Dave Cowens: Behind Basketball’s Revolution, 1974

[Here’s a magazine article about Boston’s Dave Cowens, and there sure were plenty of them back in the 1970s. What’s a little different about this one is it goes into how Cowens, as one of the NBA’s first mobile centers, was helping to push the pro game in the direction it has now evolved: a more-position-less pastime. This piece appeared in the April 1974 issue of Sports Today. The byline belongs to Charles Morey, who then worked out of the New York bureau of the Associated Press.] 


The Boston Celtics broke down court, their sneakers slapping the boards in a hurried, uneven drumbeat. Paul Silas, the 6-foot-7 forward, was running hard even with a stream of blood spurting from a gash on his forehead. 

“Who got you, Paul?” a teammate shouted. 

“Cowens, who else?” Silas answered. “He gets everybody.”

The interesting fact, of course, is that Silas and Dave Cowens are teammates on the Celtics. The bloody collision occurred during a game earlier this season between the Boston club and the New York Knicks. It was part of a confrontation under the offensive boards that left Phil Jackson of the Knicks flat on his back. The Celtics went on to win the game, 113-101. 

Cowens is a towering Huckleberry Finn in appearance, but he plays basketball like King Kong tearing up the town. He has a soft face with fair skin and bright red hair. He runs over people, all kinds—opponents, teammates, referees, front-row fans, even from time to time some furniture, like a scoring table. He weighs 230 pounds and, in full stride, is a runaway freight train. 

The Celtics list him as a center. But he doesn’t believe it. The rampaging redhead is ambivalent enough to think that he also is a forward and occasionally a guard. At 6-foot-8 ½, Dave is one of the smallest centers in the National Basketball Association. 

But many shrewd observers of NBA action think he is changing the face of the game, just as another Celtic center, Bill Russell, did almost two decades ago. Red Auerbach was coach of the Boston club when Russell joined the team. He now is the president and general manager of the team. 

“Cowens is revolutionizing center play,” Auerbach says. “Perhaps not quite the way Russell did, but by making the position a combination of center and forward. Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld are playing the same way. And you must have noticed that Bill Russell switched Spencer Haywood, almost the same size as Cowens, from forward to center at Seattle.”

When Russell joined the Celtics in December 1956, the center was counted on for adding-machine scoring and little else. “Bill made the blocked shot an art,” Auerbach recalls. “He seldom slapped it out of bounds. What Russ did was to take possession of the ball for his team. He either popped it up and came down with it or tapped it to a teammate.”

On defense, Cowens is a mobile windmill, waving his long arms to intimidate the opposition. On offense, he has become a major threat, much greater than Russell was. “He gives us a three-forward offense,” Auerbach points out. “When we play a team like Detroit, Don Chaney, who is 6-foot-6, takes Dave Bing into the pivot. Bob Lanier, the Piston center, goes in to help out. That leaves Cowens open for a little jump shot. He becomes a forward.”

Dave is in his fourth season with the Celtics. His scoring totals have grown each year. Hard, long practice sessions have sharpened his shooting eye. In his first season, 1970-71, he averaged 17 points a game. That was boosted to 18.8 the next year and to 20.5 in the 1972-73 campaign. 

His assists have mounted with each year also. He had 228 his first season, which saw him finish in a tie with Geoff Petrie of Portland for rookie-of-the-year honors. He had 245 his second year and 333 his third. Cowens also jumped from 1,216 rebounds in his first season to 1,329 in his third. He fouled out of 15 games in his rookie year, but got that figure down to only seven in his third campaign. 

That third season, 1972-73, saw Cowens post a fabulous double honor. He was named the Most Valuable Player in the NBA in a poll taken of the league’s players. He also won the MVP award in the All-Star game in Chicago, which saw Dave’s side, the East, whip the West, 104-84. 

The league MVP vote gave Cowens 67 first-place votes and 444 points. For runner-up Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of Milwaukee, he received 33 top ballots and 339 points. As their support of him showed, the NBA players have a high regard for Cowens. 

“Dave Cowens is the most-improved player on the Celtics,” Jerry West of the Lakers comments. “He’s made the difference on defense with blocked shots and aggressiveness.“

“He does everything a ballplayer can do,” the Knicks’ Jerry Lucas adds. “You can’t ask anything more of the player than what the Celtics get from Cowens.”

One of the stars of the Celtics in the Russell era, Sam Jones, paid Cowens the ultimate in tributes. “Dave does something Russell couldn’t do,” Jones says. “He can come outside and shoot . . . and score.”

Boston coach Tom Heinsohn adds his appraisal: “Dave is super-quick. He’s almost a throwback to the days when there was no really big man in the pivot.”

A current Celtics star Jo Jo White, discussed Cowens’ contributions on defense. “The guy with the ball,” White said, “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 get away and run a break. We break with all five guys, most teams do it with two or three.”

When Cowens talks basketball, he sounds like an echo of Auerbach. “Defense is fun,” Cowens claims. “Fundamentals are everything. Basketball is a team game. I know only one way to play, and that’s aggressively. I never regarded myself as a shooter until the ’72-‘73 season. I started to shoot more because it’s a team game and, by scoring, I helped the team. But I’m no Jo Jo White or John Havlicek.”

