He may not have been named MVP of the NBA Finals in 1974 or 1976, but undersized Hall of Fame Boston center Dave Cowens was the key force in winning both clinching games of those memorable championship series for the Celtics.
In the 1970's no one played harder for Boston, or anyone else for that matter, with apologies to Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier and Dave DeBusschere, than the fiery 6-8.5 redhead.
In game seven of the epic 1974 NBA Finals, the Celtics faced the tall task of beating Milwaukee on the road. Buck center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in his youthful prime and enjoyed nearly a six-inch height advantage - which was probably close to a foot when reach is included - over Cowens.
Plus, Buck guard and all-time great Oscar Robertson was playing his final game, and wanted desperately to go out a champion in his 14th and final season.
As a Cincinnati Royal star throughout the 1960's, his fine clubs had never been able to get by the Celtics, and the aging superstar wanted nothing more than to avenge those many losses by going out a champion at their expense.
The Bucks had forced a seventh game by winning a double overtime classic in Boston just two days earlier, when Jabbar's long running baseline hook over Celtic backup center Hank Finkel gave Milwaukee a see-saw 102-101 victory.
Cowens had fouled out earlier in overtime, or the outcome may well have been different, with the Celtics likely celebrating title number 12 at home.
John Havlicek had traded baskets with the 7-2 Jabbar throughout the final extra session, scoring nine of his 36 points in the second OT, but Kareem got the last shot in.
Yet a hustling play by Cowens that came to epitomize his career happened late in that classic sixth contest. Dave switched off on a pick defensively to cover Robertson, then used his quick hands to poke the ball away from the Hall of Famer.
The speedy center then out-sprinted the 6-5 guard for the loose ball, which rolled into the backcourt. Cowens dove for the ball and slid with it near the sidelines while the loose leather bobbled in and out of his arms. Oscar trailed the play and never left his feet, almost in disbelief at the bigger man's reckless dive.
Cowens left a sweat streak about 10 feet long on the old Garden parquet, probably along with some skin. While the Bucks argued that he never had possession of the ball, the referees correctly ruled that the 24-second clock had nevertheless run out to give Boston the ball.
Not long after, Cowens fouled out with just 13 points on five of 19 shooting, and his absence contributed to the series-tying Buck win. Determined to redeem himself, the proud Celtic star came out firing in game seven.
Boston came up with a new strategy to aid Dave. The Boston braintrust decided to pressure the aging Robertson hard with defensive ace Don Chaney while he brought the ball upcourt.
And then once Milwaukee was into its halfcourt offense, coach Tom Heinsohn had Paul Silas, Havlicek and others also double down and help while Cowens fronted and battled Jabbar for position.
After he was told about the change in defensive strategy, Dave would relate years later in an interview that he felt like saying, "Yes! I am finally going to get some help on this guy."
After having the redhead go one-on-one for six games with the much bigger man who was the total focal point of their offense, Jabbar had averaged almost 34 points per game, so the Celtic brass felt it had to try something.
By not having to expend as much energy defending the 7-2 Jabbar alone, it seemed as if Cowens had been unchained and energized for the decisive contest.
On offense, the muscular Cowens used his superior speed and quickness to take the slower Jabbar out on the floor and drive by him, taking advantage of Kareem's relative lack of lateral quickness.
The high-leaping, aggressive Cowens won the opening jump over Jabbar and tapped it it to Havlicek, who fed a cutting Chaney perfectly for a layup that set an immediate, positive tone in the contest for the Celtics.
As time ran out in the first period, Dave bombed a 25-footer from the right side at the buzzer that went straight in to give Boston a 22-20 lead.
The Celtics lengthened the lead late in the half as their defense stymied Jabbar and Robertson. Dave triggered the vaunted Celtic fast break with a defensive rebound and airborne outlet pass that led to a 16-footer by Don Nelson.
Shortly afterward, Cowens nailed consecutive foul line jumpers that gave the visitors a 53-40 intermission edge. Their defensive strategy, cooked up between games six and seven by Celtic patriarch Red Auerbach, Heinsohn and the legendary Bob Cousy, was working almost to perfection.
Robertson, who had played for Cousy in Cincinnati before their falling out led to the Big O's trade to Milwaukee, was hounded into perhaps the worst playoff game of his career at a very inopportune time.
