Celtics fans of a certain age need no introduction to Dave Cowens.
This is for “the others.’’
If you didn’t live it, if you didn’t see him play, it’s difficult to explain the essence of Cowens the Celtic. But it has always struck me that Cowens might be the most unappreciated superstar in Celtics history.
You could win a few bar bets asking for the names of the four Celtics who have won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. Bill Russell? Bob Cousy? Larry Bird? Yes, yes, and yes. Easy. But the fourth player to win an MVP as a Celtic was not John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Paul Pierce, or Kevin Garnett. It was Dave Cowens in 1972-73, when he was playing in a league populated by the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Cowens played center at 6 feet 8½ inches. He went chest-to-head with Wilt and Kareem. He beat them with hard work and hustle. He ran them around until they keeled over or quit. He dove on the floor before anyone ever talked about “50-50 balls.’’ He ranted against flopping. He was a ferocious competitor, a big redhead who shot from the perimeter before there was a 3-point shot. And he absolutely brought the Celtics back from oblivion after they hit rock bottom in the wake of Russell’s retirement.
After winning 11 championships in 13 seasons, the Celtics went 34-48 in the first year without Russell. That gave Boston the fourth pick in the draft and Red Auerbach knew what to do. Accessing one of the greatest draft classes in NBA history (Bob Lanier, Rudy Tomjanovich, Pete Maravich, Calvin Murphy, Tiny Archibald), Auerbach went with lefthanded center Cowens from Florida State. Nobody knew much about Cowens because the Seminoles were on NCAA probation and barred from tourney play. But Red knew. And the Celtic turnaround was instant once Cowens arrived.
Cowens scored 16 points with 17 rebounds in his NBA debut against the defending champion Knicks and went on to become co-Rookie of the Year with Portland’s Geoff Petrie. Two years later, Cowens was league MVP. Three years later, the Celtics were world champs again. In Game 7 of the 1974 NBA Finals, a Sunday afternoon game in Milwaukee, Cowens scored 28 points with 14 rebounds and held Abdul-Jabbar scoreless for an 18-minute stretch while the Celtics built a lead.
After winning the franchise’s first crown without Russell, the Celtics flew back on commercial flights, changing planes in Chicago, then Cowens toured Boston, visiting friends. After 2 a.m., he went to sleep on a park bench in the middle of the Boston Public Garden.
Imagine folks walking to work that May day in Boston, schlepping past the Swan Boats, then coming across the Celtics center blowing zzzzzzzzzzzzzz’s on a bench less than 24 hours after winning the NBA championship.
“I just got tired,” Cowens told me years later. “My car was within earshot, but I was in the [Public] Garden so I just went to sleep on one of the benches. When I woke up, a lot of people were walking past me, sort of looking at me. I just had on a T-shirt and shorts. It was warm out and we had a parade to go to that day around noontime.”
That was Dave Cowens. He was a thinking man, a hardwood Henry David Thoreau. He was never intimidated playing against legends who were a half-foot taller because he knew virtually nothing about them when he came into the league. He was a frugal man with a high motor who loved playing basketball. He raised Christmas trees near his home in Newport, Ky. He wore flannel shirts and drove an Oldsmobile. He lived with Don Nelson for part of his rookie year, then settled in a one-room cottage on an estate in Weston. He studied auto mechanics and learned sign language. In 1977, he lost interest in basketball for a while and asked Auerbach for an unpaid leave. Cowens’s heart wasn’t in the game and he didn’t want to take the Celtics’ money. He missed 30 games and was never quite the same player after he came back.
There’s a myth that Cowens became a Boston taxi driver during his 1976-77 sabbatical. Not true. But he did drive a Boston cab for one night during the playoffs in April 1977, just to try it out. Trolling the streets of Boston in his ITOA cab, Cowens wound up picking up Globe reporter Alan Richman on Tremont Street and drove him to Newton. Richman wrote a story about it and the legend was born.
Cowens is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was an All-Star eight times and has two championship rings. He was the All-Star Game MVP in 1973, when he had 15 points and 13 rebounds in 30 minutes. He’s been an NBA head coach, assistant coach, and scout. He was a head coach and general manager in the WNBA. He was the first director of The Sports Museum. He’s been a television commentator. Since the early 1970s, he’s run the Dave Cowens Basketball School, a camp that has served tens of thousands of New England youngsters.
Cowens teamed with rookie Larry Bird during another Celtics turnaround season in 1979-80, then abruptly retired from the Green during training camp in 1980, walking away from a team that would go on to win the franchise’s 14th NBA championship. He wrote his own retirement statement — 4½ typewritten pages — delivering it to the Globe’s Bob Ryan in a hotel room in Terre Haute, Ind.
“lI used to treasure the individual confrontation with Kareem,” Cowens wrote, before launching into a moving description of his NBA days. “ . . . However, I can no longer play that caliber of basketball, and it is unbelievably frustrating to remain in an occupation which is wearing and in which one has seen better days . . .”
He spoke to his teammates on the bus later that day, then got off the bus and drove a rental car home to Kentucky.
Dave Cowens. The one and only. Forever part of Boston’s Tradition.
Dan Shaughnessy, in the Boston Globe, November 28, 2017