Red Holzman and Dave Cowens. Two redheads. Together they would make the oddest couple—like George Burns and John Belushi. One is 58, the other 30. One is a stern old master, the other often acts like a latter-day Huckleberry Finn. But suddenly there was Holzman again kneeling on the sideline, clenching a rolled-up program, and there was Cowens motivating his teammates by example and by dictate.
First, in New York, Sonny Werblin, Madison Square Garden's boss of bosses, finally grew tired of the egotistical blunderings of Knick Coach Willis Reed, and gave Holzman another chance to teach the team's talented young zillionaires how to play winning basketball. Next, in Boston, venerable General Manager Red Auerbach, acting with equal parts desperation and calculation, axed gentlemanly Celtic Coach Satch Sanders and shocked everyone by turning the team over to Cowens, onetime leave taker, tree grower, taxi driver, race-track PR man, snow shoveler and all-round eccentric to "knock some bleeping heads" on the lethargic Celtics. And both redheads made their bosses look good.
If Cowens' appointment was stunning, Reed's dismissal and Holzman's return seemed almost inevitable, by comparison. Reed had had problems last year—his rookie year as a coach—in communicating with Knick nonconformists like Bob McAdoo, Spencer Haywood and rookie Ray Williams, but his deficiencies were excused because of his inexperience. Reed carried a chip on his shoulder, however, and after the season ended, he loudly reminded everyone that no team could be expected to win without a big center, such as he so conspicuously was in his glory days with the Knicks, and with all that money around, the Knicks just better get one—or else. Management accommodated him by acquiring Marvin Webster at great expense from Seattle. Reed also had another notion: that Earl Monroe, the veteran, magical guard, was nearly washed up. If he wouldn't take a $175,000 pay cut and sit as fourth guard, who needed him? The Pearl figured he didn't need the Knicks under those terms and remained unsigned.
When New York got off to a 6-8 start this season playing the same helter-skelter, no-defense ball that had characterized it last year, Reed's job was in jeopardy. Moreover, in the midst of a lackluster West Coast road trip, Reed publicly blamed management for not signing Monroe, and he demanded—through the newspapers—a vote of confidence. That was the last straw.
November 27, 1978
"I thought, 'Here he goes again,' " said Werblin, who promptly fired Reed. "It's not because of his record," Werblin said. "It's this 'We and They Syndrome.' I told Willis maybe a dozen times that we were all in this together, that he could not play himself against management and do his talking through the papers."
Re-enter Holzman, who a year and a half earlier had been treated like so much excess baggage. Having spent 13 years establishing himself as one of basketball's best minds, Holzman was told by the Knicks that the game had passed him by. It was said that he didn't "relate" to the younger players. He was made a "consultant" and was never consulted. But in the crunch, ever the company man, Holzman took the job again. "When the company needs you, you come back," he said. And so, very shortly thereafter, did Monroe.
The Knicks then went out and won four straight under Holzman. In so doing they held their opponents to an average of 97.8 points a game; under Reed this season the average was 114.6. And, with so much raw talent in their forward line—McAdoo, Webster, Haywood and Toby Knight—plus a young and gifted backcourt of Williams, Jim Cleamons, rookie Michael Ray Richardson and the ever-wondrous Monroe, who is to say that Holzman won't be this year's Lenny Wilkens?
By a curious coincidence, Holzman's re-debut at Madison Square Garden two Saturdays ago was against the Celtics and thus witnessed by Auerbach and the Celtics' new co-owner, John Y. Brown. Boston's woeful performance that night and a 128-123 loss at home on Sunday to lowly Detroit left its record at 2-12, the worst start in Celtic history. Brown was at that one, too. Since Brown rarely attends Celtic games, his presence lent credence to the rumor of an imminent coaching change.
Sanders' problems had been intensified by a deal that Brown had negotiated without Auerbach's knowledge, bringing to Boston Tiny Archibald, Billy Knight and the perplexing Marvin Barnes, none of whom had ever played in anything resembling the Celtic system. Sanders was therefore forced to experiment; in the first 14 games he used eight different starting lineups involving 10 different players. To make room for Barnes, he moved Cowens from center to forward, where Cowens seemed to lose all his renowned intensity. In 30 minutes against the Knicks he had one rebound, and he had taken to doing most of his shooting from 20 feet. Archibald's style of play infuriated veteran Guard Jo Jo White, who wanted the ball, too. Meanwhile, Cedric (Cornbread) Maxwell, last year's outstanding rookie, was sharing playing time at small forward with Knight, who was recovering from knee surgery and had been a total disappointment.
After the Detroit loss, Brown and Auerbach huddled in Auerbach's office. The team had a six-game losing streak. Worse, attendance had sunk from 12,165 to 9,500 per game. Sanders would have to go. But who would replace him?
"I honestly had no idea," says Auerbach. "Where the hell do you get a coach now?" The last three Celtic coaches had all come from the "family," so speculation in the press ran toward John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, Laker GM Bill Sharman, Assistant Coach K. C. Jones or even—was it possible?—the 61-year-old Auerbach himself.
Then on Monday morning, Auerbach brought Cowens into the discussion. "When things on a team are going bad," says Auerbach, "you bring in your key guy. See what he's thinking."
At 6:45 that evening Auerbach called his assistant, Jeff Cohen. "His voice was as excited as I've ever heard it," says Cohen.
"Call the players. Change practice. Call a press conference for tomorrow," said Auerbach breathlessly. "Guess what I've done?"
Cohen's heart skipped several beats. "Red! You're making a comeback!"
"I'll give you a hit in the head. Now guess what I've done?"
Cohen couldn't guess.
"I just made Dave Cowens coach."