If nothing else, the all-court pressure put on by the quicker Celtics rushed the Bucks and took vital seconds off the shot clock, forcing hurried decisions and field goal tries. With veteran leader and playmaker Robertson flustered, the Buck offense floundered.
As a result, scoring machine Jabbar was amazingly held without a single point in the entire second stanza and for half of the third period. This was a major drought when one realizes that Kareem came into game seven averaging his number per outing in the 1974 playoffs (33).
Robertson would connect on just two of 13 shots from the field in his swansong (one was a breakaway layin), and was limited to just six points by the harassment of veteran defensive standout Chaney and talented second-year backup Paul Westphal.
More than once, Westphal reached in with active hands and poked the ball away cleanly from the struggling Robertson, who was also bothered by a sore hamstring.
Yet the Bucks managed to inch within 71-66 after three quarters as their sellout crowd of 10,938 came to life. Westphal, subbing in for a foul-plagued Chaney, scored a layup off a 75-foot Havlicek pass after Cowens won a key jump ball for a 77-68 lead.
A Silas transition finger roll via another sharp-eyed Hondo assist built the lead to 11 with 8:50 remaining. Milwaukee sharpshooting guard Jon McGlocklin bounced in a 15-footer to keep the hosts alive.
Cowens, playing with five fouls, then rebounded his own miss and gave Jabbar a taste of his own medicine by swishing a quickly-released 11-foot jump hook from the right side of the lane.
Dave did not shoot a sweeping hook like Kareem, but he possessed a very good jump hook, only usually not from as far out as the one he had just made.
A Jabbar foul shot and a pretty fast break finish by McGlocklin cut the lead to 81-73, yet the normally shooting-challenged Silas banked in a short one-hander in the lane.
Unheralded Buck backup swingman Mickey Davis continued his fine play in place of injured Lucius Allen to help keep Milwaukee in the game.
The older brother of future long-time NBA guard Brad Davis, Mickey scored the last of his 15 points on a spectacular over the head, two-handed reverse layup while being fouled. His remarkable three-point putback edged the Bucks within 83-76.
Westphal responded by dribbling to his left toward the baseline before he rose up and drilled a clutch 17-foot fadeaway. Westy then hit JoJo White perfectly in stride with a fine feed past McGlocklin in a two-on-one fast break situation. White's subsequent layup gave Boston an 87-76 margin with 6:02 left.
Yet when Jabbar bounced in a right baseline hook to bring the sellout crowd to its feet with approximately 4:35 left in the final period, the Celtic lead again appeared tenuous at 87-79. Did the Bucks have one last run left?
Boston called on its version of old reliable to stem the tide. The Celtics went to Havlicek, and despite suffering through an off shooting day, the clutch veteran delivered.
Hondo curled off a left side Silas/Cowens double screen, caught a pass and lifted Jabbar off his feet with a fine head fake. John then ducked under his left arm and quickly drove the lane to his right past the airborne center.
John then went into the air, jacknifed his body past Davis and McGlocklin while absorbing a bump, then banked in a tough runner.
Havlicek displayed a rare show of emotion, pumping both fists in a short downward motion, before collecting himself to add the free throw that completed the critical three-point play.
It was almost as if the driven Hondo could taste the long-sought first title of the post-Russell era which would vindicate his legacy. It would be his first title of any kind without Russell, or in college without Jerry Lucas.
Cowens then switched off onto Robertson and knocked the ball out of his hands, which forced the Bucks into a bad shot that Westphal rebounded.
Moments later, Dave floated out to the deep right corner and swished a 21-footer over a warily sagging Jabbar for a 93-79 bulge at the 2:59 mark. Next, a tired and discouraged Kareem tellingly left two foul shots well short.
At the other end, Boston closed the door with a clever bit of body control and quick reactions. Cowens missed a half hook in the lane that richocheted off Jabbar's hands to a nearly-prone Westphal, who was just getting up off the hardwood after being floored while setting a screen.
Paul then hung in the air as he looked to shoot a short jumper over the looming 7-2 Buck center. But at the last second, he double-clutched and instead tossed a beautifully improvised short alley-oop pass to Cowens past Jabbar. Dave caught the ball in the air on the right side of the lane and cleverly kissed it in off glass before Kareem could recover.
