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David Cowens, never anyone's typical athlete, retired from basketball last week at age 31, and surprised but didn't shock those who had followed the red-haired center's career.
On the court, Cowens had done it all--winning the MVP and rookie of the year awards and also earning selection seven times to the All-Star game and twice to the All-Defensive team. But it was his public persona that made Dave Cowens "Dave Cowens"--the player-coach who, presiding over one of the team's most disastrous seasons in 1978-1979, never hesitated to lambaste his own teammates when they squandered their abilities.
Sports fans used used to apple-pie heroes won't forget Dave Cowens, taxi-driver, taking a leave of absence for a large part of the 1976-1977 season because he said he simply wasn't ready to play basketball yet.
While some athletes today have trouble distinguishing themselves from movie stars, Cowens was a welcome relief from self-promoting impressarios-cum-jocks. In that now infamous Inside Sports profile, some of the Los Angeles Dodgers went so far as to suggest that the purpose of Steve Garvey's inimitable arms-bent-at elbows running style was to prevent his uniform from becoming wrinkled. Pete Rose is known as "Charlie Hustle," but the pervasive sentiment that that hustle is manufactured makes him one of the most hated players in baseball in enemy arenas.
Hustle was Cowens' forte, but it came from the heart, not the head. A 6-9 center in a NBA world of seven-foot Sequoias, he was always where the ball was--banging in a lefthanded jumper form the top of the key, rolling in a jump-hook, leading or desperately following the fast break, scrambling for the loose ball.
When he came out of Florida State in 1969, basketball afficianados laughed at the idea that this relatively unheralded project of Red Auerbach could bang heads with the Kareem Abdul-Jabbars, Wilt Chamberlains, and Wes Unselds patrolling the keys and live to tell about it. Yet one of the predominant images of pro basketball in the early '70s became that of a grimacing, snarling, Cowens ripping down a rebound as sweat poured down his face and shook off his hair. The league soon respected Cowens, but as much more than that hated athletic stalwart, the all-hustle, no-talent scrapper who somehow makes it to the top.
Long before Bill Walton or Alvin Adams garnered plaudits as a new breed of center who could, lo and behold, pass the ball in addition to shooting it and retrieving it, Cowens was adding a new facet to the Celtics' offense by making them truly a five-man threat in their patterned passing game. He contributed to the offense with equal skill from the top of the key or under the basket, and was a recognized leader on a team with such pros as John Havilick and Jo Jo White.
Reports from training camp indicated that the big man's enthusiasm remained stronger than ever, yet Cowens recognized that his health problems were crippling his effectiveness, and made that rare graceful exit when his time came. The Celtics' new center tandem of Rick Robey and Robert Parish may be able to fill the statistical void left by number 18, but as became apparent every time he sat down, Dave Cowens was much more than merely points and rebounds. The Garden's next center should heed the insight of country singer Stella Parton, who when asked if she felt pressure to fill her sister's shoes, replied, "It's not Dolly's shoes I'm worried about filling." The task confronting him will be equally as monumental.
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