A White Center is the pro basketball term for a specific sort of very tall man. He isn't nimble. He isn't quick. He can't jump over a candlestick. Besides, he is likely to be heavy in the rear, slow afoot and better at blocking hats than shots. Over the past 15 years virtually all Caucasian pivotmen have fallen into this category, even though the phrase has lost its racial connotation and has been applied to a few big black men as well. What still pertains is the fact that since 1958 nobody has won a championship with a White Center.
Dave Cowens' skin is fair, pasty when he relaxes, medium rare during the long spells of hyperactivity that mark his style. His eyes are pale, nearly blank in contrast to the vivid red of his long wavy hair. Cowens is nimble, he is quick, he can jump over candelabra and maybe the moon. He plays center for the Boston Celtics, who will enter the NBA playoffs this week with the league's best record. The Celts are favored to win their first championship in four years—and their 12th in the last 17—largely because 24-year-old Dave Cowens is the first great white Black Center.
Cowens is also the first of the super-rich young players who owns a four-wheel-drive wagon instead of a car; the first of the All-Star pivotmen to wear suspenders; the first of the bigtime basketball bachelors who has purchased neither silk sheets, a fur coverlet nor a Magic Fingers. He has, it turns out, neglected to buy a bed. To Cowens' way of thinking, if you've got it, hide it, save it, stash it in the attic or invest it in a cat-fish farm in British Honduras.
In fact, if Cowens had his choice, nobody would notice him do anything except play basketball, and he would prefer to do that in anonymity, wearing a numberless uniform and keeping no statistics other than the score. The major flaw in this notion is that he plays his position so distinctively that fans would know it was Cowens even if he wore a mask and a purple tutu Taglioni.
April 2, 1973
The best of the other pivotmen create an impression of grace, in part because of their practiced smoothness but also because they pace themselves. By contrast, Cowens is an unguided missile, a runaway freight. During any given game he is apt to run more baseline-to-baseline sprints, take part in more fast breaks, guard more outside shooters, dive for more loose balls and trample over more opponents, teammates, referees, ball boys, front-row spectators, scorekeepers, sportswriters and sundry pieces of courtside furniture than some centers do in their entire careers.
That Cowens has yet to impale himself on a basket stanchion or gore himself on a TV camera or keel over from exhaustion remains something of a marvel to the men he plays against. They often liken him to teammate John Havlicek, long the NBA's most irrepressible runner and a candidate for this year's Most Valuable Player Award, which Cowens deserves to win. While Havlicek drives a sinewy 6'5" body, Cowens is trucking a 6'8½", 230-pound frame. Havlicek is a step faster and a better shooter, but less imposing when it comes to bashing heads at top speed. And physical punishment at high speed and high altitude is the essence of Cowens' style.
"I feel less talented than a lot of the guys I play against," Cowens says, "and I know that most of them are a lot taller. But I can run the 100-yard dash with anyone in the league. To be effective, I've got to use my speed all the time. I've got to force the bigger guys out of their usual patterns and into mine by making them afraid that I'll run away from them and score easy baskets. They seem very conscious of my speed now. They're chasing me harder all the time. I started running because I didn't want them to embarrass me, and now they're running so I won't embarrass them.
"It's the same with my aggressiveness. It's the only way I can play because if I don't fight for the positions I want, the big guys will eat me up. It's absolutely necessary that I box out on every play, even if it means I might not have a chance for the rebound. By keeping my own man off the board, I know I've increased the odds that one of our other guys, like Paul Silas or Don Chaney, will get the ball.
"The times I go really hard after the ball are when I know we must have it. It's my job to get it then. I don't worry about injuries. I'm the one going a little bit nutty out there. I don't get hit because I'm doing the hitting."
Celtic Coach Tom Heinsohn believes Cowens may revolutionize the pro game as much as Boston's other dominant center, Bill Russell, did in his time. While Russell took the territory within 10 feet of the basket away from opposing shooters, Cowens, not a shot blocker of Russell's caliber, has extended the center's area of play to the four corners of the court. He has brought speed to the one spot in the lineup where it always has been considered least necessary. Cowens can slip outside for his vastly improved jump shot or curl inside for a quick, left-handed hook. He can fill a lane in the fast break and yet is strong enough to rebound against anyone. He is able to participate in the full-court press and still effectively guard far taller men close to the basket. He helps Boston play the NBA's switchingest defense because he is capable of going man-on-man against the quickest outside shooters. During Cowens' first pro season his opponents felt that he would ultimately serve Boston best as a forward. Now most pros think he is the perfect center for the Celtics' fast-tempo style.