That was the final nail in the Milwaukee coffin.
Late in the game, Robertson's frustrations boiled over when he was called for tripping Westphal on a fast break reach-in steal attempt. Oscar went ballistic after the questionable call, and only the fact that it was a game seven in his career finale kept the respectful referees from giving the aging superstar a technical.
Havlicek, who enjoyed a great series, was named Finals MVP even though he tallied a modest 16 points on six of 20 shooting in the decisive contest.
His second fourth quarter three-point play on a foul line jumper as he was hit in the stomach capped a decisive 11-0 spurt that put the game well out of reach, 98-79.
But the game seven MVP was definitely Big Red. The final box score showed Cowens with game-high totals of 28 points and 14 rebounds, compared to 26 and 13 for Jabbar.
Yet the considerable numbers did not show his great intangible contribution, as well. Or how much energy the fiery redhead had supplied his team. Nor how his defense had helped Kareem wear down and fade. He sank just six of 11 free throws in the game and went scoreless for over a third of the game in the crucial middle section when Boston took command.
Or how Cowens had ignited the deadly Celtic transition game with his defensive rebounding and quick outlet bullets, often firing his passes in midair while coming down with the carom.
One of the few legitimate criticisms of Kareem was that he tended to coast at times, although some of that was brought on by his languid, graceful style of play and the lack of emotion he showed on the court.
Things appeared to probably have come a little too easily for him on the basketball court due to his size, ability and skill, so he was probably not quite as hungry as the undersized redhead. Three titles at mighty UCLA and another one in his second NBA season had perhaps dulled his desire a bit.
Not so for Cowens, who was an under-publicized relative unknown who helped transform previous non-basketball power Florida State into a national contender. Not a household name high school recruit like Jabbar, he had never even been able to compete for an NCAA title, let alone win one. Dave was all desire, athleticism, hoop smarts and skill.
Thus Cowens attacked that main Kareem weakness with some of his strongest assets, chiefly relentless all-out hustle, quickness, perimeter skills and intensity.
As Jabbar trudged to the Buck bench in the final minutes, the defeated big man stopped to congratulate Cowens with a hearty handshake which was returned by the dogged competitor.
Due in large part to the scrambling defensive strategy of Boston, Jabbar only took 21 shots in the decisive seventh contest, six below his series average for attempts to that point.
He also converted only 10 field goals after making 14.5 baskets per contest over the first six games - well below his 54 percent shooting accuracy to that point in the title series.
Striding off the court while wearing his red Buck warmup top immediately after his final loss, Robertson looked back over his shoulder at the celebrating Celtics with a mixture of disbelief and disdain. How did they do it again, he seemed to be asking.
In the jubilant Celtic locker room moments later, Cowens hugged coach Heinsohn. Welcomed back to Boston hours later that Sunday evening by a large throng, Dave celebrated throughout the night with elated fans, and then fell asleep on a public park bench like the Huck Finn character the Newport, Kentucky native seemed to be.
In 1975, the defending champion Celtics tied Washington for the best record in the NBA at 60-22, but lost to the Bullets in a heated Eastern finals series 4-2 to fail in their bid to repeat.
Jubilant Washington, coached by long-time Celtic guard K.C. Jones, celebrated at center court as if they had clinched the title after eliminating Boston. But then the over-confident Bullets were swept 4-0 in the Finals by Golden State and Rick Barry in a stunning upset.
Thus an aging Boston was determined to reclaim its championship in 1976, their last real title chance after five straight trips to the conference finals.
The grueling style of play that the speedy 1970's Celtics employed, in concert with a short bench and going deep into the playoffs each year (and thus having shorter off-seasons), had started to take a toll on the club. Plus, team captain Havlicek and sixth man Don Nelson were each 36.
In 1976, a grizzled Boston squad fought its way to the Finals despite a foot injury to Havlicek. It was the 13th Celtic championship series appearance in 20 years, and the last before the Larry Bird era.
After knocking out both Buffalo and Cleveland 4-2 in the eastern playoffs, they found themselves embroiled in a surprisingly tough championship series with a young and hungry upstart Phoenix club that had upset the champion Warriors in a seventh game on the road.
Boston won the first two at home handily, but the plucky Suns won game three and then evened the series after a memorable game four 109-107 win when White's last-second right wing jumper fell well short.
