Dave Cowens is discovered in a toy store in Wellesley, Mass., above which he has his bachelor apartment. A few good friends are with him and he is wearing a huge grin. He does not look depressed, drawn, tortured or ill in any way. What he looks like is a kid who has just finished his last day of school. "I'm doing fine," he chortles. "I just don't understand why everybody is making such a big thing out of this. I'm just a guy who quit his job."
Why, indeed, would anyone want to make a big thing out of that, even if the job he quit was worth $280,000 a year, and even if at 28 years of age he was one of the very best basketball players going and the key man on the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics? And why should it be so noteworthy that he decided to leave his team, out of what seemed a clear blue sky, nine games into the new season, not because he wanted to renegotiate his contract, or because he was mad at anyone—teammate, coach, general manager or owner?
Cowens does not see what he did last week in apocalyptic terms. In his view, he has merely left basketball for the time being, taking an unprecedented, unpaid leave of absence. He is going back to his home in Kentucky. He says he believes he will return to basketball, but he does not know just when. "Probably not this year. I've got a lot of thinking to do."
In the toy store he talked about why he decided to take the time off.
November 22, 1976
"I just lost my enthusiasm for the game. That's all I can say. This wasn't something sudden for me, I'd been thinking about it for three months. I even thought seriously about quitting before the season started, but I figured, aw, I'd try it and see how it was. And then I just didn't have it. Nothing. When somebody drives right by you and you shrug your shoulders and say, 'Aw, what the hell,' when you go down and make a basket like a robot, when you win or lose a ball game and it doesn't matter either way, when you can't even get mad at the refs, then something's wrong. I couldn't do anything about it. When there's nothing left, there's no use making believe there is. I don't want to spoil the Celtics and I don't want to take their money if I'm not earning it. I just quit my job, that's all. What's wrong with that? Other guys do it every day. Nobody makes a big thing out of them."
But when the Celtics announced last Wednesday that Cowens had left the team for an "indefinite" period, it did become a very big thing. And before Cowens chose to explain what he was up to, rumors and speculations of every sort arose. First, it was guessed that he might be seriously ill. A spokesman for the Celtics said that he was 15 pounds underweight and that blood tests had been taken. (Cowens laughs and says that he weighs 235, as much as ever, and feels fine; that the blood tests were routine for all team members.)
It was then suggested that Cowens was distraught because he had lost money on the several basketball camps he ran last summer. (Cowens' business manager said the idea was ridiculous: Why would a man quit a $280,000 job if he had money problems?)
Other stories seemed to have some grains of truth. It is known that Cowens does not get along with Coach Tom Heinsohn, a loud and abrasive man at court-side. Cowens is also known to have been unhappy with the drastic turnover of Celtic personnel. He misses his old friends Don Nelson, Hank Finkel, Paul Westphal, Don Chaney and especially Paul Silas, who was traded to Denver this year after a bitter contract dispute. And some of Cowens' friends say that he was extremely tired after personally directing his summer camps, beginning the day after the playoffs ended last June. He was able to spend only two weeks at home in Kentucky all summer and had dreaded the opening of training camp.
"All that stuff is ridiculous," says Cowens, patiently. "Nobody and nothing had anything to do with this. It's me. That's all."
But nonetheless, it is true that without Silas, Cowens has had to work much harder around the basket this season. He seemed to be tiring earlier than usual and committing more fouls. He was disqualified three times in Boston's first eight games, including the last two he played in. Not at all like Cowens.
Cowens is an emotional man and had dropped hints earlier that he was thinking of quitting—in fact, a few years ago Cowens had a clause written into his contract allowing him to take an unpaid leave of absence. "Once or twice he'd bring up the idea, but we just thought he was kidding," said his mother, Ruth Cowens, back in Kentucky. So neither she nor Cowens' father nor any of his closest friends were prepared for Wednesday's news. After the shock had worn off, however, many of those who knew Cowens well admitted that they should have seen what was coming. Richard Gold, a Boston attorney who is Cowens' close friend and business manager, said, "You know, I knew there was something wrong with Dave on opening night in Indiana. He fouled out and just walked straight to the bench and sat down. He had no fight."
