Who is the Celtics’ MVP—Havlicek or Cowens? 1975

[In 1974, the Boston Celtics won another NBA championship. This one was particularly noteworthy because the empire-building Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Sam and K.C. Jones were long gone. Leading the 1974 championship charge were Celtic mainstay John Havlicek and the fiery youngster Dave Cowens. In this article, published in the magazine Pro Basketball Sports Stars of 1975, reporter Charles Morey asks a simple question: Who is the Celtics’ MVP—Havlicek or Cowens? Morey marvels at the two Celtic stars more than he dwells on his answer to the question. But still, it’s an interesting snapshot of an NBA champion that for one magical season ran on pure hustle and a will to win that started with men named Havlicek and Cowens.]

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John Havlicek and Dave Cowens don’t look alike, and they are not built alike. But they are emotional twins, playing every game to the breaking point, giving 100 percent of themselves. Between them, “Hondo” and “Big Red” carried the Boston Celtics to the National Basketball Association championship last spring. They were the dominant duo in the bruising seven-game final against the Milwaukee Bucks. 

They also are the two main reasons the Celtics are one of the favorites for the NBA title in the 1974-75 campaign. They are a versatile pair. It would be easy to label them “Mr. Outside” and “Mr. Inside,” but they wouldn’t hold still for it. John and Dave will pull a switch on you at the drop of a basketball. 

Havlicek, the lean sharpshooter from the corners, will go in for a cutting, driving layup and two points. Cowens, muscular and menacing under the boards, has perfected a high floater from the outside that is deadly. It killed the Bucks in the deciding game of the playoffs. 

Name it, and they’ll do it. Havlicek is a forward who was a star guard and, in a clutch, jumps like a center. The red-topped Cowens is a center who thinks like a guard on defense and acts like a forward on offense. John is 6-foot-5, 205 pounds, and is 34 years old. Dave is 6-foot-9, 230, and he will be 26 a short time after the 1974-75 season begins. He is going into his fifth NBA season. John will begin his 13th. 

A debate raged all last season and through the playoffs about which man was the most-valuable Celtic. Havlicek was the team captain and leader. Cowens was a raging competitor and neutralizer of towering NBA centers, who usually were five or six inches taller than he was. 

Neither won MVP honors during the regular season. That went to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Bucks. But Havlicek was voted the MVP award in the playoffs. Cowens was named the league MVP for the 1972-73 season. 

Statistics are informative, but not always conclusive. In the regular season last year, Havlicek averaged 22.6 points to 19 for Cowens. John posted 447 assists to 354 for Big Red. In rebounds, it was no contest, 1,257 for Dave and 487 for John. Each man had 95 steals. 

In the Big Money series, the final seven games against Milwaukee, Havlicek had 185 points and 54 rebounds, Cowens had 159 points and 69 rebounds. But there was a sizable factor, which was not included in the figures. It was sizable Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 7-foot-2 or 7-foot-4, take your pick, whom Cowens had to play head-to-head. Everybody in the country, with the possible exception of Kareem himself, thought Big Red kept Jabbar from dominating the series. 

In the voting for playoff MVP, Havlicek received eight votes from the experts assembled at courtside. Cowens and Kareem each was named on three ballots. The award for Havlicek was a popular one. Some sentiment may have gotten into it. After all, Cowens and Abdul-Jabbar will be playing NBA basketball long after John retires. 

But the Celtics acknowledged that John was their leader on the floor, and that had to be taken into consideration. He’s their top gun. He’s the big play man. It is a bottomless well of what can only be described as Celtic Spirit. In a photo finish, yes, John was the MVP, even over the irrepressible Cowens, and he is a bit more valuable to the team now. 

A one-time Celtic great and later an NBA coach, Bob Cousy, commented on the situation. “Havlicek Is the key to the Celtics,” Bob observed. “Boston is always a different team when he isn’t in there. All clubs need a leader to be successful, and John is the guy who gives the Celtics their sense of direction.”

General Manager Red Auerbach of the Boston team, who is rated the keenest brain in the game, talked about the regular-season MVP honor given to Abdul-Jabbar. “I have no fault to find with the people who voted for Kareem,” he said. “He is so dominant, and Milwaukee would be sweeping the streets without him. He had a great year, he had the statistics, and he plays the position, center, where everything starts in basketball. 

“But Jabbar is the only player I would have picked ahead of Havlicek. In fact, if it were possible to ignore two or three of the league’s top centers, maybe John should have been the MVP for the last three or four years. What I’m saying is that you can’t judge what John does unless you’re a coach or one of his teammates.”

Havlicek and Cowens use different words, but they mean the same thing when they talk about their approach to the game of basketball and the Celtics as a team. The legendary Celtic Spirit is a really simple thing. All it means is play until you drop—and then get up and play some more. 

“I’m a simple-minded guy,” Havlicek observed. “I just play basketball for as long as I can as hard as I can. I got to where I am by running. To be consistent, I have to keep running. It’s a simple philosophy. If you’re going to do it, do it right.”

John is tougher on himself than any of his rivals could possibly be. “I have a lot of self-discipline, he said. “I like to test myself.”

When he was in college at Ohio State, John went a whole year without drinking a bottle of Coke just to prove that he could do it. When he was a small boy of seven, he would run a mile between the mile markers on a highway just to prove he can do it. It has been estimated that he has run three-to-five miles in every pro basketball game he has played. When that was relayed to him, he grinned, “Maybe I’ve already run around the world.”