Tied 2-2, the Celtics and Suns engaged in probably the greatest game in NBA Finals history, a triple overtime epic that Boston finally won at home over ex-Celtic Westphal and company, 128-126.
Once again in the penultimate game of the title round, the intense Cowens fouled out in overtime after scoring 26 points, but this time the Celts held on to win without him.
The call that fouled him out was a questionable whistle late in the second OT when Dave, harassed by a triple-teamed on the right baseline, turned slightly into Sun backup center Dennis Awtrey and sank a short jumper.
Instead of a four-point lead late in OT and a possible three-point play, Cowens was called for his sixth foul and trudged in disbelief to the bench.
Havlicek appeared to win it anyway on a running left side banker with a second left, but then Garfield Heard forced a third OT with a long rainbow jumper at the buzzer, 112-112.
With four Celtics having fouled out, little-used reserve Glenn McDonald was forced into action. The well-rested guard scored six big points in the third extra session to lead Boston to a much-fabled victory.
In game six just two days later across the country in Arizona, the two tired teams met again with the championship on the line.
With half of their core six players well into their 30's and Havlicek hampered by foot and shoulder injuries, the Celtics appeared vulnerable to the younger, healthier Suns, who were playing with house money at home as major underdogs.
But Celtic pride, plus championship experience and desire from being deprived of the crown despite boasting the NBA's best record in 1973 and 1975, helped drive the aged Gang Green on.
Losing the prior triple OT game appeared to drain the younger, less-seasoned Suns more than the victorious veterans, whose core six averaged almost 32 years of age.
With both teams dragging, the sixth game was low-scoring and tight throughout, with Boston building a 38-33 edge at the half. Phoenix crept within 57-56 after three periods and tied it at 66-66 following a spectacular hanging drive off glass by Westphal.
Boston had traded Paul to the Suns in the previous off-season for Charlie Scott, and Westy blossomed into a star when he became a starter. Ironically, the Celtics had owned the draft rights to Scott (who joined the ABA out of college), and used those rights to trade for Silas four years earlier.
Phoenix took its first lead 67-66 on a Sobers foul shot. But the resilient Havlicek put Boston back in front with two free tosses that moved him into third place on the all-time NBA playoff points list with 3,609 markers.
Nerves were fraying as the tired teams battled on. Alvan Adams fired a ball off the backboard after being fouled by Cowens. The poker-faced Havlicek, sitting on the floor after a call went against Boston, gave what for him was a major show of disagreement by shaking his head and pursing his lips before lifting himself up gently to resume competing.
With the outcome very much in doubt as Boston clung to a slim lead with over six minutes remaining, someone needed to step up. The tiring Celtics did not want to play a seventh game against the yonger, healthier Suns, when Bosotn would have all the pressure to win.
It was Cowens who took over and scored seven points in a clutch 9-4 Celtic spurt that clinched the crown.
Despite being plagued with five fouls, the redhead gambled and came up with the biggest play of the game. As Adams drove along the right side of the lane, Dave dangerously reached in and poked the ball away from the Rookie of the Year, lunging to tip the loose sphere away from Adams.
He then snatched up the loose ball and dribbled, or more accurately roared, 80 feet upcourt at top speed on a 2 on 1 fast break, a runaway red-headed center locomotive.
As he approached the basket, the Celtic center crossed over to the right side and gave a slight head fake to freeze defender Heard. Dave then laid in a twisting backhanded layup over his shoulder while being fouled. He cashed in the free throw to give Boston a 71-67 lead and a huge momentum swing.
After a Phoenix score, Dave sealed Adams outside the low block and took a perfectly timed top-side feed from Charlie Scott before converting a right-handed layin for a 73-69 advantage.
Cowens then forced a bad miss by Adams by hotly contesting his 15-footer. Adams later canned two foul shots to cut the lead back to two. Yet Havlicek swished a clutch 18-footer from the left wing to make it 75-71.
After a Westphal miss, Dave took an entry pass and spun quickly along the right baseline with his trademark move past Adams for a pretty layup. The pet move gave Boston a little breathing room with a 77-71 margin at the 3:29 mark.
White banked in a tough right side runner and added a free throw to stretch the lead to nine, and it was all over but the shouting as Boston ultimately held on to win, 87-80.
