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The unusual 1982 trade of the retired Dave Cowens

And the story of his ill-fated comeback try for one more title with another ex-Celtic teammate as his coach

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In the fall of 1980, after a pre-season game at Terre Haute, Indiana, veteran Celtic legend Dave Cowens stood up and addressed his respectful teammates on the bus.

The club had just played a game at Indiana State, the alma mater of its new superstar, second-year great Larry Bird. There seemed to be an air bespeaking a Celtic passing of the guard on the team from Cowens, Boston great of the 1970's, to a once-in-a-lifetime player who resembled Dave in his dedication, intensity and background, a man who would carve out the third Celtic dynasty in the 1980's.

The ultimate competitor and hustler over his previous 11 years in the NBA, Dave's all-out play while leading Boston to five straight East Finals and two titles had battered and bruised his beyond to the breaking point, and probably beyond.

"I have sprained my ankle at least 30 times over the duration of my career, broken both legs and fractured a foot," Cowens said. "Two years ago, a team of foot and bone specialists said they were amazed that I could play up to that point without sustaining serious injuries."

Cowens, a free spirit and a bit of a contrarian, shocked the club when he announced on that fateful post-game bus ride that due to nagging foot injuries he was going to retire, effective immediately.

So just like that the 1973 NBA MVP and perennial All-Star hung up his hightops, seemingly for good. His loss caused lamentation and praise from around the league, from admiring rivals like 76er GM Pat Williams to opposing players who realized the retirement of such a unique player early in a new decade truly signified the passing of an era.

And good bye to one of the most intense and respected players in NBA history, whose like would rarely if ever be seen again.

In a Basketball Digest article, Cowens explained further that he missed the early and mid-1970's rivalries with the Knicks, Bulls, Lakers and other perennial powers which brought out the best in him and his teammates, and elevated the game to great heights of team play that he hinted had begun to erode in the new NBA.

Mostly, because of his injuries accumulated over years of pounding hustle and regularly deep playoff runs, he did not feel he could play at or near his accustomed level of intensity and quality.

Boston had also assembled perhaps the deepest frontline in NBA history that off-season of 1980, coming off Larry Bird's wondrous rookie campaign. Bird led a 32-game improvement, then an NBA record, as the Celts improved from 29-53 to 61-21 in his incredible first team all-league rookie season.

But because they were undersized and relatively inexperienced in the playoffs, the Celtics lost to the rival 76ers 4-1 in the East Finals.

Cowens had enjoyed a fine bounce-back 1979-80 season with over 14 points and eight rebounds a game. Yet after holding Moses Malone in check during a second round sweep of the Rockets, the 6-8.5 Cowens had little left to battle 22-year old Philadelphia behemoth Darryl Dawkins, 10 years his junior.

After being spurned in his attempt to entice 7-4 Virginia freshman sensation Ralph Sampson to leave school early, Red Auerbach pulled off one of the great trades in NBA history. He traded the overall number one pick and a later first rounder to Golden State for underachieving but talented seven-footer Robert Parish, plus the top Warrior pick, the number three overall selection.

Auerbach then chose future Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, the man he wanted anyway, with the third pick, which also took the pressure of being the number one overall choice off the underrated Minnesota product.

Boston head coach Bill Fitch pushed the good-shooting Parish into top shape, made him a running center and drawing the best out of him, grudgingly. Even the Chief, who resented Fitch's grueling training camps, conceded that the ex-military drill sergeant helped condition him for what turned out to be the longest career in NBA history.

With those heady Red acquisitions, going into the 1980-81 season Boston now boasted an incredibly deep and talented frontcourt featuring Hall of Famers Bird, Cowens, Parish and McHale - plus underrated Cedric Maxwell and young Rick Robey, who was considered by many to be the best backup center in the NBA after averaging 11.5 points a game as Cowens's substitute in 1979-80.

Cowens thus felt expendable, and with the all of the injuries to his legs he had endured as the NBA's premier big man hustler since 1970, he decided to call it quits.

Unfortunately for Dave, he just missed out on earning a third ring with the Celtics that season as Boston went on to claim its 14th NBA crown. Ironically, another Hall of Famer and 50 Greatest player list member, Pete Maravich, also retired from Boston in the 1980-81 pre-season and missed winning his chance at a first ring of any kind.

