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Dave Cowens: Celtics Pride Personified

Posted by paul on September 10, 2012 at 8:45 AM

Lex Nihil has a nice series on Cowens.    Basically, imagine if Avery Bradley played center ... 


My attitude was, Let's see what these players are all about. I knew a Wilt Chamberlain could overwhelm me on offense, but I said, "Let's just see how hard these guys want to work." I think they got pissed at me because I wanted to work hard. They weren't used to somebody who played the way I did. I'd be running them, and after a while they'd think, "The hell with this." That's intimidation, when you're in condition and you can run somebody all the time. That, to me, is true intimidation. If every time you're downcourt you're right in a guy's face, if every time you're screening him out - I mean every time - it gets to a lot of people.

Cowens uniquely intense approach to basketball was rooted in his approach to life;  he questioned attitudes others took for granted...

Though he could not accurately be classified as an intellectual, he was intellectually curious.

Few players in any sport express interest in activities peripheral to their sport. Dave Cowens was an exception. Sitting in a hotel lobby in Milwaukee before boarding a bus to the arena, he suddenly asked, "Do writers have slumps? Do you ever have the lead in your mind before the game starts?" This inquisition eventually bore fruit in the form of a writing career that included a brief stint as a contributor to the Sports Plus section of the Friday Globe.

He saw no reason why he should be prevented from commenting on matters other than athletics just because he was an athlete. But he could not accept the idea that his thoughts were inherently valuable simply because he was an athlete. He did not want to be anything other than a private citizen once he left the gym. He discouraged autograph seekers on the grounds that his signature on a scrap of paper was meaningless. His standard approach to an autograph request was to ask if a handshake would not be preferable. He didn't grasp that a handshake could not be adequately transferred back to the grandchild in Toledo or the brother-in-law in Bangor. One of his idiosyncrasies was to sign the autograph and then ask the recipient for his (or hers). Few knew how to handle that situation gracefully.




More than a little bit of Rondo there!   There's a lot of Garnett too in Cowens, of course, though strangely this has mostly gone unnoticed in today's Celtics fandom.

If Russell was the founder of Celtics Pride, and Larry was the Saint Paul who reinterpreted it and spread it to the masses, and Kevin Garnett was the moving force in its rebirth, Cowens was the one who not only kept it alive, but re-affirmed --  in a way that could never be taken back -- that Celtics Pride was about so much more than winning games, and bragging rights.  It was about life.

Some fans live vicariously through the team. Some just like to imagine what they would do if they were playing. Some are just negative people who sit up there wanting people to look bad. The people I played for are the coaches who might be up there trying to watch and learn and the fans who really appreciate the game, and who, while they may root for one team or the other, appreciate the game more than the team. The game comes first. I always wanted other teams to play well against us because I wanted to beat them at their best.

I always figured that some of the fans understood what was going on, and that inspired me. When people sit in the stands and yell for or against you, that's part of the whole scene. A lot of times part of my concentration would be devoted to thinking about the fans. I wanted them to feel good about me when they went to the game, and to leave feeling I had played hard so they'd get their money's worth. I didn't want to cheat them. I hoped they knew what they were looking at. I used to listen to them, all right. I'd be too far off on a guy and a fan would yell "Get up on him!" and I knew somebody up there knew what he was talking about.

Cowens has been forgotten, along with that entire decade, the Seventies.  This amnesia is such a strange thing.  It's not just that the seventies turned into the Decade That Time Forgot.  It's that it wasn't just any decade.  The Seventies were the decade in which the nature of the game itself was hammered out between the NBA and the ABA.   You could say that it was hammered out between Dave Cowens and Doctor J.  Was basketball a team sport, approached with workmanlike passion and determination?  Or was it a sport that highlighted individual flair, ability and creativity?   Of course, the answer was that it was both, and the careers of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson confirmed this in the eighties.  

The Seventies was probably the single greatest decade for Centers.   Wilt Chamberlain.  Willis Reed.   Nate Thurmond.  Kareem Abdul Jabbar.   Wes Unseld.  Bill Walton.  Bob Lanier.   Bob Macadoo.  Moses Malone.   Artis Gilmore.  The list goes on.   They all respected the hell out of Cowens, except Kareem, which of course means that Kareem respected him more than anyone.  Willis Reed on Cowens...