After the final buzzer sounded, a tired Cowens hugged retiring teammate Nelson as they strode off the court as champions for the last time. For Nellie, it was a satisfying fifth ring after being released by the Lakers over a decade earlier.
With White struggling and Hondo hurt, it was clearly the clutch late offensive burst from Cowens that capped banner number 13. His aggressive, all-out defense also led to a drought of over five minutes without a basket for the Suns down the stretch.
Even though Dave scored 21 points in the decisive win, paced the defense and led all players in rebounds during the series while averaging 20.5 ppg, teammate JoJo White (21.7 ppg) was named Finals MVP.
Yet in true Cowens fashion, Dave probably didn't care that much, as long as Boston won. He was simply about winning, an undersized center who won on great athleticism (strength, speed, quickness and jumping ability), high basketball intelligence, skill, and a burning desire as bright as his red mane.
"There is no player with greater desire than Dave Cowens," said CBS commentator and fiery Hall of Famer Rick Barry during the 1976 Finals.
A powerful leaper, Cowens frequently won jump balls against much taller centers like Jabbar and an older Chamberlain, and used great positioning to frustrate Kareem and occasionally block his shots as well by forcing him to turn back to his right shoulder, away from his patented hook.
Back then a center jump ball was held at the start of each quarter, and if that rule seems antiquated, consider that the original rules up through the 1930's required that there be a center jump after every basket. So each quarter jump ball could be a key extra possession gained.
As Havlicek, who played the first seven seasons of his career with the great Bill Russell and then his final eight with Cowens, the 1970-71 co-Rookie of the Year, once said - "no one ever did more for the Celtics than Dave Cowens."
In the post-game six locker room TV interviews with CBS, Havlicek reinforced this claim. "We were able to keep Dave on the floor (not foul out), and that made the difference," said Hondo.
Unfortunately, Dave's all-out style and annual deep playoff runs eventually contributed to his body breaking down by the time he reached his early 30's.
After a fine Cowens comeback season in 1979-80, Bird's rookie campaign that saw Boston improve from 29-53 to 61-21, the Celtics came up short in the Eastern finals to the rival 76ers, 4-1.
The next fall during training camp, Cowens was forced to retire due to a nagging foot injury that robbed him of his explosive athleticism. Unable to run, jump and compete freely, he decided to hang them up. Thus, he just missed out on a third championship ring as Boston won it all in Bird's second season.
However, he did get the itch to come back. But it happened to be for half a season with Milwaukee in 1982-83, not the Celtics. Boston's frontline was over-loaded with talent - Robert Parish had been traded for in 1980 and Kevin McHale had been acquired via the draft to augment an already imposing frontline of Bird, Maxwell and Rick Robey - so Dave asked to be traded to get playing time.
Ironically, the historically finesse-oriented Suns he had helped beat in 1976 appeared to be the frontrunner for his services. But then the Bucks, coached by his friend and long-time Celtic teammate Nelson, intervened and dealt playmaker Quinn Buckner to Boston in exchange for the redhead.
Now playing power forward alongside another veteran star center in Bob Lanier, who was picked number one three spots ahead of Dave in the 1970 NBA draft, a slightly-overweight yet still formidable Cowens managed to contribute to a Central Division title. Dave averaged 8.1 points and 6.9 rebounds a game in 25.4 minutes per game over 40 contests.
In a strange twist of fate, the Bucks swept the Celtics in the playoffs 4-0 that spring, with Bird slowed by a flu virus. But Cowens was unable to play due to injury, and retired for good that summer after the Bucks lost to the eventual champion 76ers in the eastern finals.
A dozen years later as an assistant coach with San Antonio, Cowens almost made another comeback when injuries depleted the Spurs roster. In his mid-40's, Dave could probably still have played effectively in short bursts, but ultimately decided against it.
Unfortunately, the 1970's Celtic title teams have been forgotten or largely overlooked between the Russell/Cousy and Bird/McHale dynasties of the 1960's and 1980's.
Yet Heinsohn, who after the death of Red Auerbach assumed the mantel of Mr. Celtic after 50-plus years as star player, championship coach and team announcer, called his 1970's Boston teams "the quickest of all Celtic clubs."
