The Dave Cowens Interview
Michael D. McClellan
Saturday, March 5th, 2005
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 unequalled 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?
The answer lies in Cowens’ deeply competitive nature, one developed at a very early age. Cowens played his first organized basketball game at age eight, and it didn’t take the red-headed youngster long to figure out the Darwinian rules that apply to sports: Athletic competition is survival of the fittest, and those who excel on the battlefield are rewarded with the most necessary of athletic nutrients – playing time. And play he did; the pre-teen Cowens excelled at every position, and rarely was he not the best player on the court. Basketball was in his blood even then. He was a natural, that one-in-a-million kid destined for greatness, that can’t-miss talent for whom everything comes easily.
At Newport Catholic High School, Cowens’ can’t-miss basketball career took an abbreviated yet pivotal turn when a conflict with his coach prompted him to quit the team. Cowens channeled his competitive zeal into swimming and track and field, sports that would showcase both his fitness and his determination, attributes he would later utilize – to great effect – against such top shelf talent as Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
A five-inch growth spurt between his sophomore and junior years brought Cowens and his basketball future back together, a parabola of timing and talent that would intersect yet again, years later, in the fabled Boston Garden. But the NBA would have to wait. Now 6’-6” and playing for a new coach, Cowens began to dominate the boards and pique the interest of Newport High’s varsity staff. Just two contests into the regular season he was the team’s focal point, an unbridled force in the paint, a gladiator capable of controlling the game’s ebb and flow. By his senior season Newport was a 29-3 powerhouse. His statistical averages – 13 points and 20 rebounds – were harbingers of future greatness. Still, the numbers weren’t enough to impress Kentucky’s legendary Baron, Adolph Rupp. Rupp was less than enamored with the undersized big man, and showed only lukewarm interest in luring Cowens to Lexington. There were no guarantees of playing time, no promises of cracking the starting lineup as an underclassman, no preferential treatment for a player who, in Rupp’s mind, was little more than a dime-a-dozen overachiever.
There was nothing run-of-the-mill about Cowens, of course, and Rupp’s miscalculation proved to be a bonanza for Florida State University and its classy head coach, Hugh Durham. Durham did his homework, distinguishing himself during the recruiting battle simply by appealing to Cowens’ desire for playing time. It was a message of resonance. The young center responded by signing with the Seminoles, spurning his home state Wildcats to the dismay of UK fans and against the advice of his father. The decision was a bold move, especially given the NCAA sanctions imposed on the university, and Durham was ecstatic. The Seminoles won eleven games during Cowens’ sophomore season, improved to 18-8 a year later, and finished 23-3 during his senior season. He pulled down 1,340 rebounds during his three seasons of varsity basketball and was named to The Sporting News All-America Second Team.