Archive 75

Dave Cowens

By Steve Aschburner·

Dave Cowens, in a career that lasted just 10 of the NBA’s first 75 seasons, somehow managed to be both a throwback and a precursor, all at once.

At a time when behemoths ruled the NBA -- classic low-post centers standing 7-feet tall or nearly so, dominating inside, intimidating foes -- Cowens played the position while listed generously at 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds.

He beguiled the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Lanier, Willis Reed, Nate Thurmond, Artis Gilmore and other giants of the hardwood by banging amongst those trees at one end, counter-programming at the other.

Defensively, he was strong enough, savoring the punishment dealt and received, and quicker than most, beating the men he guarded to their spots and snatching rebounds before they leapt. Offensively, he stationed himself farther from the basket than many of the taller men dared to tread. He routinely popped 15-foot jumps over them or, if they did venture out, Cowens would pound an aggressive couple dribbles and roar by them.

It was a winning formula for Cowens individually and for the team with which he became famous, the Boston Celtics. Boston won two NBA championships (1974 and 1976) in his 10 seasons, five division titles and made the playoffs seven times.

In addition to his two rings, Cowens was selected NBA Most Valuable Player in 1973 after helping the Celtics to a league-best 68-14 record. He was an All-Star eight times, including MVP of the 1973 game in Chicago. He was an All-NBA selection three times, an All-Defensive pick three times. In 1971, he shared Rookie of the Year honors with Portland’s Geoff Petrie.

And for all that, the big redhead from Newport, Ky., and Florida State was enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991.

“I never thought of myself as a superstar,” Cowens said during that Hall of Fame weekend. “I represent the working class of the NBA.”

More than 40 years later, his style would fit in perfectly with a game that has gone away from back-to-the-basket centers to more mobile men with extended shooting ranges and the ability to run the floor. Which is to say, if Cowens thrived then, he might dominate now.

Oh, and no one played harder. Ever.

Archive 75: Dave Cowens and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

At Cowens’ size, it was essential that his skill set be sound. Footwork, blocking out, sealing his defenders with a strategically placed leg, backing down or bumping out, contesting shots, showing on pick-and-rolls -- all those fundamentals were keys to his effectiveness.

Cowens played at a time when centers still were referred to as “pivot men” for the way they performed as the hub of their offense’s wheel. At the other end, things would break down quickly if Cowens couldn’t hold his ground and properly police the glass.

Tom Heinsohn, Cowens’ first coach in Boston, always gave credit to legendary Celtics’ impresario Red Auerbach for seeing the undersized center in the guy inside that power forward’s body.

“We made him a point center,” Heinsohn recalled years later, “in that he would be a ballhandler, passer and perimeter shooter, still with the ability to go down on the block and post up. He was a great trailer on our fast break.”

Eventually, Cowens would achieve a first in NBA history: The only player to officially lead his team in all five major statistical categories -- points, rebounds, assists, blocked shots and steals. That feat since has been matched by Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. None of whom played center.

And that meant something extra to Cowens.

“I would not have enjoyed the game as much if I didn’t play center,” he said. “I’ve always liked center. I thought it was a special position. There are two guards and two forwards, but only one center.”

Legends Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West were on their way out, appearing in the final All-Star Game of their careers in 1973. Cowens was playing in only his second, just two-and-a-half seasons into his career.

And like a new factory hire who hasn’t yet been advised by his co-workers what constitutes a fair day’s labor, the Celtics’ center came into such exhibitions hot.

Motor racing, legs churning, defense making the trip to Chicago Stadium with him, Cowens played at close to his usual speed -- full throttle. Players overall competed harder in the midseason showcase game than do those in the new millennium, but Cowens still stood out.

He might have seemed out of place but the results were strong: 15 points and 13 rebounds to lead the East to a 104-84 cruise. Big Red was named MVP that evening, a taste of what was to come a couple months later when his peers voted him MVP of the 1972-73 NBA season.

Archive 75: Dave CowensThe 1974 Finals stand out for Cowens and the Celtics for several reasons. First, it brought the franchise’s first taste of championship success since Bill Russell retired in 1969, and Cowens’ first ever. Second, it came against Milwaukee, led by eventual Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Abdul-Jabbar, who became something of a Cowens nemesis.

Third, it generated the single greatest distillation of Cowens’ hustle and determination, in a clip of videotape replayed hundreds of thousands of times in the years since.

The Celtics had won another Atlantic Division title in 1973-74 and advanced by beating Buffalo in six games and a declining New York team in four. That pitted them against the Bucks in the Finals (Milwaukee was in the Western Conference in the 17-team league back then).

 

After splitting the first six games -- with Abdul-Jabbar winning Game 6 on a Kareem skyhook with three seconds left -- the teams returned to Milwaukee for Game 7. That’s when Cowens outplayed the prodigious Bucks center with 28 points on a game-high 25 shots and 14 rebounds to Abdul-Jabbar’s 26 and 13 in the Celtics’ surprisingly easy 102-87 victory.

One key: Cowens and his guys held Milwaukee’s All-Star center scoreless for an 18-minute stretch that felt like eternity to Bucks fans. Contrary to their clashes in that series and in previous meetings, the Celtics gave Cowens some double-team help on Abdul-Jabbar.

“Tommy decided to double up on Kareem in that game, and it came as a real surprise to the Bucks,” Cowens explained. “We’d never practiced this scheme, but our team was smart enough to pull it off.  We wanted to slow down the Bucks’ offense and make players like Cornell Warner and Curtis Perry beat us.”

