No One Plays It Harder Than Dave Cowens, 1977

[A lot has been written about Boston’s Dave Cowens. That includes this well-researched article that appeared in Annual Basketball Magazine, 1976-77. (Yes, that’s the name of the magazine.) Writer Jim Page does the honors.]


“If David isn’t aggressive almost to the point of being reckless, then he’s not Dave Cowens. It’s the competitiveness that enables him to play center at 6-foot-9.”

That is the way Tom Heinsohn, coach of the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics, describes the style of his dynamic redheaded center. A veteran opposing player, Philadelphia’s Clyde Lee, puts it somewhat more to the point. “I’d describe Cowens as a guy who, if he had to run through a brick wall to win, he would do it,” says Lee. 

Cowens did not have to run through a brick wall for the Celtics to win their second league title in three years last spring. In his sixth pro campaign, Dave averaged 19.0 points a game and was second in the circuit in rebounds with a 16.0 per game average. He was a standout in the playoffs, too, scoring at a rate of 21.0 points in Boston’s entire 18-game postseason competition and posting a 20.5 mark in the victorious six-game final set against the Phoenix Suns. 

In the semifinals, the Celtics beat back the challenge of the much-improved Cleveland Cavaliers, whose center, the experienced Nate Thurmond, is 6-foot-11. Says Thurmond about Cowens, “He does everything. He’s made up for his height deficiency by the way he plays. I admire him because of it. Besides, I never faced a center who hustled the way he does. He’s the toughest man I’ve ever played against.”

Norm Van Lier, a Chicago Bulls’ guard, often runs into Cowens outside, where you’d seldom expect to find the other team’s center. “He has great defensive range on a horizontal, rather than on a vertical, plane,” Van Lier points out. “He will meet me at the top of the key, spread those long arms, and make it almost impossible to pass off without him getting his finger on the ball.”

Cowens’ defensive brilliance is probably more valuable to the Celtics than his offensive contributions. Going into the current campaign, his career scoring average in the NBA was 19.1. In three of his six seasons, he has averaged under 20 points a game. He is a classic example of a center who does not have to score 30 or 40 points a game in order to be tremendously effective. He was named the circuit’s most valuable player in 1972-73. 

Another current Celtics star, Jo Jo White, discusses Cowens’ contributions on defense. “The guy with the ball,” White explains, “doesn’t really want any part of a monster like Dave shouting at him and waving his arms. They want to get rid of the ball. That gives us a chance to knock it away and run a break. We break with all five guys, most teams do it with two or three.”

Still another member of the world champions, Paul Silas, has this to say: “I’m in awe of Cowens. And I know all the superlatives have been said already. But here’s a man 6-foot-9 going up against somebody who may be 7-foot-4. And he repeatedly does the job on both ends of the court. Then he’s out there diving on the floor and getting back to stop fastbreaks. He does a lot of things that don’t show up in the statistics.”

The Celtics found Cowens hidden away at Florida State University, well-camouflaged because the school was ineligible for NCAA tournaments because of recruiting violations. “He scared me to death the only time I scouted him,” recalls Red Auerbach, Boston’s president, general manager, and former coach. “He was so good . . . I kept hoping he’d make a mistake. There were half a dozen guys from other NBA clubs in the building, and I figured if they saw the same potential in Cowens that I did, I was dead.”

The year was 1969-70 and the Celtics, playing without the newly-retired Bill Russell, struggled to their worst record in 20 years. It was Russell, first as a center and later as center-and-coach, who led them to a phenomenal 11 championships in 13 seasons. Still, that dismal ’69-70 campaign had one redeeming feature. It ensured the Celtics a high draft choice—high enough to collar Cowens. It was a beautiful move. 

“In the Celtic scheme of things,” observes the Cavaliers’ Thurmond, “Cowens was a near-perfect replacement for Bill Russell.”

In Boston’s scheme of things, John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, and Charlie Scott usually score more points than Cowens. “I never regarded myself as a shooter until the 1972-73 season. I started to shoot more because it’s a team game and, by scoring, I helped the team. But I’m no White or Havlicek,” Dave admits. 

“I concentrate on defensive play and let the points fall where they may. It’s hard work, but it’s fun. Rebounding and blocking out are the guts of the game. The fans don’t always know what you’re doing, but the players on both teams do. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed defense so much.”

Last season, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers finished in front of the Boston star in rebounding. In any head-to-head dual between the two, Dave is at an enormous disadvantage in height. “He has close to eight inches on me,” Cowens says. “I do what all centers do. I lean on him, using my hands and forearms, muscle and weight, everything that’s legal. I try to keep Kareem as far away from the basket as possible before he gets the ball. He has a favorite spot on the floor, and I try to keep him away from it. That way, he can’t go for two with his great sweeping hook or take one giant step and jam the ball through the hoop. He tries to get that hook into the middle, and I try to get in his way. Kareem is a scoring terror, and I have to work twice as hard to hold down his scoring.”

