By Neil Beldock
If he played against your team, you hated him…….If he played for your team, you loved him……Dave Cowens played basketball the way Smokin’ Joe Frazier fought; He was relentless and never stopped coming at you!!
Much like that which drove Joe Frazier as a fighter, Dave Cowens played basketball with a chip on his shoulder.
Also like Smokin’ Joe, who at 5 foot 11 inches tall and weighing around 200 pounds was an undersized heavyweight, Dave Cowens was an undersized NBA center standing 6 feet 9 inches tall. But both had gigantic hearts, and both were champions.
And they both competed against and beat those considered by many to be the best ever, both with Islamic names. In Joe Frazier’s case it was Muhammad Ali. In Dave Cowens case it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
In yet another comparison, whereas Joe Frazier possessed a lethal left hook, Dave Cowens, being a lefty, also devastated many an opponent with his own left hook (shot, of course).
(Left Hook vs. Darryl Dawkins)
To understand the way Dave Cowens played basketball all one needs to do is read the words used to describe him; “tenacious, ferocious, tough, physical, hustler, lot-of-heart, determined, dedicated, energizer hard-working, and unrelenting”.
Opponents referred to him as a “nuisance”.
Not only was it never unusual to see Cowens diving on the floor for a loose ball, or diving into the crowd after the ball, or muscling his way to the basket for rebounds and tip-ins, but it was common place in just about every game Cowens ever played.
Jo Jo White, a teammate with the Celtics, had this to say about Cowens: “The great thing about Dave is that he was always ready to go when it was time to play. He brought a ready-set-go that was different than any other player I ever played with, and it rubbed off on his teammates. The intensity he brought had a lot to do with guys playing on another level when they played with him. He’d be on the floor diving for loose balls. That was Dave.”
Tommy Heinsohn, who coached Cowens during his Celtics career, had this to say about Cowens: “Dave’s most outstanding trait was his desire. He could be a ferocious player”.
Celtics teammate Paul Silas, a very physical player in his own right, had this to say about Cowens: “Dave was a tough, physical guy. Dave would run harder than almost any center in the league”.
Silas also said: “I thought he was a wild man. I’d never seen anyone with that much talent play that aggressively”.
How aggressive was Dave Cowens on the court? During his rookie season with the Celtics (1970-71), a year in which Cowens would average 17.0 points and 15.0 rebounds per game, be named co-Rookie-of-the-Year and be selected to the All-NBA Rookie First Team, he led the league in one category; Fouls Committed.
Said Red Auerbach of Cowens: “He’s a very dedicated kid. But our problem with Cowens is telling him when to lay off. He does too much”.
Auerbach also said of Cowens: : “He gave his body to the Celtics”.
In another interesting comparison to Joe Frazier, just as Frazier had to emerge from the shadow of a popular, dominant and out-spoken predecessor, so too did Dave Cowens.
In Joe Frazier’s case it was the shadow cast by Muhammad Ali. In Cowens’ case, it was the shadow of Bill Russell.
But it was because of Bill Russell that Dave Cowens became a Celtic.
Many NBA scouts felt that in spite of the success Cowens had playing at Florida State, which included being the school’s all-time leading rebounder and averaging 19.0 points per game, he was too small to play center in the NBA.
Bill Russell thought otherwise and, based upon Russell’s recommendation, the Celtics made Cowens the 4th pick of the NBA draft in 1970. In today’s vernacular, picking Cowens 4th would be called a “reach”.
It didn’t take very long however for the Celtics to realize Cowens was anything but “a reach”.
What the Celtics saw night in and night out (as written in his profile on NBA Legends) was a player who “ran baseline to baseline, set picks, made heady passes, participated in full-court presses, blocked seemingly unblockable shots and dove into the crowd for loose balls. His versatility and energy were his greatest assets”.
With Bill Russell having retired after the 1968-69 season, the Celtics suffered there first losing season since the 1949-50 season. Stellar players such as John Havlicek, Satch Sanders, Don Nelson and Jo Jo White were on the roster but the retirement of Russell left a gaping hole in the middle. The Celtics posted a won-loss record of 34-48.
Then Cowens arrived. In his first season of 1970-71, filling the rather large shoes of Bill Russell in the middle, the Celtics returned to their winning ways posting a won-loss record 44-38.
(Against The Knicks & Willis Reed)
(The NBA’s Two Red-Heads Doing Battle)
With Cowens manning the center position, a position many thought he was too small to play, the Celtics followed their 44 win 1970-71 season with season win totals of 56, 68, 56, 60, and 54.
Included in those seasons were NBA Championships in 1974 and 1976. And Cowens was selected as the MVP of the league in 1973.
It was during game 6 of the 1974 NBA Finals verses the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led Milwaukee Bucks, a series the Celtics would win in a remarkable 7 game series, where the way Cowens played the game is epitomized and forever captured.
After switching to guard Oscar Robertson, Cowens reached in and poked the ball away from the Big O. What happened in the next 3-5 seconds perfectly epitomizes Dave Cowens and his approach to basketball.
As the ball rolled away from both Cowens and Robertson, Cowens sprinted after ball, stumbling at times, and then finally diving head-first after the ball and sliding a good 10 feet along the court. (This is must-see basketball and I highly recommend you google/search Dave Cowens diving after loose ball vs. the Bucks youtube to witness for yourself.)
Cowens played 10 seasons for the Celtics before retiring after the 1979-80 season.
Over his 10 year Celtics career Cowens averaged 18.2 points, 14.0 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game.
(After being in retirement for 2 years, former teammate and then coach of the Milwaukee Bucks Don Nelson talked Cowens into coming out of retirement to play for him, which he did for one season)
Said Cowens describing his own game and approach to playing basketball: “I led through my example on the court. I really didn’t say too much. You play longer and harder than anyone else, and you push the envelope that way. By example, you show people that you can do more than they think you can do”.
Cowens accumulated many honors during his career which included being a 2-time NBA champion, a league MVP, and an 8-time NBA All-Star. He was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time team and is a member of both the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall-of-Fame and the College Basketball Hall-of-Fame.
Undersized and underrated, you don’t hear the name Dave Cowens mentioned when discussions of the greatest NBA centers of all time are being had. Maybe it should be.
But what is unquestionable is that any player stepping on the court against Dave Cowens knew he was going to be in a battle, a 48 minute fight to the end……….Like stepping in the ring with Smokin’ Joe Frazier.