Willis Reed, the great New York Knicks' center, chronicled Cowens' development in his 1973 book, A Will to Win. Speaking of Cowens' play in the fifth game of the Knicks' series with the Celtics, Reed wrote:

"Every time you looked up it seemed as if Cowens was there, squirting through the defense, going over the outstretched arms, ducking under the guards, muscling on the boards, outrunning men he had no right to beat in a foot race.

"In this game Dave Cowens came of age. He had always had all of the necessary equipment, but in the past he had shown signs of immaturity. He would blow sky high if he got a few early fouls on him. He'd push back if he thought he was wronged on a call, picking up an added personal foul. But this night he was cool and graceful as a ballet dancer, and he turned in one of those performances that can't be captured on canvas.

"Cowens has the competitive fire of a Havlicek with possibly more natural ability, by which I mean he can hurt you in more ways. Cowens could move out and be a top NBA forward if Heinsohn had anybody else who could play the pivot. He's strong and quick and smart. And he showed all of these things in the sixth game.

"In football, I guess, it's called the animal instinct. That doesn't necessarily refer to hurting another man . . . just going all out."


Cowens was my favorite athlete when I was a kid.  He was an inspiration.  I always felt like I was an underdog in life, and that I had to battle against long odds in everything I did.  I suppose a lot of folks feel that way.  The only thing that kept me going was the conviction that if I believed in something enough to commit to it, I could out-work and out-last anyone trying to stop me.  Dave Cowens helped me find and hold onto that lifeway.

Bill Fitch said that even in his last season, when Cowens was a shell of his foremer self,  Cowens was the best defensive center in the league.  It took Robert Parrish and Kevin Mchale to replace him.  Today the Celtics have a young big man who seems to have a bit of Dave Cowens in him, in Jared Sullinger.   A player with  a nose for the low post is rare in today's game.  

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Reply Franklin
10:06 AM on September 10, 2012 
Love the post. Cowensology u should start Paul.
Reply paul
10:12 AM on September 10, 2012 
Lol! Don't think I haven't thought about it, Franklin! And what would really prompt me to do it would be if Doc didn't encourage Sully in the low post... I do NOT want to hear about how he has to take bigs outside because he is small...
Reply shawn cassidy
10:24 AM on September 10, 2012 
paul says...
Lol! Don't think I haven't thought about it, Franklin! And what would really prompt me to do it would be if Doc didn't encourage Sully in the low post... I do NOT want to hear about how he has to take bigs outside because he is small...

He's big enough, he's got some length
Reply paul
10:50 AM on September 10, 2012 
shawn cassidy says...
He's big enough, he's got some length

The way I see it, when you combine Sullinger's size - he's not exactly tiny! - with his ATTITUDE, which seems to be very large, and his understanding of the game, which seems to allow him to make the most of a possession, even if he doesn't slam dunk over someone I think it all adds up to a guy with the potential to make a big difference floating between the four and the five
Reply C'slife
12:15 AM on September 11, 2012 
Cowens underrated SOB for sure. So's Sullinger.
Reply paul
07:55 AM on September 11, 2012 
Let's see how much hustle and determination Sullinger has. If he's anything like Cowens (and Bradley, and Garnett, and so on) in that dept., he could really surprise people I suspect...
Reply bballee
03:28 PM on September 11, 2012 
Nice article. You've had some good reads this doldrums, and I appreciate it. Been tempted to remark on several but not sure I have before. If not, I apologize. There's so much crap spewed on the internet that good writing and insights should be acknowledged, and enjoyed.
Reply paul
04:32 PM on September 11, 2012 
Thankyou for the encouraging words, Lee. To me, this isn't really a doldrums. I see it, and feel it, as a time of gathering energy. A Green storm is coming, and the NBA doesn't even know. I think a lot of Celtics fans can sense it though. You can see in Rondo and Garnett, and the stuff being said by Terry and the rookies/newcomers - they feel it. This season is going to be special.