Some of them saw it coming; most did not. But all of them respected what Dave Cowens did. When a man walks away from $500,000 in this age, the action can quite properly be termed admirable.
"I'm not surprised," said Larry Bird. "I could see it coming. Not as much as when Pete (Maravich) did it, but it didn't really surprise me."
Eric Fernsten, whose chance to remain a Celtic improves with Cowens' passing, was impressed. "A great person can do that, evalute his standard of play and decide he wasn't living up to it. He told us that he used to be a good player, but now he was an average player. He didn't feel he could be useful to us. He was wrong, of course. Veteran players can help you in many ways, but the decision was his. I've now seen two great players walk away in two weeks, and to walk away like that takes a great person."
One person who has worried about Cowens quitting for a long time is the coach. Bill Fitch spoke many times over the summer about the possibility that Cowens might not be back, so he could be described as the least surprised person in the Celtic entourage. But that is not to say he wasn't moved by David's action.
"As I told the players," Fitch explained, "you go through life and think in terms of once-in-a-lifetime happenings. Well, they saw one. As long as they play the game, they'll never see another situation like this one. It was a decision that was not typical of the times."
Fitch analyzes Cowens' retirement as "a mental decision based on physical reasons." Cowens could still play - Bird flatly declared him to be "the best defensive player in the league" - but he couldn't play the way he wanted. This reality frustrated him, as it would any noted competitor. "Too many players," continued Fitch, "have one 10' season, and they get paid on that basis even if they don't play any more good basketball the rest of their careers. Most guys who quit are probably playing on a 5' level, even though you can often say they're still great. But Dave, on a 10' scale, was still a 7' or 8.' He was playing tougher than anyone else on our team right now."
Well, he was and he wasn't. He was scoring, passing and defending, but his total lack of jumping power was making him a sad figure on the boards. One NBA rival executive present at the Indianapolis game Monday said, "I felt I was watching an old man." There were two particularly easy rebounds that even the Cowens of last year would have had that went whizzing by this once nonpareil rebounder. And neither Fitch nor anyone else was cognizant of the fact that Cowens was playing, as he put it, on "a right ankle that is like a sponge."
The entire affair was vintage Cowens. He made his decision on Wednesday morning after having drafted his memorable statement to the fans. He called Red Auerbach to give him the news (receiving only token opposition, since Red could tell Cowens was convinced he was doing the right thing). He found Fitch in the motel coffee shop. He then boarded the bus that was to have taken him to Evansville for the Wednesday game against Chicago and told his teammates of his decision. (In another typical action, M.L. Carr jokingly yelled out, "Well, get off our bus.") And that was it. The most electrifying Celtic career of them all was officially over.
And now what? "His leaving hurts the team," said Bird, "but I know it's going to make me, for one, play harder. There's more pressure on me, but I'm ready to play now. I want to show Dave what we're made of, that even though he's gone, we can be just as good. Hopefully. Don't forget to put in that hopefully.' "
The torch has been passed. The Cowens Era, which produced two championships and which saw Boston become a basketball town for the first time, is over. The Bird Era has now officially begun. There have been worse relay teams than Russell-to-Havlicek-to- Cowens-to-Bird.
Kevin McHale received a blow on the bridge of the nose during a spirited scrimmage yesterday afternoon. Trainer Ray Melchiorre stopped the gusher with a butterfly bandage, and McHale resumed his banging . . . McHale looked good at center on Wednesday in Evansville, and he'll play there more often, according to Fitch . . . Robert Parish picked up five fouls in the first 8:38 during that game, but Fitch left him in to finish out the quarter . . . Robey, who had missed the last two exhibitions with a thigh injury, looked like his old rambunctious self yesterday.