Dave Cowens has been coach of the Charlotte Hornets for two
seasons now, and still there are no shades of gray in his hair
or his personality. There are no bags under his eyes, and his
ego is still harder to find than the remote control during an
Amigo commercial. He doesn't practice Zen Buddhism, write
motivational books or give speeches to vitamin salesmen at
$40,000 a pop. He drives a powder-blue 1964 Mercury Comet
convertible that gets dirty looks from every Lexus and Land
Cruiser in the players' parking lot.
Unlike so many of his colleagues, Cowens, whose Hornets were in
the driver's seat at week's end after winning the first two
games of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series
against the Atlanta Hawks, still doesn't realize that NBA coach
is the most important job on the planet. "The players are in
control of the game," he says. "Anyone who doesn't believe that
isn't dealing in reality."
After 11 seasons as an NBA center, 10 with the Boston Celtics
and one with the Milwaukee Bucks, Cowens spent 11 years away
from the league and then two years as an assistant with the San
Antonio Spurs before Hornets general manager Bob Bass hired him
to replace Allan Bristow. Cowens, 49, says he has learned many
things since his last NBA head coaching job--a forgettable
68-game stint as player-coach of the 1978-79 Celtics--but
kissing backsides and blowing smoke are not among them. Despite
Cowens's being named one of the NBA's 50 greatest players, his
hiring was considered a risk because there was no telling how
this quintessential throwback would handle the malcontents and
megalomaniacs who populate the league today.
"The toughest part of the job?" says Cowens, who won two NBA
titles and an MVP award with Boston. "I'd say lack of an outlet
for my emotions. When I was a player, I got to hit people.
Unfortunately, I don't get to do that anymore."
May 3, 1998
Not that he wouldn't like to. Cowens has won 105 regular-season
games in his two seasons in Charlotte but still has endured the
grumblings of unhappy players and spoiled fans. Last year a
franchise-record 54-win season ended with a thud when the No.
6-seeded Hornets were swept by the New York Knicks in the first
round of the playoffs. This year the team won fewer games (51)
but earned the No. 4 seed and thus the home court advantage
against the Hawks. "The guys have been talking about the
playoffs since November," says point guard David Wesley, who
joined the Hornets as a free agent before this season. "All year
it was like, 'Let's get back there and do it right.'"
This year the Hornets were noticeably looser and more relaxed
heading into the playoffs, if not quite as handsome. As a show
of unity, the Charlotte players shaved their heads, drawing
protests from some of their wives and children but lightening
the mood in the locker room. "Last year was very intense, like
minicamp before the playoffs," says center Vlade Divac, who,
with a ragged buzz cut and beard, looks as though he were just
sprung from a gulag.
Cowens focused on fundamentals. "This year I think we did two
things: We got the home court and we just prepared more," he
says. "We watched more film and went in better
Nevertheless, the Hornets could not have imagined a much more
ominous matchup in Round 1. Atlanta went 4-0 against Charlotte
in the regular season. The average margin of victory: almost 17
points. The Hornets wanted to see the Hawks again like Kenny
Lofton wants to see Randy Johnson. "We've been a good team in
crunch time," said Wesley after Game 1. "But how would [the
Hawks] know? They blew us out every time we played."
Last Thursday, soon after Game 1 began, it looked like more of
the same. The Hawks jumped to a 13-point lead in the first
quarter, and from the Hive crowd came an early sprinkling of
boos. Then Charlotte, fueled by forward Glen Rice's 34 points,
rallied for a 97-87 victory. In Game 2, Charlotte came back from
a 15-point deficit to win 92-85, meaning Atlanta would be facing
elimination on Tuesday in Game 3 at the Georgia Dome. "We turned
a lot of doubters into believers," said Cowens.
As the key to the Game 1 comeback, the Charlotte coach cited his
team's defense against Atlanta's pick-and-roll, which is often
executed to perfection by point guard Mookie Blaylock or
shooting guard Steve Smith in conjunction with center Dikembe
Mutombo. Cowens estimated the Hawks ran the simple play 30
times, and his players initially had trouble defending it
because they hadn't seen anything like it in practice. "We just
don't have anyone as quick as Mookie to allow us to duplicate
it," says Cowens. "We got a total team effort on the defensive
end, five guys doing everything they could to stop it."
(Charlotte's toughened D would have a carryover effect,
deterring Atlanta from using the pick-and-roll in Game 2, when
the Hawks went to more of a post-up offense.)
In the opener the Hornets also got an otherworldly performance
from Rice, arguably the best streak shooter in the game today.
Hitting from all angles on 15 of 19 from the floor, including 13
in a row at one point, Rice outdueled Smith (13 of 22, 35
points) down the stretch. When Rice cooled off in Game 2, the
Hornets put the ball in the hands of Anthony Mason, and their
brutish point forward controlled the game from the low post (10
of 13, 25 points). Cowens hasn't always gotten along with Mason,
but after last Saturday night's game he did everything but carry
the dour nine-year veteran off the court on his shoulders. He
also lauded Divac, who, said Cowens, "inspired everyone on our
team" with his rebounding, blocked shots and creative passing.
Divac reciprocated. "He comes to me and asks me, 'What do you
think we should do in this situation?'" the center said. "Not
many coaches will do that. He's part of this team, not someone
with an office down the hall. He's one of us."
On the other hand, the coach was having trouble hiding his
displeasure with Matt Geiger, the backup center who sat out Game
1 with a pulled hamstring. Geiger returned to play four
ineffective minutes in Game 2, but only after Cowens said he was
"very disappointed" in his gimpy big man. Following the game,
Cowens said his team was shorthanded because "Matt's still got
an ass pull or whatever it is." The coach was asked how many
playoff games he missed with pulled muscles during his playing
career. "I never missed a playoff game," Cowens said, curtly. He
was never happy until the last playoff game was won, an attitude
that seems to have trickled down to his team. "I don't like
happy players," Cowens said. "I want them to maintain their
edge. I want them to think that when we take the floor, we're
not playing games, we're going to war."
Well, it was bound to happen. The man wins two playoff games,
and already he sounds like an NBA coach.