It takes quite a while to get through all the highlights on the resume belonging to Dave Cowens: All-American at Florida State, all-time leading rebounder in school history, drafted one spot behind Pete Maravich…and that’s all before he even joined the NBA! As a member of the Celtics the hits just kept on coming: Rookie of the Year in 1971, MVP in 1973, and a pair of titles before turning 30 (including a win in one of the most famous games in NBA history). When the Hall of Fame came calling in 1991, it served as a beautiful bow on a captivating career. As the 2014 NBA Finals get underway this week, CHD’s Jon Teitel got to chat with Dave about all of his accomplishments while looking back on the 40th anniversary of his 1st NBA title back in 1974.
After going to high school in Newport, KY you decided to go to college at Florida State: how on earth did Coach Adolph Rupp fail to make you a Wildcat? I wanted to go a bit further away than 80 miles from home, and Kentucky had signed a guy that year named Dan Issel to be their center.
You remain the all-time leading rebounder in school history despite only playing three years on the varsity: what is your secret for being a great rebounder, and do you think that anyone will ever break your record? I doubt that anyone will break the record due to the way the game is played now. I really liked rebounding and it was what I did best.
In 1970 you were named All-American: what did it mean to you to win such an outstanding honor? I was on the second-team and was happy to have been chosen and recognized for my efforts.
In the summer of 1970 you were drafted 4th overall by Boston (one spot behind Pete Maravich): how much of a factor was the recommendation of former Celtic great Bill Russell? Russell had nothing to do with me being drafted in the first round. The first time he saw me play was at Red Auerbach’s basketball camp later that summer.
As a rookie you averaged 17 points and 15 rebounds, led the league in fouls, and were named co-ROY (along with Geoff Petrie): how were you able to make such a smooth transition from college to the pros? I always played on an upbeat team that pressed and ran the fast break a lot. I was conditioned to play a pro-style game with a 24-second shot-clock, plus I did a lot of strength training on my own in college when that sort of thing was not yet in vogue.
In the 1972 All-Star Game you had 14 points and 20 rebounds and made a game-tying jump shot with 11 seconds left before MVP Jerry West made a 20-foot running jumper at the buzzer in front of the Los Angeles crowd to give the West a two point win: where does West rank among the most clutch players you have ever seen? Jerry was 1 of the greatest players in NBA history and was a fearless scorer. I would put the ball in his hands to win a game.
In 1973 you averaged 20.5 points and 16.2 rebounds per game while leading the Celtics to a league-best 68 wins and were named MVP: how did being named MVP change your life (if at all)? It did not change my life, but it made me proud that the players/coaches thought enough of me to single me out that year for that award.
In the magical 1974 Finals Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 34 points including a 17-foot sky-hook with two seconds left in a close win by Milwaukee in Game 6: how unstoppable was his famous sky-hook? That series was a contrast of two very different styles of play: whoever could dictate the pace the game was played at had the advantage that particular night. To get to the Finals both teams needed top-shelf players who were playing with confidence. Kareem was the most dominating player in the game at that time and the Big O [Oscar Robertson] was their captain.
You had 28 points and 14 rebounds in a win on the road in Game 7: what did it mean to you to win the title? To beat them at their place in Game 7 was the most meaningful achievement of my career.
After getting back to Boston you allegedly slept on a park bench on Boston Common after wandering through nearby neighborhoods to celebrate the win with fans: is that story true, and were the fans going nuts when they saw you walking around? I was not “wandering the streets”: just visiting friends who lived in different areas of the city. The place I ended up at last was near the Boston Common/Public Garden. The fatigue hit me hard that early morning so I decided to rest on a park bench for awhile but fell asleep. I woke up a few hours later around daybreak and was spotted by some fans who unbeknownst to me reported it to the press!
In 1976 you were named to the All-Defensive first-team: what is your secret for being a great defender? Defense is the easiest thing to do in our game but it is the least amount of fun for many players. As a center you are the captain of the defense so I looked at it as a primary responsibility…plus I got a kick out of hounding opponents!
In Game 5 of the 1976 Finals you scored 26 points before fouling out, and Gar Heard made a miraculous turn-around jumper from the top of the key to beat the buzzer in the 2nd OT, but your team held on for a two point, double overtime win: what are your memories from that legendary game? That game was so crazy because it started late on Friday night and finished after midnight on Saturday: it might have been the only game ever to span two days! Many players on both teams played at an extremely high level for a long time that night. It had many twists and turns and some groundbreaking strategies emerged as well. It is hailed by many as “the greatest game ever played”, but I do not know about that. All I am sure of is that I am glad we had Glenn McDonald on our team (who scored 8 points in the third overtime)!
In 1978 you became the first player to ever lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals in a season: how were you able to be such a great all-around player? We did not have a very good season that year as a team (missing the playoffs after finishing with a 32-50 record).
In the fall of 1978 you became player/coach for the Celtics: why did you take the job, and do you think we will ever see another player/coach in the NBA? I was asked to do it by both Red and the ownership. I seriously doubt that you will ever see that happen again.
After retiring in 1980 you were coaxed out of retirement in 1982 by Milwaukee coach (and your former Celtics teammate) Don Nelson: what did he say to convince you, and what made him such a great coach? I was not coaxed but was rather determined to play again, so I trained hard for six months to prepare for the comeback. After I told Red that I wanted to play again he made the deal for me to go to Milwaukee.
In 1991 you were inducted into the Hall of Fame: when people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most? As I said in my acceptance speech, I want to be recognized as a workingman’s player and a great teammate. I was just happy they chose me to be on their team.