Short but sweet.
If you had to use one cliché to describe Dave Cowens’ career, it would probably have to be short but sweet. Cowens played only ten full years (eleven in all, including a 40-game stop with the Bucks in 1982-1983), but more than made his mark during those years. Cowens led the Boston Celtics to two championships, won the 1973 NBA MVP and made seven all-star games.
By the time he was 28, though, Cowens had peaked. He briefly retired immediately following the 1976 championship, after his close friend and teammate Paul Silas was traded to the Denver Nuggets. Cowens would return after a 30-game hiatus, but his play would never again approach the level he once maintained.
Cowens’ career might have been short but sweet, but that overused cliché would never be the way anyone would describe the way he played basketball.
Short? Yeah. Cowens was an undersized center playing against mammoths the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Wilt Chamberlain. At 6’9” tall and only 230 pounds, Cowens wasn’t nearly the most physically imposing center in the NBA.
But sweet? Sweet would never be associated with Dave Cowens, at least on a basketball court. Cowens was a ferocious competitor. Whatever he lacked in size, the madly motivated center more than made up for with an insatiable desire to compete and to win. At only 6’9”, Cowens made a living on the glass, destroying bigger players with his unrivaled will on his way to averaging an astounding 13.6 rebounds per game (to go along with 17.6 ppg).
Even by his own accord, Cowens was never one of the more talented players in the league, but he refused to let his limitations get in his way. Playing with a reckless abandon, Cowens dove after loose balls, catapulted into the stands in a last-ditch attempt to save his team’s possession, hurled himself into opposing players to snatch rebounds from their outstretched hands, and sprinted the floor with the urgency of a man escaping a fire.
When talking about Cowens’ intensity and passion on a basketball court, my dad gave him one of the greatest compliments you can say about a man’s determination – “He was KG before there was KG.”
While some fans may not like some of Kevin Garnett’s antics, his infectious desire and boyish enthusiasm commands respect and admiration from any basketball fan. Garnett’s focus and single-minded passion has been given credit for rejuvenating a left-for-dead Celtics’ franchise.
Well, before there was KG there was Cowens. After Bill Russell’s retirement, the C’s briefly stopped winning titles. After winning 11 championships in a 13-year stretch, the Celtics failed to win championships for four straight seasons following the 1969 campaign. Finally, the Celtics broke out of their slump, raising banners for the 1974 and 1976 seasons.
John “Hondo” Havlicek is given a lot of credit for winning those titles, but it was Cowens who was the team’s best player as well as its heart and soul. Cowens played with an unbelievable motivation rarely seen in the NBA. Celtics’ legend Red Auerbach once said about Cowens, “A dedicated kid isn’t unheard of, but there aren’t as many around as we would like. But our problem with Cowens is telling him when to lay off. He does too much.”
Cowens never learned how to lay off, and maybe that’s why his career was so short. Maybe he just wasn’t able to maintain his unmatched standard of hard work for too long.
But Cowens’ standard of dedication and his brimming level of focus, commitment and perseverance were what made him great.
I’m glad Red never could convince him to lay off.