"I wish I had spent more time with Dave," lamented Bird several years later, unaware that Cowens would retire after his rookie season. Perhaps the two legendarily iron-willed greats were too similar in personality and too far apart in age to get along exceptionally well at that time.

Perhaps Dave, the synbol of the overlooked great Celtic teams of the 1970s, resented all the attention Bird got. Amazingly, Larry somehow even managed to exceed the massive amount of hype he had received as a heralded rookie, thriving on the pressure and doubters.

On the other hand, Dave had been almost unknown when he was picked fourth overall out of Florida State by Red in the 1970 draft and went on to win Rookie of the Year honors, just like Bird would nine seasons later.

But two years after he retired - is it telling he made the announcement after the game at Bird's alma mater in Terre Haute, or just coincidence? - the restless and energetic Cowens got the itch to come back.

With the Celtics still incredibly deep up front, he requested a trade to pursue his unusual comeback.

"I think that would be best," he said. "The Celtics are set up front. They could trade me, work something out. No disrespect to Bill Fitch. I'd advise any younger players to play for him, but I'd probably be better off somewhere else."

Dave later admitted he came back for the challenge, and also for the money.

Auerbach, after attempting to talk the fiery redhead out of coming back, then appeared to have a deal struck with Phoenix. Cowens had personally decimated the Suns in game six of the 1976 Finals to clinch banner number 13, and long-time Phoenix GM Jerry Colangelo coveted Dave.

The Suns had typically been known as a finesse team that was highly-skilled and talented, but that come playoff time would get pushed around and come up short. Truck Robinson was a bust as a Sun. Their talented 6-9 center Alvan Adams was a tremendous shooter, passer and leaper, but was a perimeter player who did not like to mix it up.

Future Celtic great Dennis Johnson remained one of the NBA's top all-around guards as a Sun. Small forward Walter Davis was as talented as any young veteran in the league. But despite close calls in 1976 and each year from 1979-81, Phoenix had always come up just shy of the brass ring. Something was missing.

Cowens was thus seen as the missing link for the Suns, like Pete Rose had been for the Phillies after leaving Cincinnati to lead Philadelphia to its first World Series title in 1980 after several near misses.

Colangelo envisioned Dave playing power forward alongside Adams and providing the tangibles (scoring, rebounding and defense) as well as all-important intangibles (hustle, veteran leadership, physicality, knowing how to win) that would finally get the close but no cigar Suns finally over the top to their first championship.

However, Boston's asking price of a top player was simply too steep for Colangelo. He was willing to give up first round picks to get Cowens, but not any of their stars for a 34-year old who had not played in two seasons and had a recent history of injuries. Plus, Dave's all-out style of play could very likely land him back on the disabled list.

Colangelo proved to be correct. When Cowens expressed an interest in playing for Milwaukee, coached by his friend and Celtic two-time champion teammate in Don Nelson, Auerbach began to negotiate with Wayne Embry, then the shrewd Bucks GM.

Auerbach, who coveted a big defensive guard to try and contain Eastern two-guard standouts like Andrew Toney and Sidney Moncrief, asked for point guard Quinn Buckner, a top defender and leader.

The powerfully-built 6-3 Buckner had stepped in immediately and been a starter for almost all of his six seasons in Milwaukee, most of them highly successful.

Buckner was an intelligent floor leader, unselfish but not a good shooter. He had led Indiana to the undefeated 1976 national championship and four straight Big 10 titles, won Olympic gold in 1976, and was rugged and athletic enough to have played two fine years of football for the Hoosiers as a defensive back (coached by ESPN analyst Lee Corso, by the way).

Buckner, the seventh overall pick in the 1976 draft, was viewed as a coach on the floor and was also friends with Bird, who attended IU briefly as a stage-struck freshman in 1974 when the mighty Quinn was a junior.

For Milwaukee from 1976-82, Buckner had averaged 10.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 2.3 steals per game on 47 percent shooting from the field and 66 percent accuracy from the free throw line.

He had helped spearhead the Buck ascension to title contender status, where they went 60-22 in 1981 and lost in seven games to the 76ers in the east semifinals. In 1982 the Bucks again won the Central Division but lost to the 76ers in the second round, this time in six games.

Thus the trade was considered a risk for a Milwaukee team that had apparently reached its pick with its current roster, a deal Embry opposed.

