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Cowens helped restore Celtics pride
by David Friedman / June 21, 2007

One of the toughest challenges in sports is to replace a legend. For instance, it took Steve Young several years to get the infamous “monkey” off of his back as Joe Montana’s successor and, despite some good seasons over the years, UCLA’s basketball program is still trying to recapture the glory of the John Wooden era. Bill Russell guided the Boston Celtics to 11 championships in his 13 seasons. The task of replacing him fell to Dave Cowens, who became one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players.

Boston won the NBA title in 1968-69, Russell’s final season, but missed the playoffs in 1969-70 with a 34-48 record. Hall of Famer Sam Jones had also retired and John Havlicek moved to the forefront, leading the 1970 Celtics in scoring (24.2 ppg), rebounding (7.8 rpg) and assists (6.8 apg). He obviously needed some help, so the Celtics selected Cowens with the fourth overall pick in the 1970 draft. Cowens was neither a scoring machine like Wilt Chamberlain nor a defensive powerhouse like Russell but he fit perfectly with the Celtics’ fast-breaking style because of his mobility and his aggressiveness on the boards. Though undersized, Cowens was a great rebounder who could get the ball out to the guards and then use his speed to race down court as a trailer on the fast break. He averaged 17.0 ppg and 15.0 rpg (seventh in the league) in 1970-71 and was the co-Rookie of the Year with Portland’s Geoff Petrie, finishing ahead of Pete Maravich, Calvin Murphy and Bob Lanier one of the strongest rookie classes in NBA history.

Boston had a better record than Atlanta (44-38 compared to 36-46) in 1971 but at that time only the top two teams in each division made it to the playoffs and the Celtics finished third behind New York and Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division. The Celtics got their revenge in 1972, though, posting the best record in the Eastern Conference (56-26) and beating Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs before falling 4-1 to the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 1972, Cowens averaged 18.8 ppg and 15.2 rpg (second in the league), earning his first All-Star selection.

Cowens had the best season of his career in 1972-73, averaging 20.5 ppg (18th in the league) and 16.2 rpg (third in the league). Cowens won the regular season MVP and the All-Star Game MVP; he had 15 points and 13 rebounds in the midseason classic, numbers that were actually not quite as good as the ones he put up in the 1972 contest (14 points, 20 rebounds).

“I just enjoyed playing and being in close, competitive games,” Cowens says of his seven All-Star Game appearances. “I was lucky enough to win the MVP in Chicago in 1973, but the year before I made a big shot at the end of the game when Jerry West won the MVP. He came down and made another shot to win it. He was an older player, so they wanted to give him the MVP. Probably if he doesn’t hit that shot then I win it. I came in second in the voting. Anyway, it was good that he won it; I’ve got no problem with that. Just being involved and playing with that caliber of a team is pretty cool.”

Cowens is very much a purist regarding the All-Star Game and its younger cousin, the Rookie-Sophomore Game.

“I just like to see good competition…I like it when it’s basketball. We’re out there promoting the game and you don’t want to have people out there just showing off under the guise of playing a basketball game. In basketball there is defense, there is offense, there is passing, there is good pick-setting and there is reaction time and all that other stuff. There is shot making. It shouldn’t just be a dunk contest. Otherwise, just let everybody play one-on-one instead of playing a game.”

The Celtics’ 68-14 record in 1972-73 is still one of the best in the history of the NBA. Much like this year’s Dallas Mavericks, they seemed to be in great position to win the championship and, like the 2007 Mavericks, they watched someone else capture the glory. Boston’s loss is much easier to understand, though... The Celtics fell in the Eastern Conference Finals to the defending conference champion Knicks. The Celtics wrested home court advantage away from New York with a 134-108 Game 1 win but Havlicek injured his shooting shoulder later in the series and essentially played one-armed the rest of the way.

Cowens’ Celtics bounced back to win championships in 1974 and 1976. Cowens averaged 19.0 ppg and 15.7 rpg (second in the league) as the Celtics went 56-26 in 1973-74, trailing Milwaukee by three games for the best record in the NBA. Those teams eventually squared off in the Finals. That championship series was very strange because the road team won six of the seven games. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hit an oft-replayed skyhook to clinch a 102-101 double overtime Game Six victory for the Bucks in Boston Garden but the Celtics won Game 7 in Milwaukee to claim their first title of the post-Russell era. Cowens had game-high totals of 28 points and 14 rebounds. Abdul-Jabbar finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds but he was scoreless for an 18-minute stretch while Boston built a commanding lead. Celtics coach Tommy Heinsohn did not believe in double-teaming Abdul-Jabbar but after the 1974 MVP torched Boston for 33.6 ppg in the first six games of the series Heinsohn decided to surprise the Bucks by double-teaming Abdul-Jabbar in the seventh game. Kareem had 14 points in the first quarter but was a non-factor after that. Havlicek won the 1974 Finals MVP.

