It was 6:30 on Friday evening when Dave Cowens' train pulled into North Station. It had been a harrowing ride for him amongst throngs of people on their way to Boston Garden specifically to watch his return to the Celtics after an absence of 65 days. Cowens' fellow passengers were not hostile. They yelled encouragement to him, told him they were glad he had returned, clapped him on the back, asked for his autograph. But all the attention made Cowens uneasy. He had taken the train in from his apartment in Wellesley because more snow was forecast, and now, at this critical time for him, he was already half an hour late for a game against the Portland Trail Blazers.
In the Celtic dressing room the rest of the players were suited up and sitting in front of their stalls. A fresh uniform hung in Cowens' locker and a pair of his Japanese-made Tiger shoes were on the floor. The Celtics were tense. Coach Tom Heinsohn was twisting his thumbs nervously through his belt loops. It had been this way in the Celtic locker room for most of the season. There had been contract bitterness with John Havlicek and Paul Silas. Then Silas was gone, traded away, and new players arrived, Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks. Then, on Nov. 10, after a 4-4 start, Cowens stunned everybody by saying he was quitting his job, leaving the team and his $280,000 salary. Finally, two days earlier, premier Guard Charlie Scott had broken his arm and was lost for perhaps the rest of the season. But tonight, at least, Cowens was coming back.
Now it was 6:35, and still no Cowens. Someone told Heinsohn to smile. His eyes widened, his nostrils flared and he bellowed a long, loud humorless laugh. "My funny bone's been tested enough this year," he said.
Havlicek, three months shy of 37 and suddenly a starting guard, tried to break the tension. "Well, everybody wants to know what's going to happen next," he was saying. "Here it is: a paramilitary unit in Burma hard pressed for money comes to the Garden and holds all the players and fans for ransom—the players for their salaries, the fans for twice the face value of their tickets...."
January 24, 1977
At 6:37 the door was flung open and in blew Cowens. Heinsohn let out his breath. "Man," said Jim Ard, who had helped fill in at center in Cowens' absence, "they said you were everywhere but New Mexico."
Not playing for two months never did go quite the way Cowens had envisioned it. He spent some nice days over Christmas with the family on the farm in Cold Spring, Ky., worked out a bit, shot a few baskets, sold about 1,000 Christmas trees and put 6,000 miles on his van during leisurely pleasure-and-business trips between Florida, Kentucky, Boston, Houston, Philadelphia and New York. But he found that he did not stop being a celebrity simply because he was no longer playing. He was constantly asked by reporters why he left the game and when he would return. Cowens never understood why the questions never ended or why so many people seemed to care.
During the second week in December, Pres Hobson, general manager of the New England Harness Raceway in Foxboro, Mass., arranged through one of Dave's friends to discuss with Cowens the possibility of Cowens taking a job at the track. Hobson had known for some time of Cowens' interest in harness racing, that Cowens had owned a trotter and that he had been thinking of investing in a breeding farm. The track (then known as Baystate Raceway) had been purchased the previous week—50% by a partnership of Edward J. Keelan and Dr. Thomas Carney, who own dog tracks in New England and Florida, and 50% by a group headed by Eddie Andelman, a real-estate developer known in Boston for his weekly radio talk show, SPORTS HUDDLE. A few months earlier Keelan, and Carney had also bought Midwest Raceway in Henderson, Ky., about 30 miles from Cowens' home. The two tracks run meets in alternate three-month periods, and Hobson is also general manager at Midwest.
Hobson insisted that Cowens' natural connections to the two tracks—via the Celtics and his Kentucky home—were merely happy accidents. "I wanted a nice young person with unquestioned integrity and an interest in the business to take some of the load off me," he said. "I told him this was absolutely not a stunt for publicity, that he would have to work hard and learn to do all the things I do." Hobson offered Cowens the position of assistant general manager at both tracks, at a salary of $12,500 at each. "What we would pay anyone who was just learning the job," he said.
What Hobson hadn't mentioned to Cowens was that Keelan and Carney were regarded as carpetbaggers by the folks in Kentucky, and that Keelan had awakened one morning with the stupendous idea of eventually installing Cowens as president of Midwest.
Cowens told Hobson he would let him know about the job after Christmas and headed to Kentucky, feeling renewed by the job offer. But he was back in Boston a week later, this time to attend the Celtics-Milwaukee Bucks game on Dec. 15, the night the Celtics were to retire the No. 19 worn by Cowens' close friend Don Nelson, now the Bucks' coach. Cowens thought he could slip into the Garden unnoticed. Instead, he was assaulted by photographers and reporters and pretty much turned Nelson's night into a fiasco.
After the game, reporters mined the Celtics' dressing room for "gut reactions" to Cowens' appearance. The next morning's Globe carried a photograph of Cowens and a woman misidentified as his secretary. A box next to the photograph contained some "gut reactions." Jo Jo White: "What's he doing hanging around?" John Havlicek: "We've got too many things to worry about in the game without worrying about where he is."
Cowens, deeply disturbed at the Celtic reactions, called Larry Whiteside, the Globe reporter who wrote the story, and said, "I didn't mean for it to happen this way. I know the guys don't mean it. But I can understand them being upset.... I certainly didn't want to ruin Nellie's night. All I wanted to do was see him honored and to be left alone."
Nonetheless, it was a running story for several days. Boston was down on Dave, believing he had indeed thumbed his nose at his teammates; for his part, Cowens made up his mind that he would not return to the Celtics this year. But he said that he would be back next season, with all his old enthusiasm. The day after Christmas he called Hobson and told him he would report for work at the track on Jan. 11.
