"Gentle Giant" Goes Beyond the Game to Help Others
Former NBA player Bruce Flowers of Elmhurst teaches others to love the real meaning of sports.
It was a chilly June evening, and Bruce Flowers of Elmhurst was hitting the links with his friend Tim Bransky at Eaglewood Resort in Itasca.
As he practiced his putting, Bransky, a Wood Dale resident, took some coaching tips and compliments from Flowers.
Bransky and several Special Olympics golfers from the Northeast DuPage Special Recreation Association played with Flowers as part of the organization’s unified golfing program. Special Olympics participants pair up with non-disabled partners as they alternate hitting the ball on a nine-hole course.
It's one of many ways Flowers, 54, a former NBA player, passes on his athleticism and sportsmanship to help others.
Though Flowers has tried every sport imaginable, basketball was his passion and his livelihood.
It Wasn't Hard to Do
Flowers was born in Rochester, N.Y. His father, a preacher, moved his family to Lansing, and then to Berkley, Mich. It was in high school in the late 1960s where Flowers honed his basketball skills and other athletic interests.
“Basketball was an easy game to play when I started,” he said. “I liked working out. I like sweating, and basketball is a fast sport."
But that didn't stop him from playing everything.
"(I) played baseball, ran track, did high jump and shot put. I lived right across the street from a tennis court, swimming pool and baseball and football fields. In the winter, we had a hockey rink across the street,” he said.
His high school basketball team was quite a success; going to games on Friday nights was a main event.
He earned scholarships from many colleges, but he chose to attend Notre Dame in 1975. While studying business management, Flowers played center for the Fightin’ Irish alongside other future luminaries, such as Bill Laimbeer, who would go on to play for the Detroit Pistons, and Tracy Jackson, who would play for the Chicago Bulls.
In 1978, Flowers’ Notre Dame team landed itself in the Final Four.
“That’s the goal of every (college) basketball team,” he said. “In fact, in all the four years, our team was so good that we got into the NCAA every year. From 1975 to 1979, Notre Dame basketball was the best it’s ever been.”
After graduating in 1979, Flowers wondered about a professional basketball career and thought about playing for the U.S. in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. He explained that to be eligible for the Olympics, he needed to have amateur status. Simultaneously, the Cleveland Cavaliers chose Flowers as its first draft pick.
Mi piace l'italiano
Taking a huge gamble, Flowers deferred the Cavaliers’ invitation and instead went to Italy to play basketball. While scouting another player during Chicago’s Summer Basketball Leagues, an Italian coach approached Flowers with the opportunity.
“I was trying to figure out how to keep my amateur status,” he said. “Originally, I thought I was going to California, play on the beaches, keep in shape for a year and then try out for the Olympic Team. But, in the summer between graduating in 1979 and getting drafted, I found out that I could go to Italy, play basketball, make money and still be considered an amateur athlete.”
In late 1979, Flowers and his wife Cathy traveled to Cantu, a small town in the northern Lombardy region known for its independent furniture makers, who financially supported the town’s basketball team. In his first year, Flowers immersed himself in the culture and helped his team go to the Italian Championship Finals. Unfortunately, the team lost.
He then decided to try out for the Summer Olympics, but there was a political glitch. The U.S., along with other countries, boycotted the event because Russia invaded Afghanistan. With his Olympic dream dashed, Flowers returned to Italy to play for Cantu from 1980 to 1982. He and his team won the Italian Championship in 1981.
When a team wins the Italian Championship, it is eligible to play in the European Championship the following year, so he stayed on. Playing in Cologne, Germany, in 1982, his team went to the Cup of Champions and beat an Israeli team, taking home the title.
“It was the biggest thrill of my life because I realized that Italy had the best basketball outside the United States,” he said. “It had the best players, teams, coaches and advertisers. Here in this little small town of 40,000 people, we played our hearts out and won the European championship. We were the kings of Europe. It was absolutely fantastic.”
