9.10.2012

The Cowens Mystique (Part VII)

Tom Heinsohn was the right coach in the right place at the right time. Heinsohn was a basketball visionary, and he quickly devised methods whereby Cowens could exploit his unique gifts. His center was a runner, so the Celtics ran. He sent Cowens into the conventional pivot area when he was playing a "small" center, and he employed an entirely different offense when the opposing center was one of the league behemoths. Cowens' natural aggressiveness augmented his self-taught finesse and his coaching. As the center, he was always involved. Fans loved him. The fan in Section 129 easily identified with Cowens' work ethic. Watching Cowens spot a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar eight inches and still battle him evenly, a fan could derive more than the normal satisfaction from the game. Dave Cowens was the small man's big man.

He became a visible public figure. He was liable to turn up anywhere, be it at Symphony on a Friday afternoon or at the Hillbilly Ranch any old evening. He reveled in the city. 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.

He has only recently accepted the notion that he has an off-the-court public that is every bit as important as his on-the-court public. If reconciliation with the latter was difficult, reconciliation with the former was positively agonizing.

An athlete does have a responsibility. I admit that. It's important to let a young person, or anybody, for that matter, know there is somebody out there he can identify with. People have told me they admire the way I retired. Teachers have told me they've used me as an example to their students about how you must take responsibility for your actions. But it can be a big ego thing, and I don't want people to think I'm such a great person.

His relationship with the paying customer was an interesting matter. In the beginning, he was insulated. He played for himself because he liked the game, for his teammates because that was inherent in the nature of the game, for his coach because he respected authority, and for his employer because that's who signed the check. The crowd was an abstract. But by the end of his career, the crowd had become an important part of his approach to the game.

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.

Just as he did not want to cheat the fans, so he did not wish to be cheated himself. He developed a strict code by which the game should be played. The code allowed for more physical contact than a supposed "noncontact" team sport was supposed to have, but this was a subject on which he would not compromise. He believed firmly that people would not enjoy watching basketball if it were devoid of contact. He knew that if contact were severely limited, he would have had absolutely no chance of guarding a 7-foot- 4 athlete such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He believed that he was always rough but never dirty. His opponents concurred.

His pet peeve was the growing practice of faking in order to draw a bogus offensive foul. He abhorred the tactic on principle, even though teammates John Havlicek and Don Nelson were masters of the art. It had been an accepted Celtic maneuver, dating back to the days of Frank Ramsey in the late fifties. This history was of no concern to Cowens. He remained angry with people who tried to deceive officials into calling fouls.

Consistent with the Cowens philosophy was the controlled use of physical force in order to impart a message. He was unusually combative, and before his career was through, the list of his fistfights would run from his rookie season (Bob Kauffman) to his final campaign (Wayne Rollins). He would reason with somebody to a point. The next step was a punch in the mouth.

On the night of February 25, 1976, Cowens delivered his most famous message. The recipient was Houston Rocket guard Mike Newlin, who had infuriated Cowens by twice jumping in front of him and falling down without being touched. On each occasion Newach the desired level of concentration to address himself properly to the task. His cells were dry. And so he invoked a unique and fascinating clause in his contract by asking for, and receiving, a "leave of absence" from the Boston Celtics. For two months he stayed away, traveling a little and simply thinking about things other than basketball. He returned, saying, "It was easier for me to play than not to play."

I came back because everybody was hounding me. Nobody believed me. I left because I really didn't feel involved. I felt like I was going through the motions. It was hard to explain. It was hard for me to explain it to myself. It was very confusing. For a while I just couldn't think very clearly. I got away, and I began to see things better. The question was, What do I really want to do with my life? The answer was that I really wanted to play basketball. When I realized that, I came back. But I wish I hadn't left. It was confusing to me, and to everyone else.

Being Dave Cowens, he received near-complete support from the public. Management was equally tolerant. His sincerity was never questioned. Exactly two years later, owner John Y. Brown and Auerbach named him coach. It could have happened in no other sports organization and with no other player.

I can't say I really coached the team. I was the guy at the head of the club.

The idea of the emotional Cowens coaching the club would have been remote back in the early days. He played two full seasons on heart and raw talent before he began to incorporate thinking into his game. Clever opponents knew how to taunt him. He was respected and often feared, but he was thought by those at the top of the profession to be controllable.

His maturing began in the 1972-73 season. He played well enough in the regular season to win the Most Valuable Player award, but it was in the playoffs that he came away with the basketball equivalent of his master's degree.

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."

