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?