Taking a shot at the Bucks

Former Celtic star Dave Cowens is making a comeback in Milwaukee
October 10, 1982

Who knows why Dave Cowens is returning to the NBA after a two-year retirement? Who knows why Cowens, the 6'8½", 228-pound center who was the NBA's MVP in 1973, is now in the Milwaukee Bucks' training camp instead of the Boston Celtics', his former team? Who knows? Well, certainly not Cowens. "I don't intend to go out and brag about my coming back," he says. "Honestly, I don't know why I am."

Nonetheless, for whatever reason, Cowens, being perhaps of sound mind and body, decided early this year to determine just how sound each was. That ultimately led to his return to the NBA last Saturday when he reported to the Bucks' training camp.

But until he pops in a lefthanded jump hook from the baseline or blocks a shot in the lane, and does it more than 30 games into the season, the jury will be out on whether the Bucks and Cowens, who's nearly 34 and for the last 17 months has been athletic director at Regis College in Weston, Mass., made the right choices. "I see it as fun and a challenge," Cowens says, "but I'm not interested in doing it part time. I don't want nagging injuries to bother me all the time."

"There's a real question as to how successful Dave can be in his comeback," says General Manager Jerry Colangelo of the Phoenix Suns, who almost signed Cowens. "But Dave Cowens is unique. If his mind is set to do it, he will."

Ah, yes, the famous Cowens on-court mind set, the crazed look, the nonstop intensity. And that mental toughness still seems to be there; over the nine months since Cowens decided to give the comeback a shot, he has run and lifted weights with such unyielding purpose that he arrived in Milwaukee in remarkably good shape. Although he weighs about the same as he did before his retirement, his body is tauter, his muscles tighter. "If nothing else, he'll look great in the team picture," says Bucks Coach Don Nelson.

The Bucks had more than a little beefcake in mind last month when they traded starting Point Guard Quinn Buckner, 28, to the Celtics for Cowens. In the past two years Milwaukee has fallen just short of overtaking Eastern Conference rivals Boston and Philadelphia. "We could beat them or anyone else on any given night," Nelson says, "but in a seven-game series they tended to wear us down. We weren't a powerful team. Bob Lanier, the most powerful guy we have, is too old [he's also 34, but his knees are 106] to be the muscleman anymore."

Yeah, fine, but if Cowens is so tough why isn't he pushing opponents around for the Celtics, for whom he toiled so zealously for 10 seasons? One reason is that Boston is well-stocked up front with Robert Parish, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Rick Robey, all of whom are as big as or bigger than Cowens. Another, although Cowens won't admit it directly, is that he didn't like playing for Celtic Coach Bill Fitch three years ago and found the prospect of doing so again less than inviting. Nelson is another story. He and Cowens were tight when they were teammates in Boston, where Cowens was the main cog and Nelson the wily forward on Celtic teams that won NBA titles in 1974 and 1976.

Besides, coming back to the NBA but not with Boston might have had special appeal to Cowens' iconoclastic soul. He has always gloried in the unconventional, whether it was living in a pool house or dressing in the cheapest clothes possible or taking a 65-day "leave of absence" during the 1976-77 season or driving a cab later that season.

If Cowens can make a successful comeback, then Nelson will have his powerful front line, with Lanier in the middle and Cowens and Marques Johnson at the forwards. But the price the Bucks had to pay—Buckner—may have been too high. Some Milwaukeeans, and more than one member of the Bucks, believe that Nelson traded the heart of the Bucks for a player who may turn out to be no more than an expensive drinking buddy. "Time will tell" should be the Bucks' motto this season, but Nelson isn't sure he has that luxury.

"I read where people were going to start shooting at my dog like they did [former Green Bay Packer Coach] Dan Devine's," says Nelson.

"He doesn't even have a dog," says Milwaukee Assistant Coach John Killilea. "People may start to think it's me, so now I don't walk anywhere near him."

One reason the trade is especially controversial is that last spring the Bucks' title hopes were dashed when Buckner suffered a dislocation and torn ligaments in his right thumb 12 games before the end of the regular season. In the Eastern semifinal series against the 76ers' half-court traps and presses, Sidney Moncrief and Brian Winters struggled to get the ball up the court, a task Buckner usually performed with consummate skill.