Until the constant pounding robbed him of too many physical skills, he truly loved what he was doing. But participation alone was enervating, and although he eventually claimed a clinical understanding of the fan's motivations, he could not possibly relate to them. As the team was returning home from winning the 1974 championshiach the desired level of concentration to address himself properly to the task. His cells were dry. And so he invoked a unique and fascinating clause in his contract by asking for, and receiving, a "leave of absence" from the Boston Celtics. For two months he stayed away, traveling a little and simply thinking about things other than basketball. He returned, saying, "It was easier for me to play than not to play."

I came back because everybody was hounding me. Nobody believed me. I left because I really didn't feel involved. I felt like I was going through the motions. It was hard to explain. It was hard for me to explain it to myself. It was very confusing. For a while I just couldn't think very clearly. I got away, and I began to see things better. The question was, What do I really want to do with my life? The answer was that I really wanted to play basketball. When I realized that, I came back. But I wish I hadn't left. It was confusing to me, and to everyone else.

Being Dave Cowens, he received near-complete support from the public. Management was equally tolerant. His sincerity was never questioned. Exactly two years later, owner John Y. Brown and Auerbach named him coach. It could have happened in no other sports organization and with no other player.

I can't say I really coached the team. I was the guy at the head of the club.

The idea of the emotional Cowens coaching the club would have been remote back in the early days. He played two full seasons on heart and raw talent before he began to incorporate thinking into his game. Clever opponents knew how to taunt him. He was respected and often feared, but he was thought by those at the top of the profession to be controllable.

His maturing began in the 1972-73 season. He played well enough in the regular season to win the Most Valuable Player award, but it was in the playoffs that he came away with the basketball equivalent of his master's degree.

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."

Until the constant pounding robbed him of too many physical skills, he truly loved what he was doing. But participation alone was enervating, and although he eventually claimed a clinical understanding of the fan's motivations, he could not possibly relate to them. As the team was returning home from winning the 1974 championship in Milwaukee (thanks mainly to his spectacular play in the deciding seventh game), he was asked how he felt now that he had finally achieved the ultimate goal of any player's career. "It doesn't mean much to me now," he said. "Maybe tomorrow. To me, the fun was in th doing.

I was sorry when that game, and that series, were over. It had been such a great series, such great basketball. The reason it was so good was that we had contrasting styles. One of our styles was going to win, one of our tempos.

The older he got, the more the science of the game intrigued him. The young Cowens had looked at the game in a more simplistic fashion.

My approach when I went on the floor was something like this: I figured the other guy had more size or more offensive skills than I did. I wanted to look at him in the eye and say, "Dammit, you're going against one tough bastard tonight. It's just you and me, pal."

Having meshed his talent and his experience by 1973, he embarked on a stretch of four superb years. He did things on a nightly basis that have not been seen since. He continually made unmakable plays. One save of a loose ball in Madison Square Garden so thrilled his teammates that the bench responded with a standing ovation while the game was in progress. There was a night in Portland when he leaped over the Celtics' bench to keep a ball in play. Rather than returning to the floor by the original route, he instinctively turned and ran the length of the floor behind the press table, the result being a basketball reenactment of the classic car-train parallel race to the crossing so popular in silent film days. He returned to the court by leaping over the startled Portland players seated on their own bench. Whether or not it actually accomplished anything was irrelevant. It had been a uniquely Cowensian solution to a problem.

Off the court, he was becoming more of a loner. His four and a half months as coach guaranteed a restricted social life with his teammates. But even before that development, he had begun to detach himself from the team away from the floor. He missed friends such as Don Nelson, Paul Silas, and John Havlicek. For the first time he found himself actively disliking at least one of his teammates. Only when Pete Maravich, labeled a kook by most everyone else, became a Celtic last season did Cowens find anything resembling a kindred spirit. And when Maravich abruptly retired before the Celtics had even played an exhibition game, Cowens may have been influenced to follow suit.

The one-time eccentric bachelor has become the serious family man. He married a vivacious woman named Deby Cimaylo in 1978, and they are now the parents of 8-month-old Meghan. He is a homeowner. Some believe he has changed because of his marriage, but they are wrong. Rather, the marriage was the most visible manifestation of the change that had already taken place.

The determination he displayed on the basketball floor was often being applied to his other activities. About five years ago he became interested in purchasing an abandoned piece of property in Canton known as Prowse Farm. An avid horseman, Cowens wanted to restore the site to its nineteenth-century use as a horse farm. At the same time, a division of Motorola called the Codex Company expressed an interest in securing the farm as the site for a new plant.

Many angry town meetings later, Cowens is still fighting to save Prowse Farm. What began as a personal venture has become a quixotic crusade based on a principle. Cowens will never be the owner of Prowse Farm. But because in his view the Codex Company has disregarded environmental concerns and has been generally deceitful, he continues to fight them in the courts, whatever the expense.