A week ago Saturday, after Boston had been beaten by Washington for the second night in a row—the Celtics' fourth consecutive loss—Cowens decided that he had had it. He wanted to tell General Manager Red Auerbach on Monday, but Auerbach was leaving town and put him off a day.
"I just thought it was about some nothing," says Auerbach. "Dave came in Tuesday morning and said, 'You know. Red, I'm just not playing the way I can play and like to play.' " Auerbach assured Cowens that he was still playing well enough to suit him and Heinsohn. "Dave said, 'No. I just want to get away.' I was stunned. What could I say? I've had other guys come to me and say that the fun had gone out of it, but that usually happens when they're 33 or 34. Dave's such a fine kid. I didn't try to use my personality on him in any way. I understand him. He made it very clear that he was unhappy playing, and after that I never said another word to dissuade him."
Cowens called his parents that night but could not bring himself to tell them what he had decided. Instead, he inquired after the health of a friend who lives down the road from the Cowenses' 30-acre farm in Cold Spring, and had been injured in an automobile accident.
He called his parents again the next night and told them he was no longer playing. "My first thought was his health," says Ruth Cowens. "I thought heart condition or something. But he said, 'Mom, I'm fine. I'm not sick.' I didn't care about the rest. My husband and I felt we didn't have much more to say about it. The decision was Dave's own, which is fine, because whatever comes of it will be of his own making."
On Wednesday, Cowens had told his teammates what he was going to do and that night, after the Celtics had beaten the Lakers in their first game without him, he entertained ex-teammates Finkel, Nelson and Satch Sanders above the toy store. "We just drank beer and reminisced," says Finkel. No one mentioned his quitting.
On Thursday, Cowens was so giddy that in his first interviews he was quoted in Friday's papers as saying, "I might even take in a few Celtic games." That night Boston Garden was teeming with reporters and paparazzi waiting to descend on him, but Cowens did not show. Friends had pointed out to him that he might not be able to enjoy much privacy there.
The rest of the Celtics, even the newest of them—Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe—knew better than to criticize Cowens for his decision. He led Boston to two world championships in his six years, was the league's MVP in 1973 and founded a new school of NBA centers. They understand that Cowens cannot tolerate players who are not giving their best efforts all the time, and that he would be the last man to play at less than full speed. Tim Barrow, one of Cowens' closest back-home buddies who played with him at Newport (Ky.) Catholic High and at Florida State, said, "If anybody on the Celtics ever had to tell him, 'Dave, you're not getting the job done,' it would kill him." So when Cowens made the decision, his teammates were sympathetic. "I don't have to know what his reasons are," says John Havlicek, "but I know they are good ones." So does Heinsohn, who is simply resigned to playing other people at center as long as Cowens stays away. "What are you going to say?" asks Heinsohn.
Barrow, who plans to meet Cowens the minute he rolls into Cold Spring, could tell Heinsohn something about his absent star. "Dave is such an unusual guy," Barrow says. "He always hated to be treated differently just because he was a basketball player. People forget that basketball players are human beings, and money is not a basic human need." Butch Martin, who lives in Newport and is Cowens' oldest friend, says, "Dave's just tired of his job. You ever get tired of your job? Sure you do, and you just crawl back into bed and take a day off. Dave's just taking some days off." And Ruth Cowens says, "Dave always used to say that being a basketball player was just a job to him, a job that he loved, but a job just the same. Like if he was selling Kirby sweepers."
Cowens was supposed to make a lucrative TV commercial this week but canceled it. He was going to load up his school-bus-yellow GMC Sierra van and head to Kentucky to be with the folks and drink beer and play pinochle with his old high school buddies. He will keep in shape clearing land, moving rocks and harvesting the Christmas trees the Cowenses grow. He will play a little basketball on the court he built for his 13-year-old twin brothers, Tom and Jerry. He has even promised to do some work as a sales representative around home for his friend who owns the toy store back in Wellesley. But his eyes really twinkle when he talks about "being home for the holidays—I'm really looking forward to that."
Downstairs in the toy store, smiling, surrounded by friends who believe in him, Cowens leans against the wall, hands in his pockets. "I know I'm doing the right thing and something good will come of it," he says. "I'm just going to take it easy, think it all over. Maybe I'll be back, I just don't know. Right now, everybody that matters to me understands. And that's all that counts."