"People who had no idea what a point guard is are moaning that we need a point guard," says Buck Vice-President John Steinmiller, who on Oct. 1 signed the team's No. 1 draft choice, Paul Pressey, a 6'5" guard. "Just like up to now we've needed a 'power forward.' Now we need a 'point guard.' "

"I wouldn't make a major deal just to get a friend to have a beer with," Nelson says, "but it was an important point that I know Dave intimately. I know that he won't fail unless there's a physical reason for it. He was the best player in the league at one time, but I don't expect him to reach that level. If he's very mediocre we'll still be a better team. I'm more confident than Dave is. He just says, 'I don't know how good I'll be, but I'll give it my best shot.' " Indeed, Cowens is officially only on leave from Regis.

And being able to give his all is important to Cowens. When he walked out on the Celtics—and his $280,000 salary—in '76-77, he did so, he said, because he'd lost his enthusiasm. During that time, Cowens sold Christmas trees back home in Kentucky. Eventually, after some gentle arm-twisting by Celtic President Red Auerbach, he resumed playing. When asked at the time why he came back, Cowens replied, "Because if I didn't, I would be denying myself the privilege of doing what I do best."

But Cowens was never able to rekindle his old spark. A 27-41 record as player-coach of an uncharacteristically selfish Celtics team in 1978-79 did little to help his psyche. Nor did nagging injuries to his back, ankles and feet. Nine days before the start of the 1980-81 season, Cowens stood up on the team bus as the Celtics were traveling to Evansville, Ind. for an exhibition game and announced his retirement, saying he could no longer perform effectively.

In April of '81, when the Celtics were en route to their 14th NBA title, Cowens accepted the position at Regis, where he had run a summer basketball camp for 10 years. His visits to Boston Garden that season and in 1981-82 were infrequent.

Although Cowens says he doesn't know why he chose to make a comeback, he does admit that the bug hit about the first of this year. "I had decided that I would try, so I started to tone up my body," he says. Then six weeks before the start of this past summer's camp at Regis, Cowens invited an old friend, David Guidugli, to Boston for a couple of months to help in his training.

"At first I couldn't even run, my condition was so bad," says Cowens. Apparently it wasn't that bad, because after seeing Cowens work out, representatives from the Suns were impressed enough to get Auerbach's permission to negotiate with Cowens. By now Cowens himself was game enough to try. "I never did come to any great conclusions," he says. "I managed to go through the whole training thing without hurting myself, which was what I wanted to discover."

At first, Auerbach was adamant about not trading Cowens to an Eastern Conference team, particularly a powerful one like Milwaukee. Phoenix, a Western Conference team long in need of a bruiser, was more to Auerbach's liking, and the Suns were ready to fork over a top draft choice. "I value first-round picks, but ours is invariably in the range of 16 to 22," says Colangelo. "We were prepared to give that up to get Dave and had reached a tentative agreement with him and his agent, but when Milwaukee went as far as they did, that was it."

The Bucks had offered Boston its choice of guards Junior Bridgeman or Winters or Forward Mickey Johnson, but Auerbach held fast until Buckner's name came up. In another of his patented coups, Auerbach obtained a first-rate point guard—and provided, at the very least, a superb backup for 34-year-old Tiny Archibald—in exchange for a player he didn't even have.

"We would practice among ourselves and kid each other," says Bridgeman. "One day it was me going, the next it was Brian. But no one ever thought Quinn would be traded."

"Two years ago when Quinn pulled a hamstring and missed about 20 games," says Marques Johnson, "we nearly fell apart. Until then I took him for granted, but it was obvious without him we were severely hurt."

To Nelson, the deal had to be made. "I don't know if my job is on the line but it should be," he says. "I'm willing to risk being fired—or, even worse, not getting fired and having to live here if the deal fails. If Dave should get injured and can't play, then it will be a bad deal, but we have to make our run now, not next year. I owe that to Bob [Lanier] and to everyone else on the team."

The sensitive situation may have resolved itself last Wednesday when Cowens met and scrimmaged with many of his new teammates for the first time. Cowens impressed them by moving well on offense and on defense while guarding Marques Johnson. The fire wasn't back in his eyes yet, but more than a couple of players got a jolt from his in-the-lane body work. And when he scooped up an offensive rebound and sank a jump hook, at least one person in the gym breathed a sigh of relief.

"You've seen that one before, haven't you?" asked Cowens' wife, Deby. "That's classic Cowens."

The Bucks hope there's more where that came from.

PHOTO PHOTONelson, Cowens: drinking pals reunited.
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