Over New Year's, Cowens flew to California to visit friends at the same time the Celtics were making a West Coast swing. General Manager Red Auerbach tracked him down and asked him if they could get together with Celtic Owner Irv Levin in Oakland on Dec. 30. Cowens agreed. It was a friendly session. As he had been since Cowens made his decision to leave, Auerbach was benevolent, making sure that things were going well for Cowens. Auerbach said he had heard about the racetrack job, and asked Cowens if he was sure he wanted to take it. Cowens said he was. Auerbach urged him to think it over, stressing that he was not trying to pressure Cowens into anything, just wanted him to do the right thing.
Eleven days later Cowens spoke to Auerbach on the phone and mentioned that he was driving up to Boston from Philadelphia. Auerbach said he was going to be in New York on Monday, Jan. 10. Why didn't Dave stop off and have dinner with him there? Auerbach and Cowens went to dinner at the House of Chan along with Paul Sann, the executive editor of the New York Post and Auerbach's close friend. Again, there was no overt pressure put on Cowens, just some friendly chitchat from the benevolent general manager to the prodigal son. According to an account by Sann, Auerbach said to Cowens: "I never put any pressure on you, Dave, have I...? You belong in this game. You've always belonged in it.... You know, Dave, we just came off a four and five road trip. The guys are knocking themselves out. We're not a cinch for the playoffs—and I'm still not putting any pressure on you but I'll tell you something. You kiss off that silly track and show up and we'll make the playoffs and we'll have just as good a chance as anybody else of winning it all." No pressure at all.
Auerbach also pointed out to Cowens, who hadn't thought of it before, that working for the track during the basketball season would represent a conflict with the Celtics, that people might choose to go to the track rather than to the Garden. That concept struck a raw nerve in Cowens.
The next day, the 11th, Cowens showed up at Foxboro on schedule and talked to some reporters, interrupting his discussion to smile and shake hands warmly with racetrack employees coming by to meet him. He was explaining about the job: "Definitely not PR. I'm not trying to do anything shaky here. I'll be at a desk writing notes, or out in the paddock. Nobody would even know I was here if it hadn't gotten into the papers. I'm just here to learn things."
"But you're in the public eye," said a reporter.
"And I'll fight that till the day I die," said Cowens. "Even now, I stand here and compound it by talking to you. But there is no solution to it, unless I quit doing everything, never show my face, just go to a monastery. But then people would want to write about that."
"Then why go back at all?"
"Because if I didn't, I would be denying myself the privilege of doing what I do best."
"It's going to be worse when you come back."
"I know it. Listen, I believe I did the right thing. The worst thing in the world is to be confused. When I was confused I had to make a decision. What I did was selfish, but I couldn't think of any other way. I may look back five years from now and say, 'Boy, that was about the dumbest thing you've ever done.' "
Next morning Cowens picked up the papers and read a banner across the top of the Herald American: WHAT I DID WAS SELFISH—COWENS. A piece in the Globe quoted Auerbach as saying. "We've checked out many things, and Pres Hobson is a fine person and very honest. But I can't say the same for harness racing. There are scandals throughout the business, and I just don't think it's a proper atmosphere for Dave. And that's what I told him."
This final assault got to Cowens. "I wasn't too happy when I read that story in the Herald," he said. Cowens drove to Foxboro and told Hobson and Andelman that it might be best if he turned down the job. He was going back to talk to Auerbach.
Cowens walked into Auerbach's office and surrendered. He told Auerbach he would rejoin the Celtics immediately—practice Thursday and be in uniform Friday night for the game against Portland. Auerbach returned him to the active list and reinstated his salary, lightened by the estimated $102,000 his unpaid leave had cost him.
The Celtics also called a press conference at which Cowens delivered his one practiced line: "I came back because Jim Loscutoff and Bob Brannum told me to. They both wore No. 18 and they want it retired." Everyone laughed. Then Cowens said, "Everything gets distorted whether I'm playing or not playing. So I might as well play instead of always explaining why I'm not playing."
That night the Celtics faced the Indiana Pacers. Cowens stayed home in Wellesley, in his apartment above the toy store, running the events of the last 65 days through his mind, wondering if he'd done the right thing by agreeing to return. For all their troubles, the Celtics had managed to remain close behind Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division with Ard and Tommy Boswell as the centers. But 55 seconds into the Indiana game, Charlie Scott fell under the Boston basket and broke his left arm. The Celtics lost 112-101.
At the Garden on Friday night Cowens dressed quickly. He refused to have his ankles taped, and no one asked for reasons. He tried to be unobtrusive when the Celtics came onto the floor to warm up, but the sellout crowd of more than 15,000 gave him a big hand. A cameo appearance would have satisfied them. But when Ard picked up three fouls in the first 4½ minutes against the Trail Blazers, Heinsohn walked down the bench and pointed at Cowens. The ovation was the kind Garden fans reserve for things like seventh-game playoff victories and tearful retirements. It lasted for a full minute and when it was over Cowens got down once again to playing the game he loves. He had that look on his face that is not of this world. The fire was back. And so was Cowens.
After two months away from basketball, in 21 minutes against the Trail Blazers' Bill Walton he provided the Garden with everything that the return of Dave Cowens should have included: he went hard for the boards, triggered fast breaks, threw pinpoint passes, hurled his body for loose balls—winding up three rows into the stands once—led a 15-2 surge in a brilliant display of Celtic basketball at the end of the first half, forced Walton to shoot from behind the glass once and finally fouled out with nine seconds left after blocking two shots in a vain attempt at keeping the Blazers from increasing a 12-point lead to their final 107-92 margin.
With 50 newsmen crowding him into his dressing stall, Cowens pulled on his long Johns, then his clothes so quickly that he could hardly speak. Then he ran out into the snowy night to catch the train back to Wellesley.