ky went undrafted, only to agree to a two-way contract with the Warriors.
“He was looking out for me, making sure I made the right decision for myself, not just for everybody else,” Ky, who is on Golden State’s Summer League team, said of Michael.
That fact that Ky — an explosive athlete who can score from all three levels and defend multiple positions — even has a shot to play in the NBA might come as a surprise to those who grew up with him in Havelock, N.C.
Ky had played football since he was 8. Havelock — an economically depressed town of little more than 20,000 in the southeast corner of the state — is “very football,” he said, and counts Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Pharaoh Cooper and Atlanta Falcons linebacker Bruce Carter as favorite sons. Many kids in Havelock view football and the military — the Marines have a base at nearby Cherry Point — as their only ways out, especially in the Bowmans’ Harlowe neighborhood, where only 4.4% of residents have a Bachelor’s degree.
Following his brother’s path as a receiver, Ky committed to North Carolina as a sophomore, planning to play football on scholarship and walk on to the basketball team. He committed on the same day — March 20, 2014 — and at the same ceremony where Michael, two years his senior, committed to play receiver at South Carolina.
Ky had idolized his older brother. After their father died unexpectedly when Ky was 7, Michael became Ky’s role model, teammate in both football and basketball, and father figure.
Early in Ky’s 939-yard, nine-touchdown junior season at Havelock High School, Michael was arrested on 16 counts of misdemeanor larceny. He pled guilty to stealing iPads and iPods from Havelock Elementary School while working for a cleaning company the previous summer.
The day Ky visited Michael at the county jail, he brought their sister’s oldest son, Zacchaeus, who was no older than 6 at the time and living with the family while his mother worked in Virginia.
“He was always with me, showed up to basketball with me,” Ky said of Zacchaeus. “I used to ride the bus home, take him back, and coach Daniel Griffee, the coach at Havelock, he used to take us to the gym and practice. I wanted to be that role model for him.”
Ky finished his junior football season, and after several spring training sessions, retired from football, despite receiving a late offer from Alabama. He turned his focus toward playing for his John Wall-sponsored AAU team in hopes of landing big-conference basketball offers. It was a gamble; top basketball prospects are usually known commodities by their sophomore years, and he was headed into his final summer of high school with only one Division I offer, from East Carolina.
When Bowman tried to commit to the Pirates that August, the coaches didn’t call him back. His play that summer, though, had caught the attention of Boston College assistant Scott Spinelli. The Eagles — a team that hadn’t been to an NCAA Tournament in six years and had gone 82-111 since — offered, and Bowman committed on his campus visit.
Two years and more than 1,000 points later, Bowman tested the NBA draft waters and decided to return to school after getting second-round grades. After ranking fourth in the ACC in scoring as a junior for a 14-17 team, he put his name into the draft and again received second-round grades. Bowman knew he was taking a risk by staying in the draft, but, as the youngest of six kids, he felt compelled to be the family’s breadwinner.
As the second round unfolded last month, multiple teams offered to pick Bowman and give him a two-way contract. The Clippers — in particular — made a strong case, but he wanted a guaranteed contract.
“I was taking a chance on myself,” he said.
Less than a week earlier, Bowman worked out for the Warriors at Golden State’s Oakland practice facility. The Warriors didn’t use any of their three picks on Bowman, but they were impressed enough with how he carried himself — both during the workout and the NBA Draft Combine interview process — to offer him a two-way contract as an undrafted free agent.
“He was real genuine,” said Golden State summer league coach Aaron Miles, who coached Bowman at the combine. “That’s the first thought that I had about him, is he’s genuine. No fake stuff, none of that. Then, I started to hear his story, and I had another level of respect for him.”
Said Bowman, whose two-way contract allows him to spend up to 45 days with Golden State and the rest of next season with its G Leage affiliate in Santa Cruz: “I still won, because the contract I’m on, I know I get to showcase myself throughout the summer league, and throughout the two-way contract. This is the only place I could really showcase myself — playing against NBA-caliber guys.”
The morning of his second game in Sacramento, Bowman got a congratulatory call from Zacchaeus, now 10 years old. Shortly thereafter, in the lobby of the team hotel in downtown Sacramento, he puffed his chest out and smiled.
“I want them to have different chances than I had,” Bowman said. “I want to show them the world.”