"He adds a different dimension to Boston's game," says Chicago's Norm Van Lier. "He has great defensive range on a horizontal rather than on a vertical plane. He'll meet me at the top of the key, spread those long arms and make it almost impossible to pass off without him getting a finger on the ball."
It is against the league's three best giant centers, Milwaukee's 7'2" Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Los Angeles' 7'1" Wilt Chamberlain and Golden State's 6'11" Nate Thurmond, that Cowens' edge in speed figures to be most drastically offset by his lack of height. Yet Boston is 9-3 against those teams this season, and only Abdul-Jabbar, whose Bucks have two of the wins, has decisively outscored and outrebounded Cowens in their games against each other. "He's the toughest man I've ever played against," says Thurmond. "By that I don't mean he's the best, just the toughest. He's a new breed of center who's proven that 6'9" is big enough in a given situation. In the Celtics' attack he's a near perfect replacement for Bill Russell."
As High Henry Finkel, Boston's 7-foot substitute center, likes to remind Cowens, it was he, not Dave, who actually replaced Russell after the team won the 1969 championship. The next season Boston posted its worst record in 20 years, finishing low enough in the standings to be able to draft Cowens from Florida State. Cowens had not been widely publicized during his college days, mostly because an NCAA probation for recruiting violations had barred the Seminoles from postseason tournaments: Much of what attention he did receive came in his senior year, when he was the only white man starting for FSU, a situation that made him the odd card on a team nicknamed "The Busted Flush." Nevertheless, he was considered an ace by pro scouts.
"He scared me to death the one time I scouted him," remembers Celt President Red Auerbach. "He was so good against Dayton that I kept hoping he'd make a mistake. There were half a dozen guys from other NBA clubs in the building, and I figured if they saw the same potential in Cowens I did, I was dead.
"My original estimate was he'd probably be a forward and part-time center. What changed my mind was his attitude. We could see right away in his first training camp that nobody was going to tell this kid he couldn't do something if he wanted to. Just to make sure we weren't wrong about playing him in the middle, I called Russell for a quick opinion. Russ told us to forget Dave's height and let him play where he wanted. 'You won't be sorry,' he said. 'No one's going to intimidate that kid.' "
Nobody has. During his first pro appearance, a benefit game before his rookie season, Cowens had 32 points and 22 rebounds against a team centered by Chamberlain. Boston's record moved back over .500 that year, with Cowens starting at center for all but the first three games and becoming co-Rookie of the Year. In 1971-72 the Celtics handily won the Atlantic Division and Cowens very nearly was named Most Valuable Player in the All-Star Game. He won that award this year and has averaged 20.6 points and 16 rebounds as the Celts' winning percentage has soared above .800.
Cowens' refusal to adjust his lifestyle to the pro norm has been as adamant as his adaptation to the pro playing style has been rapid. He cares plenty, about money—he earned a total of $300,000 his first three seasons and will negotiate a new contract this spring for what is likely to be an immense raise—but not much about the finer things of life as defined by most of his contemporaries in the NBA. It is as if Cowens has pulled the diverse parts of his personality equally out of Standard & Poor's and The Last Whole Earth Catalogue. And he has blended his financial conservatism so neatly with his free-spiritedness that it is almost impossible to figure where one begins and the other ends.
While other young players might drive customized Eldorados with fur dashboards, Cowens motors about in a mud-splattered rented Chevy. He recently ordered his own set of wheels, a vehicle halfway between a station wagon and a truck outfitted for off-the-road driving. From Cowens' point of view it is a good buy on two counts. It costs less than a Cadillac and will take him where he wants to go: over hill, down dale and into the woods.
His clothes do not include leather overcoats in the style of the German General Staff, custom-tailored shirts or $100 boots hand-tooled by Italian elves. Indeed, there is conjecture among Cowens' teammates as to whether his entire wardrobe cost $100, since it apparently consists of one pair of brown corduroy trousers, a few plaid shirts, a suit with the narrowest lapels since Joe Friday and, of late, several pairs of old-fashioned suspenders, the kind with chromed alligator clasps on the ends.
"Belts bother me," Cowens says. "When you sit down to eat, you've always got to loosen 'em. Besides, the suspenders look a little wild, and I like that."
Wearing them is perhaps the only thing Cowens admits to doing even partially for effect. Normally he rejects ostentation, just as he seriously questions whether anyone, particularly a young athlete, should be the object of hero worship.
