12.03.2012

Grampa Celtic Talks #18



Only one ballplayer ever handed me a medium-size spiral notebook and said, "I bought you a present for the playoffs." Only one ballplayer ever took me on a tour of his home area that included inspecting a load of cow manure. Only one player ever explained to me the significance of winning the championship was that it was "something to put in my portfolio of basketball experiences."

That player was Dave Cowens.

When he came to the Celtics in 1970 he was 22 years old. I was 24 and in my second year on the Celtics beat. He became my personal project, I suppose - the symbol of the new Celtics era, the one I would chronicle. The fan in me could not get enough of Dave Cowens on the floor, especially when he would outplay such league stars as the 7-foot-3 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or the 7-foot-1 Wilt Chamberlain.

In a journalistic sense, I can truthfully say I never had any trouble with Dave Cowens. The writers' fraternity was full of Cowens tales, including many stories told by out-of-town scribes, troubled because they had not quite connected with Cowens and his thought process. One of those people was Alan Richman, now a Globe Metro page columnist but then a basketball beat man for the Philadelphia Bulletin. "For an outsider," Richman recalls, "dealing with Cowens was complicated. I think he had an even better developed sense of what a writer should or shouldn't do than he had of what an athlete should or shouldn't do."

Cowens was not the typical athlete whose disposition was affected by winning and losing. His willingness to be probed after a ball game was connected with what I call the Big Crash. It was necessary for him to psych himself up in order to play his best basketball. If he was able to come down quickly after a game, he could be approached. If he had trouble coming down, he couldn't. What confused many writers was yhis lack of correlation between winning and losing or between his playing well or not playing well. He could be reflective after a loss or testy after a win.

He was not a good source of team gossip, feeling strongly that discussing intimate team matters with me, whom he trusted, was inappropriate. I knew how he felt about certain matters only because teammates would tell me, and I don't think I ever attempted to push him in a direction he did not want to travel.

I've known him in many contexts, one of the most enjoyable being an uncharacteristically lavish bash on Kentucky Derby day at his house. But the sight I will never forget is of him standing in my doorway at the Terre Haute, Indiana, Sheraton Inn, dressed in his full practice uniform, holding what I would soon learn was his handwritten retirement statement.

At one point during our discussion, I said, "Dave, I've got to phone this in for the afternoon edition. You understand that."

"Okay," he said, "but do you mind if I call Red first?"

To anyone who worked with him, that was the Dave Cowens they know and love speaking.

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