He is naturally tenacious, and he expects to conquer the business world because of that tenacity. He is not sure exactly what he will do, now that he has retired, but he is eager to embark on a new way of life.

There have been other things on my mind, but as long as I was playing basketball I couldn't deal with them. While playing basketball I found it necessary to begin preparation a month and a half before the season started. When the season was over, I needed a month to wind down. If you put so much time and energy into something, you have no time for anything else. Now I find my mind is tuned in and I absorb things faster.I have the time and energy to concentrate on other projects. I probably have more energy than most people, and I think I'll be able to wear them down.

His two current business interests involve the proper care of one's body. He will represent a spring water company, and he is also excited about the possibility of constructing a comprehensive health and fitness center in Natick on the site of the Natick Country Club, which is being sold and subdivided. Toward that end, he recently spent time in Houston surveying a prototype operation, the elaborate Houstonian.

Finances should not be an immediate problem. He has been frugal with his money, living modestly, dabbling in investments, and, in general, treating money as a useful commodity, not as a solution to the mystery of life. He is confident that he will enjoy Life After Basketball.

The thing that money does for me is give me a sense of independence and a certain feeling that I have something to show for my work. I have the excitement of investing money with something I've earned. But my basic approach and values are the same as always. I still believe that knowledge, having knowledge and being able to use it and manipulate what you know in order to bring in enough money to survive, is what's important. That's more important than owning something.

By electing to retire, he forfeited an estimated $500,000, the amount he would have collected on the final year of his contract. He admitted that coming back solely for the purpose of taking the money was a large temptation. But when in doubt, he always resorts to his moral code. Had he come back for the money, he would not have been Dave Cowens, the man he must live with for the rest of his life. He would have been cheating, trying to draw the fake foul. He was in Terre Haute, Indiana, when he concluded that his body and spirithad both taken all the punishment they could stand. He knocked on the motel room door of a writer who is proud to be considered his friend. He was standing in his practice uniform - he had just returned from practice - and he was holding a sheaf of yellow legal pad pages on which he had handwritten a retirement statement to the fans, whom he believed deserved an explanation. "I'd like you to read something," he said.

The statement said, in part:

"I used to treasure the individual confrontations with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bob MacAdoo and relish playing against teams like the old Chicago Walker- Love-Sloan quintets, who made you reach for everything you had to compete with their type of team play. These challenges were exciting and real; they were invigorating and exhausting.

"However, I can no longer play that caliber of basket-ball, and it is unbelievably frustrating to remain in a rugged occupation with waning skills. . . .

"I pointed out (to a team of foot specialists that recently examined his feet* that I had sprained my ankles at least thirty times over my career, broken both legs and fractured a foot. . . . I have highly weakened and worn- out feet and ankles.

"I am basically playing on one leg. My right ankle is so weak that I can best describe it by saying I have a sponge for an ankle. My left leg and ankle are therefore taking an extraordinary amount of abuse and they would no doubt give out before the year was over. . . .

"I have climbed the ladder of success in the NBA to the point where I command top dollar for my services. But the last time I negotiated a contract was five years ago. The only reason I am paid top dollar now is not because I am a top talent; it is because I negotiated from a position of strength five years ago. I have one year remaining on my contract, and part of the pressure to play comes from the commitment I have to live up to my obligation with the Celtics.

"I wouldn't feel guilty about the amount of money I would earn under these conditions if I thought I could play even as well as I did last year. But I can't. . . ."

The writer read the statement and asked what he could do.

"Two things," he replied. "Help me put it in order. You know, give me some professional help. And tell me what you think."

The writer thought that if Dave Cowens said he couldn't play anymore, there was no sense in arguing with him. He also said that the statement didn't need much professional help.

He hadn't cheated or taken shortcuts. The statement hurt to read, but it could not have been better said. Dave Cowens had ended his career by taking a legitimate emotional charge.

4 comments:

FLCeltsFan said...

Awesome stuff. So much I didn't know about Cowens. Somehow I'm not surprised that Pistol and Dave were kindred spirits.

FLCeltsFan said...

On the night of February 25, 1976, Cowens delivered his most famous message. The recipient was Houston Rocket guard Mike Newlin, who had infuriated Cowens by twice jumping in front of him and falling down without being touched. On each occasion Newach the desired level of concentration to address himself properly to the task.

I think you missed something in the middle of my favorite story about Cowens. Looks like there is a chunk missing here.

FLCeltsFan said...

Chunk of the story was repeated in the middle. Got a bit confusing. But still some great stuff. Loved reading it. I learned stuff I didn't know and that's always good. I've very much enjoyed this series on Cowens. It does seem to be Ryanesque.

bballee said...

I think I liked your Cowens' history the best of all your memory lane articles!!

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