Cowens hasn’t run as far as Havlicek, but he runs as hard. Dave, one of the shorter centers in the NBA, has to look up to most of the guys whom he opposes. But he makes up for it by his ability to fastbreak with his guards and forwards and his battering behavior under the boards. 

Like Havlicek, his basketball philosophy is simple, but as sharp as a shark’s tooth. “When my basketball career is over and I’m concerned with other things in life, the thing I’ll remember most is whether I gave it the best I could. I’ll be satisfied if I can say that I put everything I had into helping my team do the best it could,” Cowens said. 

His youth helped Big Red in the championship victory over Milwaukee. He bounced back with incredible energy in the Sunday finale on May 12, scoring 28 points, after the Celtic loss in double overtime in the sixth game on Friday night, May 10, in Boston. Cowens had played to the point of exhaustion in that game and contributed one memorable long dive in which he seemed to cover half the floor while recovering a loose ball. 

Havlicek also had played himself to the ragged edge and beyond in that game. John scored 36 points and made 11 of his team’s 15 points in the two overtimes. His sky-high jumper over the crane-like reach of Abdul-Jabbar with seven seconds to go in the second overtime seemingly clinched it for Boston. But Jabbar retaliated with a gorgeous 15-foot hook shot a few seconds later to give the Bucks a 102-101 triumph.

When the teams took the floor for the deciding contest in Milwaukee, many experts speculated that for one game, Abdul-Jabbar would be too much for the Celtics. But the Boston club came up with a wrinkle that proved to be too much for the Bucks. The Boston braintrust rightly estimated that Milwaukee would concentrate on stopping Havlicek and trust Jabbar to handle Cowens. 

The Bucks did double-team Havlicek, who made only six of his 20 shots, winding up with 16 points. That left other people open. And Jabbar did not come close to stopping Cowens, who stayed outside to pass to his fast-cutting teammates. When he wasn’t passing, he was shooting. Dave popped them in from the outside for his game high of 28 points. Jabbar made 26. Cowens also had a shade the better of it in rebounds, 14 to 13 for Kareem. 

The Celtics breezed to a 102-87 laugher over the Bucks for their first title in five years. It was also their first since Bill Russell, their long-time leader at center and later as coach, left the club. That angle of it gave Havlicek particular delight. It was his seventh championship team in Boston, but the first without Russell. 

In the Celtic dressing room, with victory champagne streaming down his face after some had been poured over his head, John walked about hugging and kissing his teammates in his jubilation. “This is the greatest one,” he said, referring to the title. “I started with this team being rebuilt in 1969. They sort of looked to me because I’ve been here so long.”

The tough-rebounding forward Paul Silas agreed with that. “When things don’t go well, we looked at John all the time to make the tough play,” he said. “We may even do it too much. Sometimes, I’ll have an open shot and still pass to him, even though he has two guys on him. We do this because he’s usually been the guy who has turned bad moments into good ones for us.”

Hot Rod Hundley, now a television commentator and before a professional player and star at West Virginia University, does a lot of kidding. But he got serious for a moment to describe Havlicek. “In all the time I have known John Havlicek,” he said, “he has never changed. The man has always been one way—straight. And let me tell you, that is a rare man.”

Opinions voiced about Cowens almost sound like those expressed about Havlicek. “Dave Cowens intimidates you with his hustle,” K.C. Jones, the coach of the Washington Bullets said. “He blocks shots, dives after loose balls, and never stops running.”

The very-tough center of the Golden State Warriors, Nate Thurmond, echoed those sentiments. “I have never faced a center who hustles the way Cowens does,” he commented. “He does everything and makes up for his height deficiency by the way he plays. He’s the toughest man I have ever played against.”

The name of the game with both Hondo and Big Red is winning and that, of course, explains perhaps 50 percent of their greatness. “Scoring a basket for me is success,” Cowens said. “Missing is failure. I have a goal, and everything I do is pointed toward that goal.”

As the team leader, Havlicek expects to make the big plays. “That’s my responsibility,” he said. “It’s my role on this team. If I miss a key shot, it’s a punishing thing for me. I try at all times to eliminate mistakes.”

Both Hondo and Big Red refuse to acknowledge fatigue, which the late Vince Lombardi once called, “The thing that makes cowards of us all.” Havlicek and Cowens use the same language to describe how they feel about it.

“How can I say I’m tired,” Cowens declared just before the title series ended. “I can’t be tired when everyone else on the team is hustling and doing the kind of job we have to do. The other players are working extra hard. I’m just doing my job.”

Silas had a different view. “I’m in awe of Cowens. And I know all the superlatives have been said already. But here’s a man who is 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 stats.”

Havlicek on fatigue. “You’ve got to punish your body. It’s a hard thing to punish yourself. Some people can do it. Some can’t. And you must talk to your conscience. You have to tell your conscience that you’re not playing as well as you should.”

In discussing this season, John modestly threw aside the leader’s mantle and paid tribute to his teammates: Cowens, Silas, Jo Jo White, Don Chaney, and the rest. 

“The older you get, the better it feels to win a championship,” he said. “I’ll be 35 next April 8. The playoffs should be underway then, and I know we’ll be in it again. I’d still like to win another championship, if these guys are willing to carry me around a little longer.”

It’s a cinch that “these guys” will be more than willing to do that, John. And, by the way, from time to time they will count on you to do the carrying yourself. They know it’s the only way you know how to play the game.  

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