As such he designed a revolutionary point center/forward type of up-tempo offense to take advantage of the extraordinary blend of skills, athleticism and desire of his speedy red-headed center and Havlicek, as well as the sharpshooting White.
Those Celtics did not have a true point guard. White, Chaney and Havlicek shared the ballhandling duties, while Cowens often directed the offense from the top of the key with his passing, driving and shooting ability.
After Dave was drafted as a relative unknown out of Florida State, Russell was called in by Red to evaluate Cowens' viability as a 6-8.5 center.
FSU had posted fine records behind Cowens but due to recruiting violations and a much-smaller NCAA tournament field in those days, his Seminoles never even made it to the big dance, which prohibited much of the nation from seeing how good he was.
Luckily, this lack of exposure probably helped Boston's ability to select him in a deep draft that included All-Stars Lanier, Rudy Tomjanovich, Pete Maravich, Geoff Petrie, Sam Lacey and Calvin Murphy.
The canny Russell's verdict after seeing the ferocious Cowens compete was simple: leave Dave alone and let him play. "No one is going to tell that kid he can't play center," Russell assured Auerbach, impressed with his drive and palpable intensity.
Russ likely sensed a kindred spirit in another hungry southpaw Celtic center after he watched the hard-driven, athletic redhead in action.
And Russell was proven right. He could see the smarts, athleticism and fire in the belly that both Dave and he possessed to make up for a lack of great size in the pivot.
Cowens was named 1972-73 NBA MVP after leading Boston to a franchise best 68-14 record - although ironically he was named SECOND team All-NBA behind Jabbar the same season, and the Celtics for once failed to win the title after Havlicek hurt his shoulder in the conference finals vs. New York.
Dave went on to be voted to the Hall of Fame in 1991, and was honored as one of the league's 50 Greatest Players in 1997.
"Dave was one of my favorite guys to play against," said Hall of Fame Knick great Willis Reed, himself an undersized lefty center with a soft shooting stroke. "He was very quick, fast, strong, smart, skilled and a great competitor."
Said Auerbach simply years later, "Dave gave his body to the Celtics."
Cowens probably should have been the 1976 Finals MVP, which would have put him on the short list of players to win both an NBA season MVP and a playoff MVP (with Reed and Wilt at the time, and later Unseld, Jabbar, Bird, Johnson, Moses Malone, Jordan, Bryant and Shaq).
It should be noted that the Finals MVP only began being awarded in 1969, otherwise Russell and Bob Pettit would also have certainly been on the exclusive list.
Pettit, fittingly, was Dave's Hall of Fame presenter when he was inducted to the Hall in Springfield in 1991. Pettit was a 6-9 two-time league MVP who retired in 1965 as the NBA's all-time leading scorer AND rebounder.
In game six of the 1958 NBA Finals, Pettit scored 50 points, including 19 of his team's last 21 in the title-clinching nailbiter, to lead the Hawks to their only league title over the Celtics by a 110-109 count.
Like Dave, Pettit played with great desire, skill and intensity. Bob was similarly relentless on the offensive boards, was quick and athletic (but not as good a leaper), played smart and was a clutch leader.
Like Cowens, he was also a good shooter and a fearless driver, a very tough competitor who hated to lose and always gave maximum effort. Pettit won a record four All-Star Game MVP awards in large part by always playing hard.
Cowens, in turn, won the 1973 ASG MVP and came close to winning the honor again in 1976 and '78 also by always competing hard, be it in an exhibition or a playoff game.
When asked why he chased down Knick rookie guard Henry Bibby on a breakaway in a 1972 pre-season game and fouled out on the play, Dave said he "did not want to develop bad habits" by not hustling. Telling.
The 6-6 DeBusschere was another pro hoop analogue for Cowens, albeit a smaller and slightly less athletic one.
Yet Pettit was the one great player Cowens most closely resembled in style, skill and size - outside of Bob's receding hairline - which Dave noted in a light moment during his induction speech.
But in reality, no one his size ever played the NBA game quite like Dave Cowens. He made it to the Hall of Fame, the 50 Greatest list and won two titles on the strength of his unique blend of explosive athletic ability, skill, hoops IQ and most of all, his constant all-out intensity.
If you wish to contact author Cort Reynolds, you can email him directly at email@example.com.