The player and the teams he played on are a paradox, unfairly dismissed as a bridge between the two greatest eras in franchise history, and alternately lionized for one triumphant moment, a contest so resplendent that the league’s marketing juggernaut hails Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals as ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’. To pigeonhole Dave Cowens and the 1970s Boston Celtics in such a way is to do each a genuine disservice, because their decade as a whole was far more interesting than the sum of those undeniably significant parts.
The timing of Cowens’ arrival in Boston was enough to make lesser men shrink from the daunting task awaiting him: Replacing the greatest winner in the history of professional sports while simultaneously lifting a storied franchise out of its post-dynasty funk. All Bill Russell had achieved before him was win eleven championships in thirteen years, a feat unequaled in any of the major North American sports leagues, and in the process become an iconic symbol for getting the job done. For Russell, winning seemed almost preordained; in addition to those eleven titles as either player or player-coach of the Boston Celtics, there were the two preceding NCAA championships while at the University of San Francisco, followed by Olympic gold. Cowens, by contrast, played his collegiate basketball at Florida State, a program not known for its basketball excellence and further obscured by probation resulting from a series of recruiting violations. How could this undersized center – this relatively unknown commodity – expect to fill the shoes of the great Bill Russell? How could he ever expect to win over the Boston Garden faithful?
Cowens on playing alongside Paul Silas:
Paul complemented me very well. He liked playing on the inside, whereas I liked playing both inside and out. He was a veteran who knew how to play the game. He gave me the comfort level I needed to stray away from the basket. He wasn’t big, but he was the best rebounder in the league. He’s a prime example of size not being the most important factor when it comes to rebounding the basketball. Skill level, positioning, knowing how to play the game – these things are more important. It takes a special mentality to be a great rebounder, and Paul had that.
Cowens on playing NBA basketball during the 70s:
There was a much more crowd-pleasing brand of basketball being played. The ABA had the great flair, and the NBA had the old school franchises. You had players like Tiny Archibald and Bob McAdoo. You had Rick Barry, Bobby Jones, David Thompson, Dr. J, Chet Walker, Dan Issel, Bob “Butterbean” Love. You had Rudy Tomjanovich, who was one of the greatest shooters to ever play the game. It was a great era, but it gets overlooked because of the players who came along during the ‘80s – the Birds, the Magics, the Jordans. I’m not a fan of the three-point play, which has become such a big deal today. The big men don’t get the touches that they got when I played, and a lot of it has to do with the three-pointer. Today you see so much isolation. There was much more ball movement back then, which made it more fun to watch.