Boston tied with Washington for the best record in the NBA in 1974-75 (60-22) but the Bullets eliminated the Celtics 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Cowens led the Celtics with 20.4 ppg and lost one of the closest rebounding races ever, averaging 14.7 rpg to finish just behind Washington’s Wes Unseld (14.8 rpg). The Celtics had the second best record in the NBA in 1975-76 (54-28), behind only the defending champion Golden State Warriors (59-23). Cowens led Boston in scoring for the second straight year (19.0 ppg) and lost another close rebounding race, averaging 16.0 rpg to finish second to Abdul-Jabbar’s 16.9 rpg. The Celtics defeated the Buffalo Braves and Cleveland Cavaliers to earn their second trip to the Finals in three years.

The 1976 NBA Finals are most remembered for featuring “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the triple-overtime Game 5 war of attrition that the Celtics won, 128-126. Boston raced to an early 32-12 lead but the Suns cut the margin to 15 at halftime and tied the score at 95 by the end of regulation. Havlicek hit a shot near the end of the second overtime to put Boston up 111-110, seemingly clinching the win because Phoenix needed to go the length of the court in just one second and did not have a timeout left but Suns’ star Paul Westphal took advantage of a loophole in the rules (the loophole was closed as a result of this game), calling a timeout anyway. The Celtics were awarded one free throw, which Jo Jo White made, but Phoenix got to inbound the ball at halfcourt, setting the stage for Gar Heard’s famous jumper at the buzzer. Fatigue and foul trouble proved to be too much for the Suns in the third overtime. The Celtics captured their second title of the post-Russell with an 87-80 Game 6 win.

Cowens left the team for part of the 1976-77 season to drive a cab. He said that he was suffering from “burnout,” a new idea at that time that never really was widely discussed until Philadelphia Eagles’ coach Dick Vermeil became the poster child for burnout a few years later. Cowens returned to action prior to the playoffs and he performed well in the postseason, averaging 16.6 ppg and 14.9 rpg, but the young and talented Philadelphia 76ers knocked off the Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, 83-77. Both teams shot very poorly, which helped Cowens to amass a game-high 27 rebounds. Sixers guard World B. Free missed his first six shots but he eventually got rolling and his 27 points easily led both teams and proved to be the difference.

That was the last hurrah for the Cowens-Havlicek-White Celtics and the franchise entered perhaps the darkest period in its history, missing the playoffs in 1977-78 and 1978-79, going through an ownership change and disgusting the legendary Red Auerbach so much that he almost jumped ship to the New York Knicks. The Celtics also went through several coaches, including Cowens, who served as a player-coach in 1978-79. Auerbach stuck around and made the deals that ushered in the Celtics’ third championship era, drafting Larry Bird as a junior eligible and later acquiring Kevin McHale and Robert Parish via trades. Bird’s rookie season, 1979-80, was Cowens’ last as a Celtic (McHale and Parish arrived the next year). Cowens averaged 14.2 ppg and 8.1 rpg and the Celtics posted the best record in the league, 61-21. They swept the Houston Rockets in the Eastern Conference semifinals but lost to the 76ers 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Cowens retired in 1980 but returned in 1982-83, playing half a season with the Milwaukee Bucks before hanging up his sneakers for good. He later coached Bay State in the CBA before becoming an NBA head coach with the Charlotte Hornets and then later with the Golden State Warriors. Cowens also worked as an assistant coach in San Antonio and Golden State and he had a brief stint as head coach of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky before he took his current job as an assistant coach with the Detroit Pistons.

He has stayed involved in the game in other ways besides coaching, most notably as one of the founders of the National Basketball Retired Players Association. He, Dave DeBusschere, Dave Bing, Archie Clark and Oscar Robertson formed the group in 1992.

“With any team, you have to get good people on your team,” Cowens says. “We have a great board now. The office staff is very dedicated and does a lot of work. The founders all said that we wanted to have an organization that would continue this whole brotherhood and family idea. Also, (we wanted) to be able to collectively bargain with different entities out there to create moneymaking opportunities to advance our charitable goals and to have a working relationship with the NBA and the active Players’ Association concerning any collective bargaining agreements that would help retired players, such as pension plans, marketing ideas and that kind of stuff.”

David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com

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