Born: October 25, 1948
Boston Celtics (NBA): 1970-’80
Milwaukee Bucks (NBA): 1982-’83
With so many great players and Hall of Famers, the following sentence may apply to a bushel of players, but, here it goes…
Dave Cowens may be the overlooked Celtics legend.
Yes, other guys like Satch Sanders, Sam Jones, Bill Sharman, Jo Jo White, and others get the overlooked treatment, but Cowens is one of just four Celtics to win an MVP award as a Celtic. Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and Larry Bird are the others. Cowens, however, doesn’t ever seem to demand the kind of historical attention those other three command.
This is a strange turn of events given that Cowens demanded and commanded all kinds of attention while he played. How could you ignore the firebrand who yelled and wailed at horrendous referee calls that he considered crimes against humanity? (Famously Cowens, disgusted with a ticky tack foul call, decided to show the ref a real foul by body-checking the flopping Mike Newlin of the Houston Rockets. “Now that’s a foul!”, Cowens howled at the ref.) How could you miss the 6’9″ center crashing the boards relentlessly knocking bodies out of the way in the process? How could you possibly overlook his lefty hooks, outstanding jump shot, and agile athleticism?
And most of all, how could you ignore the startling success of the Celtics while Cowens was with them?
Joining Jo Jo White and John Havlicek in the 1970-71 season, Cowens was Rookie of the Year and helped re-establish Boston as a force after the retirement of Bill Russell in 1969. Their 44 wins weren’t good enough to make the East playoffs in 1971, but in 1972 they improved to 56 wins and in 1973 they reeled off a ridiculous 68 wins.
That Celtics squad may be the most undervalued great team in NBA history. Sixty-eight wins and I bet most readers never even knew about it. The problem is that Havlicek hurt his shoulder that postseason and the Celtics were (barely) dislodged in the 1973 Conference Finals by the New York Knicks in seven games.
Cowens for his efforts that year was named MVP. It’s one of the more controversial MVPs in NBA history. Cowens made the All-NBA 2nd Team that very same season while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made the All-NBA 1st Team at center, but still lost out on MVP to Cowens. To his credit, Dave averaged 20.5 points, 16.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists that year. Then again, Kareem averaged 30.2 points, 16.1 rebounds, and 5.0 assists.
In any event, the distressing playoff loss to the Knicks in ’73 didn’t cause any let up in Cowens’s intensity for the 1973-74 season. The Celtics finished with 56 regular season wins, but more importantly captured the NBA title. They did so by besting Kareem’s Milwaukee Bucks in a classic seven-game series where Dave left behind his most famous play, which accurately depicts his determination and style of play.
After poking the ball loose from Oscar Robertson, Cowens and the Big O got into a foot race for the ball. Dave started stumbling and then decided to just make a giant leap for the ball and skid across the floor for what seemed like a mile:
Another title followed in 1976 over the Phoenix Suns, but that was the last great year for Cowens’ original gang of Celtics. Havlicek would soon retire, Paul Silas and White were traded, and a string of underwhelming stars were brought in. Big Red himself temporarily lost his fire the sport and took a one month sabbatical in the 1976-77 season.
However, by the 1979-80 season, the Celtics and Cowens had a return to glory. Teaming up with Larry Bird, Tiny Archibald, and Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, Boston won 61 games and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. Dr. J’s 76ers proved a tad bit better and won the series in five games. That offseason, the Celtics made their swindle/trade with Golden State for Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
Perhaps Cowens could have stuck around for a chance to win a couple of more titles in his twilight. After all, he was just 31-years-old, had only played 10 seasons, and had just come off a year averaging 14 points, eight rebounds, and three assists. Not bad at all for a starting center. So, surely he could put together three or four more seasons of good basketball as Parish’s back up.
Instead, Cowens chose to retire. At least temporarily.
He made a quirky return to the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1982-83 season at the age of 34 – he averaged eight points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes. But Cowens was always a strange character. Cowens drove a taxicab during the late 1970s just for fun. He sold Christmas trees in his home-state of Kentucky during his 1976 sabbatical. And the fiery countenance he exhibited on the court transformed into an amazing sense of humor off of it.
But when he was on the court, heaven help you if you were the opposing team, or even worse, the referee…
2x Champion (1974, 1976)
3x All-NBA 2nd Team (1973, 1975-’76)
All-Defensive 1st Team (1976)
2x All-Defensive 2nd Team (1975, 1980)
8x All-Star (1972-’78, 1980)
All-Star Game MVP (1973)
All-Rookie Team (1971)
Rookie of the Year (1971)
Regular Season Career Averages (766 games):
Playoff Career Averages (89 games):