October 2, 1980
It came to an end in a motel room in Terre Haute.
Dave Cowens just came to the conclusion he couldn't play basketball the way he wanted to any more. Jumping had always been the foundation of his game and now he found his greatest asset had deserted him. He might have stayed around to play defense, come up with an occasional scoring burst and provided leadership, but it wasn't enough. And so Dave Cowens, one of the truly great Celtics and one of professional basketball's best advertisements, officially retired yesterday morning, 24 days before his 32d birthday.
The announcement came as a shock to his teammates. "I had no idea this was coming," said Rick Robey, who can now think more about winning the starting center's job on the ballclub and less about being traded. "I didn't know anything about it," said Chris Ford. "The only person I know of who had any idea was Ron Perry. Cowens told him while they were eating on Tuesday night that he might retire in a couple of days, but, naturally, Perry didn't take him seriously.
But Cowens wasn't kidding. As he explains in his rather unique farewell to the fans (Page 41), he was playing on "weakened and worn-out feet and ankles." Though he was scoring well on some occasions and though he remained the best defensive player on the squad, he felt extremely frustrated over his inability to rebound with his old power. He had degenerated into being just an-other 6- foot-8 basketball player, and he was professional. He had managed only 32 rebounds in 151 minutes of playing time over the first six preseason games, and in the Indiana game played on Monday night he missed some rebounds he would have had last year, when he was far from his old rampaging self on the boards. "I went back a lot between this year and last," he said, sadly.
His passing means that a very special era of Celtic basketball is over. He was the heartbeat of the 1974 and 1976 championship teams. He was also the only survivor of the 1976 outfit. It is almost impossible to comprehend that Cedric Maxwell, who won't be 25 until Nov. 21, is now the ranking Celtic in seniority.
The immediate significance of Cowens' retirement is that the Celtics will now be far less likely to trade a big man for a guard. That's No. 1. No. 2 is that a battle should ensue between Robey and Robert Parish for the starting center's job. No. 3 is that the Celtics must develop a sense of unity on defense now that Cowens is no longer back there to bolster the back line.
Cowens' place in Celtic history is secure. He arrived as a semi-unknown forward-center from Florida State and quickly made himself as popular a player as the team ever had with an aggressiveness that bordered on the maniacal. He gave the team the inside power that had been lacking in the first post-Russell year. He shared Rookie of the Year honors in 1970-71 season with Geoff Petrie. Two seasons later he was the league's MVP as the club won a Celtic record 68 games. He was the MVP in the 1973 All-Star Game in Chicago after been unjustly deprived of the award a year earlier in LA. He was brilliant in the 1974 playoffs as the Celtics won their 12th championship and their first without Russell.
He was no mere cardboard personality. His early eccentricities, such as attending an auto body course during the afternoons of his second season, established him as a free thinker. He always played hard, but he wanted his off-court time to be his own. He is undoubtedly one of the few professional athletes who could have gotten away with his celebrated "leave of absence" in 1976. Both management and the fans realized that his sincerity was unquestioned. When he became the player-coach in 1978, he made it clear he was doing it for the good of the organization. And when he announced he was quitting on the final day of the '78-79 season, he did it for the same reason.
The stats will be in the books for all to see, and they are impressive, if not gaudy. However, Cowens fans will not discuss stats when dealing with their favorite player. He never scored 40 points in a game. His all-time rebound high is 32. He averaged 20 points a game just once. But none of this matters, for what made Cowens were the impossible rebounds that didn't belong to him, the spectacular loose ball chases, the 24-second violations caused by his swallowing up a guard, and the fourth effort tapins.
He could still play if he were content to be a differnent type of player. "I can still pass and shoot a little," he admitted. "But I can't play the way I want to. I don't want to be here worrying about getting hurt or being a parttime player. Some people could do that, but I can't."
"It just freaks me out," said Kevin McHale. "Dave Cowens is the man. He's done it all. He's got the two rings."
When hearing the news of Cowens' retirement, callers to The Globe expressed dismay.
"It's very disappointing," said Tony Gatto of Easton. "It could have been a very good year for the Celtics. The Red Head (Auerbach) is gonna be scurrying now."
"I'm shocked but I'm not," said Ken Rua of Somerville. "I thought it would come some time, but why did he do it now?"
"Let him go back to driving a cab," said John Ziggenfus of Philadelphia. "This is the second time he deserted the team. Big Red won't be easy to replace."
But Cowens has also got the admiration and respect of all those who played with or against him, or who ever saw him play. Dave Cowens played the game the way every fan thinks he or she would play if the opportunity arose. It's because he doesn't want to be remembered in any other light that he has quit the game.