After all, Dave was two years retired, significantly older and beat up while Buckner was in his prime, a leader on a rising power. But if Cowens could approach his prior level, he was much better than Quinn and could get the Bucks over the top.

Dave had averaged 18.2 points, 14 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals, and one block per game on 46% shooting from the field and and 78% from the free throw line over 726 career regular season games from 1970-80 in Beantown. And his great intangibles made him even better than his impressive stats.

A 1991 Hall of Fame inductee, Cowens still ranks third all-time in rebounds and ninth all-time in points in Celtic franchise history. Fittingly, Cowens was inducted to the Hall by 6-9 Hawk great Bob Pettit, the man whose game most closely resembled Dave's in terms of skill, size, position and mostly in sheer desire.

Yet Dave had not been an All-Star since starting the 1978 mid-season classic opposite another redhead center, Bil Walton.

"My relationship with Nellie started to change when I would not support him on his trade for Dave Cowens before the 1982-83 season," recalled Embry in his book called "The Inside Game". "Nellie was searching for a power forward, and he thought Dave could fit the bill, if he was healthy.

"I opposed Nellie and told (owner) Jim Fitzgerald not to guarantee Cowens's one million dollar asking price," Embry continued.

"But Nellie convinced Fitz to trade Buckner to Boston for the rights to Cowens and then guaranteed the one million dollars; Nellie did not like the fact that I had disagreed."

Thus the deal was finally struck in early September of 1982, not long before training camp was set to start.

But after two years off, the athletic big man was not in the same tip-top shape he had been in during his Celtic tenure. In his prime the redhead could run as fast as any guard, jump as high as almost anyone in the NBA, and was strong as an ox.

He was arguably as athletic as any center in NBA history, and was also highly skilled, smart and incredibly competitive.

"I played fairly intensely during my career," Cowens said humbly of his comeback. "I was never able to pace myself and I became somewhat burned out. But to every job there's a challenge and a certain stimulus.

"In a way, I'll be doing something now that's refreshing. I don't guarantee anything," he told Sports Illustrated. "I'm going to go to work, go to practice and do the things I'm supposed to do and hope things fall into place."

Cowens underwent rigorous training before and after the trade was completed on September 9, 1982. Colangelo, perhaps upset by being spurned, called the trade "a good deal for Boston."

Nelson, who had played as a sixth man alongside Dave in the 1974 and 1976 Boston championship runs, knew well how great Cowens had been and was happy to get bigger and re-unite with the talented redhead.

"I really feel good that we made the right decision at this point in the history of the Milwaukee Bucks," Nelson said. "I know we lost a younger player for a man who will play with us for a short time. (But) our team is now ready to make a legitimate run at the championship.

"I am taking a risk, a calculated risk, but I know what makes Dave Cowens tick," he continued. "If anyone can come back after two years, it's Dave Cowens."

Nelson envisioned Cowens teaming up with fellow 1970 rookie class center standout Bob Lanier and All-Star small forward Marques Johnson on a great frontline that would compete or even exceed those of their main rivals in the East, Boston and Philly.

Since the unexpected retirement of fine young power forward Dave Meyers in 1980, the Bucks suffered from a hole at the four spot that Nellie thought he now had filled.

"Dave was the best player in the league at one time, but I don't expect him to reach that level," he offered. "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.' "

"I don't know if my job is on the line but it should be," he continued. "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."

Nellie turned out to be prophetic, much to his dismay.

Dave recounted how he got back into playing shape.

"I pushed myself for seven or eight weeks to see how my body would react. I played basketball two hours a day, and spent two more hours a day lifting weights, running up and down stairs and doing roadwork. One day the young guys were killing me, and the next day I was in command. Now I'll have to meet the challenge of NBA competition."

Colangelo did admit that Cowens was one of the few men who might be able to come back after a two-year layoff and multiple injuries. "There's a real question as to how successful Dave can be in his comeback," sad the Suns GM. "But Dave Cowens is unique. If his mind is set to do it, he will."

In his first regular season game back on October 30, 1982 at New York, Cowens scored eight points in a 22-point win over the Knicks. The next night at Cleveland, Dave pulled down 11 rebounds and scored four points in a 24-point victory.

CBS endlessly promoted the "return of Dave Cowens" for its national Sunday telecast in the fall of 1982 for a game vs. a revamped Seattle squad.

Milwaukee was 4-1 with Dave scoring 6.2 ppg when the Bucks welcomed the SuperSonics to town for the Sunday afternoon, November 11 game on CBS.