They didn’t and, with lanky guard Don Chaney pestering Robertson into 2-of-13 shooting for six points, Boston’s 12th championship was secure.

As for that Cowens close-up moment, it came late in Game 6 at the Garden. He had gotten switched onto Robertson, guarding the crafty ball handler out top. Cowens poked at the ball, then lunged. He kept scrambling after it as the ball rolled toward the sideline, all but swimming across the parquet floor for what became a jump ball with a pursuing Robertson.

“I couldn't see if anyone was near me and I couldn't get my feet under me,” Cowens said, “so I just went after it and was lucky enough to come up with it and the jump ball.”

The image is indelibly etched into NBA lore as Cowens at his most driven.

“That seems to be one a lot of people recall,” he has said with a laugh. “And really, I was just very good at being able to fall down.”

Two years later, Cowens and the Celtics were back at it, matched up this time with the Phoenix Suns. In retrospect, that championship series is most remembered for Game 5, when Suns forward Garfield Heard forced it into triple overtime with his unlikely Shot Heard ’Round the World.

What only some Boston fans recall is that Cowens played 55 of the game’s 63 minutes, finishing with 26 points, 19 rebounds and a game-best 8-of-11 from the foul line in his team’s 128-126 victory.

Cowens’ counterpart in the 1976 Finals was Phoenix center Alvan Adams, a lithe 6-foot-9 player with exceptional shooting range. He was the opposite of the typical paint bangers of the time. Cowens and Adams both were successful in the six-game series, the former averaging 20.5 points, 16.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists to the latter’s 23.0, 10.2 and 4.7.

In the end, teammate Jo Jo White was named Finals MVP with numbers – 21.7, 4.3, 5.8 – not any better than Cowens’. In 1974, it had been John Havlicek who took home that trophy.

But across his two Finals appearances, in 13 games, Cowens put up 21.7 ppg, 12.8 rpg and 4.0 apg. He was at his best when it counted most.

Archive 75: Dave Cowens, Bird

It occasionally has been suggested, with Cowens concurring, that the Celtics of the ’70s tend to get forgotten between the ridiculous glory of the Bill Russell dynasty (11 titles in 13 seasons) and the more recent Larry Bird-led ’80s teams that were pitted against rival Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers. Add the recency bias of those Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen years beginning in 2007 and it’s no wonder the span of Cowens’ career can seem crowded out.

It’s a big mistake, if true. The championships in 1974 and 1976 bridged a pivotal time for the franchise, and have it tied with the Lakers at 17 titles each.

There isn’t a team in the league, meanwhile, that wouldn’t welcome a player of Cowens’ intensity and physicality, even if it took its toll on his body and his psyche.

At 28, the Celtics center found himself running dry, unable to rise up for the biggest games, nevermind the routine Tuesdays in Houston or Buffalo. He asked for and was granted a leave of absence, a couple of months from early November to mid-January to step away, decompress, consider his alternatives and find out how much he missed the competition.

Cowens returned and played like his old self for another three years. In 1978-79 he added coaching duties when Auerbach thought making Cowens player-coach might snap him and the rest of the team out of a 2-12 start. What had reinvigorated Russell over his final three seasons pulling double duty didn’t work well with Cowens; Boston went 27-41 to finish out their schedule, hiring Bill Fitch to coach in 1979-80.

It was in that preseason in 1979, in Terre Haute, Ind. (where new Celtics rookie Larry Bird had played at Indiana State) that Cowens called it quits. He had suffered so many injuries to his legs, feet and notably one ankle that he no longer could play at all, never mind with the ferocity that defined his game.

That, with one minor exception, was that.

Away from the courts and arenas, Cowens’ mind raced as frantically as his body did while playing. He was what best can be described as a free spirit, with a curiosity about the world around him, a lack of ego rare among professional sports stars and a tilted way sometimes of looking at life.

That’s how he ended up sleeping on a park bench in Boston when he and the Celtics got back from Milwaukee. How he decided to really see the city one night by driving a friend around in a taxi cab. By rolling up his sleeves, in flannel shirts and blue jeans, to unabashedly throw himself into various charitable efforts in New England.

And how in the fall of 1982, two years after he had retired, he wound up staging a comeback with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Cowens figured he had had enough time off, missing two full seasons, for his body to have healed sufficiently. He didn’t want to disrupt things in Boston where the Celtics were doing fine with Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish up front. Besides, his old teammate Don Nelson was coaching the Bucks, a team desperate for a power forward to help out gimpy Bob Lanier.

It didn’t really work out. At 34, Cowens had taken on too much rust. He appeared in 40 games, started 34, and averaged 8.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.4 minutes.

It was one of those jarring, Joe Namath-with-the-Rams, Bobby Orr-with-the-Blackhawks episodes. But it was harmless and it was fun, something Cowens always sought.

 

 

For Cowens, the enjoyment was in the doing. In playing the game, in winning that night, in rising up to meet individual and team challenges in the moment. Looking back -- even a little, a day or so after a championship or a major award -- he always claimed to feel little for what it might mean on his resume.

“What people will remember you for is your style,” he said in a Sports Illustrated article in 2020. “I never wanted to give a coach a reason to take me out of a game. I would have been a terrible bench player. I always wanted to be someone who my team needed to have out on the floor.

“I loved the activity, I always played with a style most would call 'reckless abandon.’ But I didn't look at it that way -- it’s the only way I knew how to play.”

Consistent with Celtics champions before and after, Cowens found his purpose in the team. He hustled, he ridiculed and barreled into notorious floppers, he kept things real and, from all that, he derived a lot of fun.