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Now that's a power forward

Posted by Bob Ryan, Globe Staff  May 23, 2008 03:52 PM

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Does the possibility exist that any of the Detroit Pistons know just who that assistant coach of theirs really is and what he meant to the Boston Celtics?

Nah. Not remotely possible. Even if these guys are aware that his No. 18 hangs from the rafters at the TD Banknorth Garden, they probably think he's just another routinely good player, given that the Celtics have retired so many jerseys that any year now a rookie will be forced to wear a three-digit number.

The Dave Cowens résumé was enough to get him into the Hall of Fame. Said résumé included two championship rings, an MVP, a Rookie of the Year citation (OK, co-Rookie, along with Geoff Petrie), seven All-Star Game appearances, one of which earned him an MVP selection (and that wasn't even the one in which he had 20 rebounds), and the designation as one of the NBA's top 50 all-time players.

If you look at it on paper, the résumé speaks for itself. You'd have to be impressed in the abstract. But Dave Cowens transcended the bare bones of his glittering résumé. He could never be appreciated in the abstract. You had to see him to understand what a wonderfully unique player he was.

He is one of those whose playing style made him a standard of reference. Dave Cowens last played in the NBA 25 years ago, but the search for another Dave Cowens continues. Every once in a while a bouncy 6-foot-8-inch southpaw (invariably white) comes along and hearts start racing. Scouts and general managers say, "Could it be? Could this kid be the one?"

It never is, at least not yet. David Lee of the Knicks was the most recent example. Lee is a nice player. He will be employed in this league for a dozen years. But he is not Dave Cowens. The search continues.

Dave Cowens rebounded. He ran. He shot. He competed. That was the key. He competed.

It is the late afternoon/early evening of Sunday, May 12, 1974. The Celtics had just defeated Milwaukee in Game 7 to win the NBA championship, and now were on their way home. No charters in those days. You flew commercial, and if you had to make a connection, you connected. So now we were changing planes at Chicago O'Hare, and I had caught up with him for the first time since the perfunctory postgame locker room interview. And let the record show that he had been the star of the game.

"Well, Dave," I said. "You did it. You won. What does it mean to you?"

"The fun, for me, was in the doing," he said. "This is something for my portfolio of basketball experiences."

"My portfolio of basketball experiences." For the past 34 years I have waited in vain for another athlete to give me a line like that one.

He would acquire a second entry for that portfolio two years later. He came close to having four championships in all. In his MVP year of 1972-73, the Celtics won 68 games before losing to the Knicks after John Havlicek sustained an injury to his right shoulder in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. The 1974-75 team won 60 games before losing to the Bullets in a battle of equals.

This was the era of legitimate pivot men. Wilt. Kareem. Nate Thurmond. Willis Reed. Wes Unseld. Even a second-tier center such as Neal Walk had himself a 20-12 season. Into this Land of Giants came a 6-8 rookie center from Florida State who was unfamiliar with all of them. He had never been a fan. He just played ("the fun is in the doing"). The first time he ever saw any of these people, even on television, was when he lined up in the center circle for the first time. And what he said to them in so many words was, "Show me what you got."

He showed up here two years post-Russell, when pro basketball was in the local dumpster and the Big, Bad Bruins were in their ascendancy. The diehards who were still coming fell in love with him immediately. No one had ever seen this type of energy and athleticism in a 6-8Æ, 225-pound package. The young Dave Cowens was strong, he was both quick and fast, and he could jump (African-American referee Ken Hudson observed after Cowens's rookie year, in which he committed 350 personals and fouled out 15 times, that NBA refs weren't used to a white guy jumping that high, hence their blowing calls on him). He could also shoot.

Tom Heinsohn knew what he had. He found ways for Cowens to exploit the Goliaths. Cowens, meanwhile, figured the rest out for himself.

He was the face of the New Celtics, the front man for a new crop of basketball fans in this town. It didn't hurt that off the court he was even more iconoclastic than he was on. He was both an NBA star and a Boston eccentric folk hero.

He was ahead of his time, as it turned out. His singular combination of size, speed, and strength enabled him to do things on defense no other center would dare. When you are fortunate enough to be in the Garden when they show that famous flop on the basketball from Game 6 of the 1974 Finals, be aware that the play began with Cowens switching off on the great Oscar Robertson and knocking the ball away. Centers did not switch off on the Big O, even at age 35. Dave Cowens did.

So imagine a 6-8 guy, strong and gifted with great mobility, being plugged into today's sophisticated defenses, replete with their ever-popular "rotations." And factor in the added bonus that many people in the league feared him, thought he was half-crazy. The dearly departed Philadelphia Bulletin once asked the 76ers players to pick their All-NFL team from NBA players. The unanimous choice was Dave Cowens.

"He blocks your shot," noted Fred Carter, whose own apt nickname was "Mad Dog," "and then he jumps on top of you."

Stories? Hey, I got a million of 'em. How about the time an enraged Cowens, fed up with a second fake flop to draw an offensive foul in the same game, ran the Houston guard down in front of the Celtics' bench, leveled him with a double forearm shiver, and then ran over to referee Bill Jones.

"Now that's a foul!" he bellowed.

There was one, and only one Dave Cowens. Since he last played for the Celtics in 1980, he has unretired to play for the Bucks; been the athletic director at Regis College; been an executive at the New England Sports Museum; been a head coach for Charlotte, Golden State, and the WNBA Chicago Sky; and been an NBA assistant, first with the Spurs and, for the last two seasons, with the Pistons. And I know I've forgotten about a half-dozen things.

He always had varied interests, but it seems he keeps gravitating back to the NBA.

"The NBA is a pretty good life," he says. "If you're in, it's good. If not, you want to be in. And it's certainly nice when you're with a good organization and a good team, which I am."

No offense to Antonio McDyess, but if you threw him out and put the vintage Dave Cowens in with Messrs. Wallace, Prince, Hamilton, and Billups, they could start mapping out the parade route in Detroit right now.

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About bob ryan's blog Opinions, observations and anecdotes from Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan.
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