"I enjoy playing basketball, I work hard at it and there's one thing I hope to get out of it: a good, permanent income when I'm finished," he said one recent morning sitting in his tiny unlit living room, sipping a cup of breakfast tea. "That'll allow me to do the things I want to—and they're mostly simple things—without having to worry about money.
"But I don't want prestige or fame from basketball. I feel that's wrong. It's not an important occupation. And besides, I think people should be admired for what they are, not what they do.
"That's why I think it's foolish for people to ask me for my autograph. My lousy signature is meaningless unless you really know me and decide I'm an admirable person. It's not a good thing for little kids to think that I'm such hot stuff because I'm a basketball player that they should crowd around and beg me to sign a piece of paper.
"It's the same when people want to do articles on me. I get embarrassed. I think of my old buddies back home and my parents and my uncles, and I wonder if they aren't better people than I am, if the articles shouldn't be done on them instead. But in this business, if you don't sit still for interviews or sign a lot of autographs, you're in the dog-house."
Cowens has given out enough autographs and talked patiently with enough reporters to indicate that he is motivated more by a sense of civility on those occasions than by fear of joining the Boston kennel club. Still, partly by accident and partly by design, he has become something of a self-proclaimed loner in and around Boston. He is the Celts' only bachelor, and that tends to limit his off-court associations with his teammates to road trips. He has chosen to live outside the city because it is cheaper, because he prefers open space, because he values privacy.
From Memorial Day until Labor Day, the little white clapboard bungalow adjacent to the swimming pool on Phyllis and Richard Gold's suburban estate in Weston serves as a bathhouse. Three years ago Mrs. Gold decided that the addition of a stove, a heater and a stall shower would make the cabin a suitable winter residence for a professor from one of the local colleges. The alterations were made and the building was offered for rent to faculty members on bulletin boards at Harvard and Brandeis. Cowens, who had been drafted a few months before and was working to complete his degree in criminology by doing research for a Harvard professor, saw the listing and called. Philly received an immediate lesson in the Cowens' conversational method: narrow-gauged questions and telegraphic answers.
"You got a house to rent?" asked the caller.
"Yes," said Philly.
"Can I look?"
"Yes, but who are you? A student?"
"What are you, then?"
"I play basketball."
"Oh, that's nice. We have a net right out here in the driveway. Do you think you could tell me whom you play basketball for?"
"You mean you're a Celtic!"
"I had been a great fan when Bob Cousy was with the team," says Philly, "but we hadn't paid much attention to the Celtics since he left. Neither Richard nor I knew who Dave Cowens was. Anyway, I told him to come over. A little later this big, gorgeous redhead was standing at my door."
Even though it is no larger than Wilt Chamberlain's foyer, the pool house turned out to be exactly what Cowens wanted. He agreed to the princely rent of $185 a month (furnished) and promptly dived in for a swim with Philly and her children.
"I called Richard and told him, "We rented the house,' " remembers Philly.
"He said, To whom?'
" 'A Celtic!' I answered.
"Then Richard asked, 'Does he have a no-cut contract?' "
The Golds, who are warm and rather intellectual people, have become Cowens' best friends in Boston. Their three teen-age kids tease him just as they do each other and Cowens invades the Golds' dining room whenever he grows tired of his own cooking. Richard, a lawyer-businessman, has become Cowens' financial adviser. Among Cowens' investments are two apartment houses in Baltimore he purchased so that his brother Wayne could manage them and earn a salary that would help pay his way through Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Another investment is a share of a catfish farm in British Honduras that Richard Gold claims will be a big winner once the lady catfish can be persuaded to get on with the spawning.
Along one wall of the combination living room-dining room-bedroom-study of Cowens' house is a convertible sofa that is his only upholstered chair and his bed. Across from it is a cabinet he put together for his four-component stereo set, a rig he bought after signing with the Celtics. He describes it as "my only fling." The cabinet is well stocked with records, but Cowens has recently been listening to the music of only four men: Charlie McCoy, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Ludwig van Beethoven.