Seattle was 5-0 and in the midst of a historic 12-0 start with the aid of its own comeback by another 1970's superstar in newly-acquired big guard David Thompson, formerly of Denver.

The Sonics rode a 29-17 second period to a 102-90 win at the Milwaukee Arena before a crowd of 10,975. Cowens scored eight points on three of eight field shooting and 2-2 foul line accuracy in an underwhelming performance.

His waistline was wider and his hairline more receded than it had been just two years earlier when he pounded, dove and leaped on the parquet floorboards, and it was becoming apparent sfter the excitement of his comeback wore off that the ex-MVP would not even approach All-Star status in his return.

The Bucks were hoping that over time the rust and slightly excess weight would come off, allowing him to run and jump better, and that his skills and intangibles would return to near his previous level of stardom.

He did show flashes of the old greatness, but never was able to consistently reach a high level of play, due in large part to age, too much time away and most of all, injuries.

Three days later, Big Red made his much-awaited return to Boston Garden with a team wearing a deeper hue of forest green. With his number 18 already hanging from the Garden rafters, Dave scored 10 points and pulled down nine rebounds to help the Bucks to a 105-101 upset win before 15,320 torn but appreciative fans.

When Bird was a rookie it still was kind of Dave's team; but now it was clearly Larry's team now, and the Celtics and their fans had moved on.

Bird scored 28 points and nared 12 rebounds while McHale added 22 points, but the Bucks held on to make both teams 5-2. Buckner, by the way, scored two points on one for eight shooting off the Boston bench. It would turn out to be Dave's only game at and against Boston.

Cowens went scoreless in a win at Indiana Nov. 12, then rattled off five straight double-digit scoring performances as he began to hit his stride. A season-best 16-point effort in a win at Atlanta Decemebr 23 helped run the Buck record to 18-10.

On January 12, 1983 at Philadelphia, one of the teams Nellie hoped to offset with the addition of Cowens, Milwaukee lost 122-121 despite 14 points, five boards and two assists from Dave.

The Bucks won the rematch 11 days later in Milwaukee by 11 as Cowens posted a 10-7-3 line. On February 22, the Bucks wet to Phoenix and lost 112-105 despite 5-of-6 shooting by Cowens.

In the next game the Bucks won at hapless 10-46 Houston to improve to 37-19, but it would prove to be Dave's last game for 46 days.

When he returned to the lineup in mid-April vs. Indiana, the Pacers pounded the Bucks 113-90 as Cowens scored six points on perfect 3-for-3 shooting. In his 23-game absence, Milwaukee had slumped to 13-10.

With Dave hustling back to scrape the rust off for the looming playoffs, the Bucks beat Washington 97-90 in the penultimate game of the campaign.

Yet in the final game of the regular season, bad luck struck again. Atlanta beat the Bucks 96-79 but the bigger loss was Cowens, who injured his leg after scoring just two points in what turned out to be his final NBA game.

The Bucks finished 51-31 and Dave averaged 8.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game over 40 contests as he played 25.4 minutes per outing. He shot 44.4 percent from the field and 82.5 percent from the foul line, and added 2.1 assists per contest.

Extrapolated to 36 minutes per game, his numbers were a respectable 11.7, 9.7 and 2.9.

Milwaukee advanced to the second round of the eastern playoffs, where they faced Boston, the team Dave had led past the Bucks in an epic seven-game 1974 NBA Finals.

But with his leg still injured, a disappointed Dave was unable to play at all in the post-season, the main reason he had been acquired. In game two of the series at Boston, the Celtics blew a huge lead with Bird out due to a severe case of the flu.

Danny Ainge scored all 25 of his points in the first half, but Milwaukee outscored the Bird-less Celts 53-34 after intermission, including 21-9 in the fourth period, to come away with a shocking 95-91 comeback victory and a 2-0 series lead.

Cowens could be seen in a tan sports coat and dark slacks as the last Buck from the bench heading slowly to the familar Garden tunnel but this going to the other locker room. He patted a Celtic fan on the back and then trudged down the tunnel, head down, obviously torn by beating his old team and not being able to play.

Milwaukee went on to hand Boston the first 4-0 sweep in franchise history, leading to the ouster of Fitch and ushering in the K.C. Jones era. The Bucks advanced to face the 65-17 juggernaut 76ers, led by league MVP Moses Malone and on a mission, in the East finals.

