Member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, 8-time NBA All-Star, 2-time NBA champion, 1972-73 NBA MVP – Dave Cowens talks about his career with the Boston Celtics, winning Rookie of the Year and the NBA MVP, being a head coach
NBA Draft and beginnings
After a couple of seasons at Florida State, you were drafted with the 4th pick by the Celtics. How do you recall the draft itself?
Well, there was pretty much zero media coverage of the draft; I don’t remember anyone contact me from local press. It was low-key. At that time, there were two leagues, ABA, and NBA. Both leagues were holding drafts for players. Also, lawyers and agents could not contact players directly. They would have their friends contact different players they wanted to represent. I found out basically from someone who had heard about it. That was about it; it wasn’t a big deal. Once it was announced, the team that drafted you, would contact you – in my case the Boston Celtics.
Did you feel lot of pressure connected with having to fill in Bill Russell’s shoes?
I never felt any pressure at all to play up to the standard of another player. They thought I could help the team; I just wanted to play and compete, the rest of it was immaterial for me. The fun of playing the game, the challenge of playing against any competition was the most enjoyable part of being a basketball player. And to be able to do that on the professional level was even a greater test; but the one that I looked forward to and prepared to.
You won Rookie of the Year award over Hall of Famers like Pete Maravich, Bob Lanier, or Calvin Murphy. How important was this award for you?
I think our draft class has more Hall of Famers than any other class now that Rudy Tomjanovich has come in as a coach. It’s really about the competition. I was pleased; it was an honor to be Rookie of the Year because the award was voted on by my peers and the coaches, I believe. That was a nice honor, for sure.
How much were you able to learn from coach Heinsohn, who played as a power forward?
This whole idea of being undersized – I don’t think it really matters that much. People like to use that as a talking point, but it really is not a very much consequence. Size is only one factor, when it comes to being an athlete. We have seen very small or big quarter backs doing well in football. Tommy Heinsohn – the best thing he did for me was give me the minutes to play, so I could learn the game and go up against other players. That’s what you really learn from, not so much the coaches. The coaches teach you in controlled environment. Sit down, work on form, they set up different things. But you really learn the game by playing against other players.
Becoming an All-Star
In your second year you started a series of seven straight All-Star game appearances. What was the key to combine high level of play and avoiding injuries?
You don’t worry about injuries; they are going to happen, it’s a high-volume game. There is a lot of jumping, you can sprain ankle coming down. For the most part, you are young, you shouldn’t be getting hurt. Conditioning and preparation play a big part in that. I think the other coaches knew that I could follow instructions, play with good attitude. Share the ball, do everything they would like me to do to help them be successful. I wanted to be a good enough player so the coach would never have a reason to take me out of the game.
From 1972 to 1974 you faced the New York Knicks in the playoffs. How do you recall this rivalry and your victory in 1974?
We lost to them the year before, when Havlicek dislocated his shoulder. We went to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals with them. But we thought that we had a better team that year, and in 1974. They were very similar to us – size and skill at every position, depth. It was a really good matchup. Usually, with most games it comes down to which team is able to make a good run, get some points, hold the other team without scoring.
In 1973 you won the NBA MVP award. What did you feel when you got the news, that out of all the greats of the league, players voted for you?
I founded out after the game, in the locker room. I felt honored, but somewhat surprised, because Kareem was the guy that was winning the award all the time. So, I was a little bit surprised it happened, but it’s a good thing.
Most players on that Celtics team were great defenders, and good offensive players at the same time – such as yourself, Havlicek, Don Chaney, Silas. Why in your opinion most people underappreciate players who mostly played defense?
Well, there is not many statistics involving defense. Coaches talk about deflections and contest, but they are not in the statistics, not much attention is paid to it. Those are the things that you need to dig a little deeper to find out what contribution a player makes to the success of the team as a defender. There is not many analytics, not many stats – it’s a different way of looking at the game.
In the 1976 playoffs you faced the Cavaliers and Nate Thurmond. Do you think that he is one of the most underrated defenders of all-time?
I think he was not underrated at all. Everybody knew exactly what he was able to do. Kareem often talks about him being one of the best defenders he has ever played against. When a dominant player mentions your name as a great defender, everybody else knows it as well.
You reached the Finals in 1976 and won 4-2 against the Suns. Even though this series was shorter than the 1974 Finals, it doesn’t seem that it was much easier.
Well, we won in six, the other one in seven. They were kind of an upset-minded team. They were not supposed to beat the Golden State Warriors to advance, but they did. A lot of guys on their side rose to the occasion, as well as ours, to make it a memorable series.
Player-coach and Larry Bird
In the 1978-79 season you had to become a player-coach, the last in league’s history. Can you describe how difficult it is to manage all the things on and off the court at the same time?
The actual game management is difficult when you are playing because coaches are thinking about many different things that players aren’t. To do both at the same time is really difficult, and it doesn’t work. As a coach, you have to deal with a lot of stuff off the court, with the locker room, preparation, practice planning. I was lucky to have Bob McKinnon and K.C. Jones as assistants. K.C. probably should have been our head coach at that time, but he had just got on our staff through Tom Sanders, who was dismissed after fourteen games.
They asked me if I can do it, and I said yes. We were 2-12 at that time, and I thought that if they bring in another coach, we will never win any games. I did it to help salvage the season. It was a challenge, but it doesn’t work. It doesn’t make any sense to do it.
During your last year with the Celtics, you played with Larry Bird. Did you think that he would be that good immediately?
You knew right away as a player that this guy had all the ingredients to be an outstanding player. His approach to the game, practice, effort, preparation, skills that he had as a big guy, who could handle the ball, pass, and make good decisions. He really cared and was dedicated to being a great player, and that’s what he became.
Bucks and coaching
After two years of retirement, you came back to the Milwaukee Bucks, and played for your teammate Don Nelson. How do you recall being a veteran on that team?
That was a veteran team. Marques Johnson, Brian Winters, Sidney Moncrief, Harvey Catchings, Lanier, Steve Mix. And that particular team, when they played the Celtics in the playoffs, that same Celtics with Bird, McHale, Parish and all those guys, Bucks swept them. You never hear anybody talk about that. It’s always about how good the Celtics were, but you have to think how that Milwaukee Bucks team swept the great Boston Celtics. And I didn’t play in the series, my knee was hurt. It was a great team, but lost to the Sixers, who then beat the Lakers.
In 1994 you joined the Spurs as an assistant head coach. How much did it help you prepare for the head coach role?
Well, having been a head coach as a player, I knew a bit what was going on. But in terms of tuning my coaching skills, such as breaking game film down, which now was involved. It was enjoyable. I got to play under first-year general manager Popovich, he hired me along with Paul Pressey and Hank Egan, and Bob Hill as the head coach. We had a really good team, another veteran team, and we did pretty good.
As a head coach of the Hornets, you set the franchise record for most wins in a season with 54 and tied the best result with Conference Semifinals appearance. How much does it mean to you that in a short time span, you achieved quite a lot with this team?
Just proves that anyone can be a head coach if you have a good talent. I wouldn’t say that I was a great coach, but I worked at it. I tried to get my players to spots that were going to help them be successful. We had a good, well-rounded team. We had Vlade Divac, Matt Geiger as our centers, Anthony Mason as a power forward. Dell Curry and Glen Rice, Muggsy Bogues, and guys like that, who were great shooters. We tried to maximize our output.
Your star player was Glen Rice. How much do you think he would thrive in today’s game, which is more focused on 3-point shooting?
They would be just as productive today, as they were then, maybe more so in terms of scoring.