Strewn on the floor next to the only good piece of furniture he owns, a reproduction of an antique secretary, are toolboxes, books ranging from novels to instruction manuals to telephone directories, a typewriter, a set of fireplace tools and a carton of letters. Cowens never throws out anything, including his fan mail. There are other boxes of it in the attic of the pool house, along with about 70 sneakers he has received from shoe manufacturers. That would normally add up to 35 pairs, except that Cowens wears a size 15 right shoe and a size 16 left. The extras are, of course, evenly divided between 16 rights and 15 lefts. "I've given some of the leftovers to the Salvation Army," he says. "I told them, 'I hope you have some poor people with big feet.' "
The accumulation of objects is slight compared to the random tidbits of knowledge Cowens has acquired since joining the Celts. In the past three years, either by taking courses, signing up for lessons or otherwise just plunging headfirst into an area of interest, he has had brushes with vegetable gardening, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the effects of technology, the preparation of homemade soup, the Old Testament, archery, the electric chair, the reasons why people are cruel to animals, insurance, Arctic fishing, the bass violin, marketing and auto repair.
The last of these proved too much for his employers. A year and a half ago Cowens enrolled in a full-time mechanic's course at an ITT technical school, thinking it would be useful to have a second occupation. Since the team's road schedule forced him to miss many classes, he spent most of his off-hours in Boston at school making up for lost time. He regularly arrived at games and practices with grease splatters on his clothes and nicks on his hands from working on the 12-year-old, $50 Plymouth he had bought to perform his homework on. Heinsohn and Auerbach began to get the uneasy feeling that Cowens was paying too much attention to ITT and too little to the NBA. At their behest he dropped the course. The Plymouth went to a fire department, which uses it to practice extracting people from wrecks.
Cowens' current interest is house construction, and for light reading on a recent trip he took along a copy of How to Build and Contract Your Own Home. He plans to do precisely that this summer if his parents can locate a suitable piece of farmland near his hometown of Newport, Ky., and if he can round up his old buddies to help him.
The project is enticing to Cowens because he considers buildings, like farming and auto repair, a possible occupation after he quits basketball. It will also allow him to inexpensively move his mother and father, a barber who became a loan company manager with the advent of long hair, into a new custom-built house. And, best of all, it will bring him together with his oldest and best friends.
The "old buddies" are primarily a group of high school mates who work in jobs considerably less glamorous than Dave's. "I guess one or two of them are what you'd call unemployed," says Cowens. "But we don't talk much about what we do. Mostly we get together to tinker with cars or help a guy fix up his summer place. And drink beer some and talk about the good times."
Just as his basketball style requires unrestrained toughness, good times to Cowens occasionally take on a rough edge. One pastime he brought to the Celtics is called Butting Heads, a sport in which the contestants bonk their foreheads together until one of them gives up. "Cowens invented the game, and he's the champion," says Forward Don Nelson. "I can outbutt everyone but him. Dave's got one hard head. The other guys don't like to play much anymore, but sometimes we force 'em to."
Cowens, who admits to a quick temper, has at least once bopped people with things other than his head. In the summer of 1971 he was charged with slugging an FSU student outside a college hangout, and was assessed a $35 fine for assault and battery. "I suppose I should plead guilty because I hit the fellow," Cowens told the judge. This year he was sued for $1 million for allegedly striking a Cleveland bartender after a few beers and ouzos, and pulling out some of the man's hair. His teammates say the incident never occurred.
Cowens' highly emotional behavior has left many of his NBA rivals pulling their own hair. As Los Angeles General Manager Pete Newell says, "His most striking characteristic is that inner drive that allows him to exert all the talent he possesses on every play."
It is his reliance on this intensity that makes Cowens a miserable player in practice, where he has nothing to prove. At a recent session, while some of his teammates were scrimmaging and others were sharpening their shooting, Cowens was wandering around at midcourt attempting to throw chest passes over the scoreboard. In games, however, his psyche is in a violent world of its own. "You can hardly talk to him then," says Heinsohn. "I'm up to here during a game, but he's about two times higher. Sometimes I speak right at him during a time-out, and I know he's trying to listen, but he just doesn't hear."
Admits Cowens, "I've learned that every time we get up from the bench to resume the game to ask Havlicek what play we're going to run."
Cowens' emotional fuse blew during last year's playoff's against New York. The Celtics lost that series 4-1, and Cowens played well only in the victory. Heinsohn says he was simply "too high," and Cowens, taking more of the blame than he deserves, feels Boston failed because of his inexperience and overemotionality.
It is quite possible that the Celtics will meet the Knicks again in the next few weeks. Cowens now feels he knows how to react to the playoffs, how to control his emotional peaks. If so, this could be the final step in the Celtic rebirth, one that would result in another green-and-white championship banner being added to the 11 already hanging from the rafters of Boston Garden. For Dave Cowens, a white center but no White Center, the pros may have to invent a whole new category.