With Cowens still on the sidelines hurt, for the third year in a row the 76ers eliminated Milwaukee. However, it was a much closer series than the 4-1 score would indicate.

Philly went on to sweep the Lakers 4-0 in the title series to finally win the championship that had eluded Dr. J in three prior Finals showing in 1977, 1980 and 1982.

Would Milwaukee have beaten Philly with a healthy Cowens?Possibly, but that 76er team played with great motivation and talent, and with the homecourt advantage would likey have won in seven. But to show how close the series was and would have been with Dave, in the first three games of the tight series Philly won by two points in overtime, by six and by eight.

Had Milwaukee won game one as it probably should have before a great steal and pass for the tying layup by Bobby Jones saved the day for the 76ers, the series might have unfolded differently, especially with Cowens roaming the hardwood.

Perhaps the veteran skill and experience, as well as muscle, of Cowens would have gotten the unlucky Bucks over the hump. Certainly his presence would have made the series much tougher for the 76ers, if nothing else.

No one will ever know what would have happened, although it seems a good bet Milwaukee would have beaten the Lakers in the Finals had they gotten past Philly.

"My team then (1982) was ready to win a championship, and I thought Dave would be the guy to get it done," said Nelson in Boston writer Peter May's book "The Big Three".
"I think we could have won it with that team, but Dave got hurt and it never happened," said Nellie. Despite the controversial deal, fan favorite Nellie coached the Bucks four more seasons.

When Milwaukee lost to Boston in a classic seven-game eastermn semifinal series in 1987, Nelson moved on to Golden State after 10+ years as Buck coach, and later became the league's all-time wins leader as a coach. Yet after winning five rings as a Celtic, he never got one as a coach despite several close calls.

Cowens retired for good after the 1982-83 season. However, as an assistant with the injury-riddled Spurs a dozen years later, Dave almost made another comeback, but decided against it at the last minute.

Buckner helped Boston win the 1984 title as an under-used backup backcourt defensive ace. With Buckner a bit of a disappointment, Red made another major trade for Dennis Johnson after the 1983 loss to the Bucks, and he provided the big guard defense they were lacking, plus clutch play and leadership that helped Boston hang two more banners.

Used less in a deep backcourt that featured an emerging Ainge as the Celtics reached the 1985 Finals, the increasingly heavy Buckner was dealt to Indiana the next season and retired in 1986. In 226 games with Boston, Quinn averaged 4.8 points and 2.8 assists an outing.

In the end, neither team benefited as much as hoped from the controversial trade. However, nothing can tarnish what Cowens accomplished as a true Celtic great.

No one, not even Bird, Hondo, Russell or Garnett, ever played as consistently hard as Cowens did for the green. He literally left his skin on the old parquet floor, time and again.

No NBA center ever hedged out on screens as well as Cowens, who took it as a special personal challenge to switch and hound smaller guards with his unique blend of speed quickness, aggression, strength and leaping ability.

Few if any big men rebounded, shot or ran the court as well or better. Upon his initial 1980 retirement, the crusty Fitch went so far as to say on CBS that had Cowens been made a forward for his entire career, he would have been the greatest power forward in NBA history.

On the other hand, when the Celtics brought in the recently-retired Russell to evaluate Cowens at the club's 1970 rookie camp, the perceptive Russ told Auerbach not to move the undersized dynamo from center.

"No one is going to tell that kid he can't play center," Russell perceived, immediately recognizing the fire in the belly (and athleticism) that both he and Cowens possessed which would help overcome a lack of size.

His nemesis Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also expressed a bit of sadness at Dave's retirement, noting that he was a tremendous competitor.

Hall of Fame Knick center Willis Reed, like Dave an undersized good-shooting southpaw, said Dave was one of his favorite opponents. "He was quick, fast, strong and skilled, and played hard," Reed said.

"No one ever did more for the Celtics than Dave did," summed up the understated John Havlicek, who was perfectly qualified to say so after spending his first eight seasons playing with Bill Russell and his last eight with Dave.

When one thinks about all the greats of Celtic history, that is extremely high praise, indeed.

If you wish to contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at

Who was the most intense Celtic?

Bill Russell

Bob Cousy

John Havlicek

Dave Cowens

Larry Bird

Kevin Garnett

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