Dave returned to the subject of defense. “I concentrate on defensive play and let the points fall where they may,” he says. “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.”

Cowens usually gives away anything from three-to-eight inches when matched up against the giants who play center in the NBA. When he takes on seven-foot-plus Abdul-Jabbar head to head, Dave is at an enormous disadvantage in height. “He has close to eight inches on me,” Dave 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,” Dave continues. “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.”

Nate Thurmond of the Golden State Warriors said he considers Cowens the toughest man he has ever played against. Nate qualifies it a little with these words: “I don’t mean he’s the best, but he is the toughest. In the Celtic scheme of things, he’s a near-perfect replacement for Bill Russell.”

It’s impossible to miss Cowens on the court. But when he’s away from it, despite his height, Dave is something less than a prima donna. He is not a flashy dresser, as so many of the pro stars are. He owns an ordinary car, nothing even close to a Cadillac or a Rolls Royce. No duplex apartment in mid-city for Dave. He’s not the type to sleep in a bedroom which has mirrors on all walls, plus the ceiling.  

His teammates on the Celtics say that his entire wardrobe costs less than $100, the amount that some NBA stars pay for one sports jacket. They say Dave’s wardrobe consists of a single pair of brown corduroy trousers, a couple of plaid shirts, a prosaic suit, and, something he takes delight in, old-fashioned suspenders—the king with chromed alligator clasps on the end. 

“Belts bother me,” Dave explains. “When you sit down to a good meal, you always have to loosen your belt. Besides, the suspenders look just a little wild, and I think that’s fun.”

Cowens likes to work with his hands. He spent the better part of one of his seasons with the Celtics studying automotive mechanics. “I will never be able to work behind a desk when I’m finished with basketball,” he says. “I have to do something with my hands. If it isn’t shooting or passing a basketball, it will have to be something constructive.”

Dave, who was brought up in Newport, Ky., still has a lot of country boy in him. “I hate cities,” he says. “I don’t like concrete, and I don’t really care for cement.”

Cowens did not play competitive basketball until his junior year. He preferred baseball and swimming during his first two years at Newport High School. But a physical change between his sophomore and junior semesters changed things. He shot up from 6-foot to 6-foot-5. By the time he was a senior in high school, Dave paced Newport to a spot in the state championship tournament. 

That got him a scholarship at Florida State. Dave played solid basketball at Florida State, but he was not a household name. One reason, Florida State was on probation with the NCAA, and the national sports observers did not watch the school that closely. 

But Dave was growing. He went up to his present height of 6-foot-8 ½. He had an 18.9 scoring average. His shooting percentage, by the way, was a solid .519. He was a terrific rebounder. Word got around among the pros, and Red Auerbach decided to scout Dave personally. 

Red decided the Celtics had to have Cowens. But at that stage, he wanted to use Dave as a forward. He thought basketball’s Big Red was too short for the job at center. Coach Heinsohn agreed with Auerbach. After Cowens reported to the Celtics in the fall of 1970, both men were quick to change their minds. 

“There was the little matter of attitude,” Auerbach remembers. “You could see right away that nobody was going to tell this big redhead that he could not do something he wanted to do . It was obvious from the start that Dave wanted to play center.”

It was also obvious from the start that Dave was a winner and could not tolerate losing. The Celtics did not make the NBA playoffs in Dave’s first season at Boston. They won 44 games and lost 38 in the 1970-71 season and watched the playoffs on television. 

In 1971-72, the Celtics boosted their season record to 56-26 and finished on top in the Atlantic Division. Boston again brushed aside Atlanta in six games, winning four to two. But the Celtics lost a seven-game series to the Knicks for the Eastern title, and the New Yorkers dusted off the Lakers in a five-game championship set. 

Cowens seethes about the Celtic playoff defeats. “I can’t see myself on a losing team,” he says. “The most games I ever lost in a high school or college season was nine. In the NBA, it all comes down to the championship series, and that’s what we must bring back to Boston, the league title.”

Nobody knows better than Cowens that the Celtics, in the Russell era as player and coach, won 11 NBA championships over a period of 13 years. They won eight of those titles in a row. It is a tremendous heritage to cope with for Cowens and the current crop of Celtics. 

Dave gets along well with his teammates, even if he does occasionally run into one and deck him. “Our team is like a big family,” he says. “On the floor, we play a well-balanced game. Each guy doing his job contributes to the overall success. In every way, we are playing a five-man game, and I’m letting the other guy know that I’m helping out.”

Cowens is always conscious of his responsibility toward his teammates. “I always let a teammate know that I’m nearby and in control, so he can play his man without worrying,” Dave explains. “That way, he won’t feel lost, not knowing who’s behind him. I don’t want one of our guys running into a big oaf on the other side. I don’t want one of our guys getting hurt. So far as I’m concerned that’s what teamplay is all about.”

Dave says he feels a lot less talented than a lot of the other NBA centers. “I know, of course, that most of them are a lot taller,” he says. “But I can run the 100-yard dash with anybody in the league. To be effective, I have to use my speed all the time. The bigger centers seem very conscious of my speed now. They’re chasing me harder all the time. I began in this league running hard so they wouldn’t embarrass me. Now they’re running so I won’t embarrass them.”

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