With so many great players and Hall of Famers, the following sentence may apply to a bushel of players, but, here it goes…
Dave Cowens may be the overlooked Celtics legend.
Yes, other guys like Satch Sanders, Sam Jones, Bill Sharman, Jo Jo White, and others get the overlooked treatment, but Cowens is one of just four Celtics to win an MVP award as a Celtic. Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and Larry Bird are the others. Cowens, however, doesn’t ever seem to demand the kind of historical attention those other three command.
This is a strange turn of events given that Cowens demanded and commanded all kinds of attention while he played. How could you ignore the firebrand who yelled and wailed at horrendous referee calls that he considered crimes against humanity? How could you miss the 6’9″ center crashing the boards relentlessly knocking bodies out of the way in the process? How could you possibly overlook his lefty hooks, outstanding jump shot, and agile athleticism?
And most of all, how could you ignore the startling success of the Celtics while Cowens was with them?
Joining Jo Jo White and John Havlicek in the 1970-71 season, Cowens was Rookie of the Year and helped re-establish Boston as a force after the retirement of Bill Russell in 1969. Their 44 wins weren’t good enough to make the East playoffs, but then in 1972 they won 56 games and in 1973 they reeled off a ridiculous 68 wins.
That’s the Celtics squad may be the most undervalued great team in NBA history. Sixty-eight wins and I bet most readers never even knew about it. The problem is that Havlicek hurt his shoulder that postseason and the Celtics were dislodged in the 1973 Conference Finals by the Knicks in seven games.
Cowens for his efforts that year was named MVP and didn’t let up the intensity after that searing playoff loss. In 1974, the Celtics came back and won the title over the Milwaukee Bucks in a classic seven-game series where Dave left behind his most famous play, which accurately depicts his determination and style of play.
After poking the ball loose from Oscar Robertson, Cowens and the Big O got into a foot race for the ball. Dave started stumbling and then decided to just make a giant leap for the ball and skid across the floor for what seemed like a mile as a gained possession of the ball.
Another title followed in 1976 over the Phoenix Suns, but that was the last great year for Cowens’ original gang of Celtics. Havlicek would soon retire, Paul Silas and White were traded, and a string of underwhelming stars were brought in.
However, in the 1979-80 season, Cowens teamed up with Larry Bird for a final return glory. They won 61 games and advanced to the Eastern Finals. Dr. J’s 76ers proved better and won the series in five games. That offseason, the Celtics made their trade for Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Perhaps Cowens could have stuck around for a chance to win a couple of more titles in his twilight, but Big Red instead retired.
He still had game left evidenced by a quirky return to the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1982-83 season at the age of 34 – he averaged 8 points and 7 rebounds in 25 minutes. But Cowens was always a strange character. As Bill Simmons famously wrote about, Cowens would moonlight as a cab driver during the late 1970s. The fiery countenance he exhibited on the court transformed into an amazing sense of humor off of it.
But when he was on the court, heaven help you if you were the opposing team, or even worse, the referee…
Years Played: 1970 – 1980, 1982-83
2x Champion (1974, 1976)
Rookie of the Year (1971)
All-Star Game MVP (1973)
3x All-NBA 2nd Team (1973, 1975-’76)
All-Defensive 1st Team (1976)
2x All-Defensive 2nd Team (1975, 1980)
NBA - 769 Games
17.6 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.1 SPG*, 0.9 BPG*, 46.0% FG, 78.3% FT
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1970-71 through 1979-80 season)
4th Rebounds, 4th RPG
8th Points, 33rd PPG
9th FGs Made, 30th FTs Made,
19th Assists, 29th APG
16th Blocks*, 22nd BPG*
11th Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played
*stats not recorded until the 1973-74 season