"Red used to be known for making the bold move," says Cohen. "Maybe we haven't done that the past couple of years. Maybe we became too much in the other teams' molds. After all, we are the Celtics. We used to have the feeling that we had this leprechaun sitting on the backboard, knocking away the other teams' shots and helping our own. Well, the last couple of years he's been working for the other team. We've got to get him back."
Cowens? A leprechaun? Over the years the man-child has had enough difficulty, it seemed, being responsible for himself. Had Red lost his senses? "With a record like ours you don't go around joking," says Auerbach. "Does anybody think I would joke around with the Celtics?" Not really.
This is how, on Nov. 13, 1978, David W. Cowens became the seventh coach in the 31st year of the Celtics.
"Red called me in to talk about the team with him and John Y.," says Cowens. "I told them exactly what I thought was wrong. What was wrong with our practices, our discipline, certain players, how we played certain teams, things that Satch ought to do and ought not to do. They didn't tell me he'd been fired."
"From the way you talk," Brown mused, "maybe you want to be the coach."
"Well, hell. Why would I want to coach?" said Cowens half to himself. Auerbach insists that Brown's line was pure throwaway, but as soon as it had been uttered, Cowens pounced on it.
"David's eyes lit up," said Brown later. "I could see he loved the idea."
"I noticed it too," said Auerbach. "His eyes were like pinwheels."
Cowens said to Auerbach, "When I came in here, you didn't intend to ask me to coach, did you?"
Auerbach nearly choked on his cigar. "No," he said. By this time Cowens had been told that Sanders was gone. He said he needed time to think the offer over and bolted from the office.
"I had never for a minute thought of Cowens as a coach," Auerbach said later. "He was the last guy. I always thought when his playing days were over he'd get in his truck and go cut down Christmas trees. But then I started thinking about his personality. He doesn't like losing one bit more than I do."
Some other positive thoughts came to Auerbach's mind. Cowens had run a successful basketball camp for seven years. Last April he married Debbie Cmaylo, a strong, intelligent woman with a master's degree in child psychology. He had given up his apartment above a Wellesley toy store and was now living in a conventional house in Needham. His discussion of the team had showed intelligence and concern.
"I know that anything he's ever put his mind to do, he's done," says Auerbach. "So I'm thinking, when I quit as coach I had to have somebody who could motivate Bill Russell, so I hired Bill Russell. Now I have to have somebody who can motivate Dave Cowens. Why not Dave Cowens?"
At 5 p.m. Cowens came back to see Auerbach and Brown.
"I'd rather play for me than for someone outside the organization," said Cowens.
Brown nodded at Auerbach. "Then you're the coach," said Auerbach.
The next day in his office, sucking on a cigar and clearly pleased with himself, Auerbach took another in an endless string of phone calls from his "old guys." Russell had called, and so had Cousy. Now he had Frank Ramsey on the line. "Yeah..." Auerbach was saying. "How about that?... Yeah, we've gotten a lot of publicity from it, a lot of ink. A lot of times attitudes can win more games than anything else.... He'll knock some bleeping heads off if he has to."
Meanwhile Coach Cowens was conducting his first practice in preparation for Friday night's game against Denver. There was no joking or goofing off—not with Cowens running and working harder than he had all season, and harder than anyone else. Jones and Bob MacKinnon, the assistant coaches, did their best to help, constantly looking at Cowens to be sure of not overstepping their authority. During lulls, Cowens would sprawl in a corner with selected players—Archibald, Barnes, Maxwell—to discuss their roles and listen to suggestions. After practice, Auerbach gave his protègè a 20-minute lecture on coaching.
"Put it in the paper that Dave Cowens has given Marvin Barnes blisters," said Barnes, now the backup center, because the coach was returning Cowens to his rightful center spot.
Arriving at the Garden two hours before game time on Friday, Cowens was all business. He diagramed some Denver plays on the locker-room blackboard, and scribbled a series of numbers down one side. "Secret code," he said. "Get these guys' minds working." He joked that he had spent the afternoon reading a "How to Coach" article in Jet magazine, but when it came time to start the game he said, "Let's just go out and play hard tonight, bust some butts." And that was it.
For one night, it was like watching the old Celtics winning a seventh playoff game. There were 14,636 people in Boston Garden, the largest crowd since opening night. In the first five minutes, Cowens totally unleashed himself for the first time all season, ripping down five rebounds, making two spectacular outlet passes for patented Celtic fast breaks, two baskets and a steal. Everybody picked up on his act and the Celtics blew out to a 71-60 halftime lead, expanding it to 98-78 near the end of the third quarter.
Once Cowens was chastised by Referee Darell Garretson for huddling his team at midcourt before a free throw—"Excuse me," said the coach—and at times he was trying to handle non-priority things like time-outs and substitutions while on the floor. Then MacKinnon and Jones gently reminded him that those were their responsibilities, as per Cowens' order.
In the fourth quarter, Denver began to close the gap, with David Thompson (33 points) and 5'11" Robert Smith doing the damage. Now the Celtics were running by committee, with everybody from Barnes to Maxwell to Knight to Trainer Frank Challant making panicky suggestions, and Cowens struggling to deal with them all. With 1:16 left, the Nuggets had closed to within two, 116-114. Forty-eight seconds later, with the Celtics up 120-116, Cowens fouled out after a 17-point, 12-rebound performance. He stomped to the bench, wrapped a towel tightly around his face and screamed obscenities, but unwrapped it in time to see his team hold on for a 120-118 win.
Player Cowens frequently couldn't face the press, he'd be so wound up after a game. But Coach Cowens endured a stifling crush in the coach's cubicle, giving coachlike answers to reporters' questions until the accumulated strain finally got to him and he nearly passed out. Later, sitting in front of his locker after everyone had left, he said, shaking his head, "Who ever would have thought it? Me, the coach."