It was centers such as Jabbar who concerned Red Auerbach when he had to decide whether to play Cowens at center or forward in 1970. He suspected that, in the pivot, Dave might be intimidated by the giants. So, Auerbach decided to consult an expert. He called Bill Russell. “Russ told me to forget Dave’s height,” Auerbach recounts, “and let him play where he wanted. ‘You won’t be sorry,’ he said. ‘No one’s going to intimidate that kid.’”

The kid became a man rather quickly. He’s 28 years old now, realistic and intelligent. “I feel less talented than a lot of guys I play against,” he says candidly, “and I know that most of them are a lot taller. But I can run the 100-yard dash with anyone in the league. To be effective, I’ve got to use my speed most of the time. I’ve got to force the bigger guys out of their usual patterns and into mine by making them afraid that I’ll run away from them and score easy baskets. They seem very conscious of my speed. They’re chasing me harder all the time. I started running because I didn’t want them to embarrass me, and now they’re running so that I won’t embarrass them.”

Yes, Dave runs a lot, and he’s also extremely aggressive. “It’s the only way I can play because, if I don’t fight for the positions I want, the big guys will eat me up,” he explains. “It’s absolutely necessary that I box out on every play, even if it means I might not have a chance for the rebound. By keeping my own man off the boards, I know I’ve increased the odds one of our other guys will get the ball.” 

The odds in the playoff games involving Boston usually are in the Celtics’ favor, primarily because of Big Red Cowens. His juices seem to be flowing more freely when the most important phase of the campaign comes around. 

“It’s not something you think about on the surface,” he explains. “It’s almost not even something you recognize or feel. It’s just an underlying, very subtle feeling, an extension of the challenge that you feel for every game. You see, the only thing that really matters to me is to play on a winning team, and the only way to really play on a winning team is to win a championship.”

Dave is not controversial. He is not flashy. All he does is play the game mean, hard, and tough. In a game against the Houston Rockets last March, Cowens was called for an offensive foul for knocking Mike Newlin to the floor. The next time Newlin had the ball, Cowens raced the length of the court and flattened the 6-foot-4 guard with a body block. Dave then turned to referee Bill Jones and screamed, “ Now THAT’S a foul!” Dave was called for the flagrant foul, but he was not ejected. 

Afterwards, Calvin Murphy, Houston’s diminutive, star guard, complained bitterly. “Cowens should have gone—it was a cheap shot,” he said. “That’s typical of the Celtics. They will scratch, claw, bite, push and shove, and beat you up. And that’s how they win.”

In a winning 125-113 Boston effort against the Lakers in Los Angeles last February 20, Cowens scored 27 points on 9 of 20 from the field, passed for seven assists, and got 24 rebounds. Dave, meanwhile, held Abdul-Jabbar to only 20 points and seven rebounds, his lowest rebound total up to that point in the campaign. 

During most of last season, Cowens passed, shot, and rebounded better than he had in any previous year. He also seemed to have lost some of his recklessness. 

“He doesn’t go all-out wild or scramble continually the way he used to,” Silas observed. Responded Dave, “I don’t think I’m doing any less. Really, how far back do you want to go, to my rookie year? I’ve tried to broaden my game all along, according to the fellows I play with. It’s true I don’t run all the time the way I used to. We used to do things strictly geared toward my running up and down the floor. We used to do that for two reasons: to score a basket and to put pressure on the opposing center by running him down. 

“Now it just won’t work. They’re conscious of it, and they just get somebody back. Now I only run like that to create an effect on certain players.”

Cowens has an effect on his teammates because of the emotional way he plays the game. “When Dave plays with great emotion,” Coach Heinsohn notes, “he’s two feet taller and three feet wider. When he doesn’t play with great emotion, he’s an ordinary ballplayer. When he gets very emotional, there’s a glow around the guy. I’ve seen other guys get that way—Jerry West, Elgin Baylor—but nobody who could get there as consistently as Dave. Emotion is a very big part of his game. Some guys play worse when they’re emotional. Other guys play so much better.” 

“I’ve never seen anyone who gets like him,” Silas emphasizes. “Not with that fierce look that comes over him. You can see it in his face when it happens. And it affects everyone.”

“He just takes over, he dominates the game,” chips in Havlicek. “Other guys do it sometimes, but with less emotion.”

During the offseason, Cownes returns to a simple off-court existence. He does not favor the flamboyance so prevalent in the living style of many of today’s pro basketball stars. “Despite all my activity on the court, off the court I’m actually a passive person,” he says candidly. “In a way, I’m actually a very insecure person. I’m fortunate. How many other jobs can you work for eight months and have four months of vacation? My hours are good, and so is the pay. All I have to do is play a game.”

The intense way Cowens plays his game prompted a fan to write a letter to him, the contents of which he still remembers. “It recommended that I generate my activities on the court in a more professional manner, not so emotionally,” he recounts. 

When Heinsohn heard about the letter, he told Cowens, “Give it to me, and I’ll write back. I have a place for letters like that in my basement. They’re a hell of a lot have fun to laugh at during cocktail parties.”

Not as much fun, though, as winning the NBA championship fairly consistently . . . which the Celtics are likely to continue to do as long as emotion plays an integral part in Dave Cowens’ game. 

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