A Different Kind of Season
After garnering success in European basketball for three years, it was time to enter the NBA. Flowers signed on with Cleveland and played in the 1982-83 season. Because of a change of coaches and player lineups, Flowers, a rookie, sat on the bench for most of the season.
“I was going from playing high-level basketball to (being part of) the worst team of the NBA that year,” Flowers said. “We won 15 out of 82 games. I didn’t play in half of them.”
Flowers became disillusioned with basketball. He tried out for the New York Knicks and other teams with no success. So, he quit the game.
“Up until that point, it didn’t feel like a job,” he said. “It felt like a game. I played it like a game. It was fun and exciting. You emotionally gave your whole heart to the game and it was great. When this experience with Cleveland happened, I realized that it’s not a game; it’s a business. It just really turned my whole thinking of basketball at that point. It really is a business and I’m just a piece of meat.”
By 1983, he was pursuing a master’s degree in marketing at DePaul University and living in Schaumburg. After stepping away from a sport he loved, he remembered his glory days in Italy. Seeing a career possibility, Flowers and his wife returned to Italy and contacted his old coach, who was now in Rome. Flowers signed a two-year contract, from 1984 to 1986.
The magic was not there this time. Flowers’ team won a league title but not the playoffs during the first year. The next year, his coach left for a national team and a new coach took his place. The team did poorly and Flowers was traded to a lower B Division team near Cantu.
With a baby son at home and Flowers wanting to expand his family, he made the 1986-1987 season was his last.
In 1987, he returned to the U.S. He eventually found a job with Keebler—and a home—in Elmhurst.
A Gentle Giant
His new home gave him volunteer opportunities, starting with being a Cub Scout leader for his sons’ troop. Flowers brought a physical education component and introduced the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves' Toys for Tots program to the Scouts.
He expanded his volunteer efforts by raising money for Immaculate Conception Church in Elmhurst. For Mary Queen of Heaven Catholic Church, also in Elmhurst, he is a volunteer for DuPage PADS; once a month, the church serves as an overnight shelter site for the homeless. He also participated in the church’s Knight of Columbus’ fish fries during Lent, raising money for Catholic Charities.
And, for the past three years, Flowers has volunteered for NEDSRA; the organization offers recreational opportunities to children and adults with disabilities. He became involved with NEDSRA because he wanted to be a volunteer coach. His prior experience was being an assistant basketball coach at Elmhurst College in the late 1980s.
His NEDSRA roles include being master of ceremonies for the annual Special Olympics Track and Field Meet, a cooking class facilitator and a coach for the Special Olympics basketball, volleyball and golfing programs.
Special Olympics programming, in which NEDSRA participates, offers elements that are good for any individual, whether they’re handicapped or not, Flowers said.
“You have the discipline, dedication and motivation to set a goal for yourself,” he said. “That is inherent in sports in general. Special Olympics incorporates that into its whole therapy for disadvantaged young adults.”
He described the participants as “child-like” in their approach of life.
“I just admire that in these people, and I like to be around that because they take (the meaning) of sport for what it is,” he said. “It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be an exercise. It’s not done for money.”
Flowers recently was honored with NEDSRA’s Superstar Volunteer Award.
“He’s a gentle giant who’s very genuine,” said Ann Roytek- Rylko, a NEDSRA recreation manager. “He has the athletes’ best interest at heart. He wants them to learn and have fun. He thoroughly enjoys spending time with them.”
One of the reasons the athletes respond to so well to him is the way he instructs them, she said.
“He has a kind, gentle way of teaching,” she said. “He’s a father and he has that gentle side of him that probably comes out when he’s with our participants.”
Flowers, who is a marketing manager for Kronos Foods, a company that makes Greek food specialties, doesn’t know what will come next; he takes life one day at a time.
“I don’t like to look too far in the future, because you don’t know what your future is,” he said. “I think the good Lord has put us on earth to do something. My whole goal is to think about it, meditate about it and listen for an answer to what my next role is.
"When the time is right, and whatever that next step is, I’ll be ready for it.”