Cowens' Number is Hoisted

February 1981

He was a wild man," said Paul Silas, the ex-Phoenix Sun.

"Absolutely crazy," said Dave Bing, the former Detroit Piston.

"We called him The Butcher," said Chris Ford, another ex-Piston.

That was the view of Dave Cowens from the enemy bench. But when you became his teammate, said Silas, Bing and Ford yesterday, you realized you were looking at somebody with the ability to lead you to a championship.

You were, as a matter of fact, looking at a once-in-a-generation original.

Yesterday at the Garden, this crazy wild-man butcher - the working man's basketball player - was honored at halftime of the Celtics-San Diego game. No. 18 was hoisted to the rafters to join the 13 other Celtics immortalized in those dusty quarters.

It was, compared with Bob Cousy Day and John Havlicek Day, a low-key afternoon. Cooz' farewell party was a five-handkerchief festival. Even Havlicek, so cool on the court, was overcome by the emotionalism of his moment. Yet the man who probably played with more emotion than anyone in Celtic history was the epitome of calmness on his day.

No. 14 and No. 17, of course, were still active on the afternoons they were honored. Cowens retired during the exhibition season and so has been away from the game. And though he'd always been aggressive on the court, he was generally low-key off it.

The crowd yelled, "Big Red, Big Red," and as Cowens began his talk, a chant of "defense, defense" came pouring out of the balcony.

In a game in which baskets come quicker than the next breath, it is ironic that defense will be what the two greatest centers in Celtic history, Cowens and Bill Russell, will be remembered for.

"When he first came into the league," said Bing, "I didn't think Cowens would last long, diving around like that. Big men didn't do those things."

"Neither did superstars," said Ford. "That makes an impression."

Perhaps it's only the telescoped memory of a middle-aged man, but the Dave Cowens era seemed to come and go in a hurry. It doesn't seem long ago that he was the Celts' first draft choice and everybody was wondering who Dave Cowens was.

And wasn't it only the day before yesterday some of us were saying the Celtics never would go anywhere with a 6-foot-8 1/2 center, that they better get that redhead the hell out of there and find a reasonable facsimile of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?

"I didn't know what to expect when I got here," Cowens said yesterday. "I saw guys like Havlicek and wondered how I would do, because I wasn't a superstar coming out of college."

He lived at Don Nelson's house, and the Celtics made him feel at home right away, so the transition from Newport, Ky., to Boston, Mass., wasn't hard.

"When I think about it, much of the time I spent growing up as a man was right here at the Garden. The first six seasons were the best. Things were beautiful. Then the personnel began to change, and many of the players I'd started with were no longer around."

Any regrets?

"Only one, the leave of absence in 1976. If I had that to do over, I wouldn't do it. But at the time, I was really caught up with everything and had to get away."

Cowens was surprised his little vacation caused so much fuss. "Everybody could have come down on you much harder than they did," somebody suggested.

"I know it, I know it," Cowens said. "In retrospect, it wasn't a smart thing to do."

He called his brief coaching stint in the 1978-79 season a good experience, not in wins and losses but because it alerted him to the problems of a coach, who must lug around everyone's headaches, listen to everybody's complaints.

"The toughest thing about my coaching career," Cowens said, "was that Celtic-like players at that time were in the minority."

Cowens' basketball these days is limited to what he calls "rockin' and sockin' pickup games just to stay tuned in."

The Celtic-like players have returned and are winning without him. The 7- footer we were screaming for a decade ago has arrived and is doing the job, and Silas thinks it will be a long while before someone of Cowens' physical dimensions dominates the middle the way he did.

We've had the privilege of sitting in on history here for a long time. Russell changed the game 20 years ago, and Cowens changed it some more.

Yesterday, Cowens finished by thanking the fans "from the choice seats up to the heavens. You made it easy for me to play hard."

Not a bad exit line, but not quite true. The only one who made Dave Cowens play hard was Dave Cowens. For him, any other way would have been unthinkable.

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