A White Center is the pro basketball term for a specific sort of very tall man. He isn't nimble. He isn't quick. He can't jump over a candlestick. Besides, he is likely to be heavy in the rear, slow afoot and better at blocking hats than shots. Over the past 15 years virtually all Caucasian pivotmen have fallen into this category, even though the phrase has lost its racial connotation and has been applied to a few big black men as well. What still pertains is the fact that since 1958 nobody has won a championship with a White Center.
Dave Cowens' skin is fair, pasty when he relaxes, medium rare during the long spells of hyperactivity that mark his style. His eyes are pale, nearly blank in contrast to the vivid red of his long wavy hair. Cowens is nimble, he is quick, he can jump over candelabra and maybe the moon. He plays center for the Boston Celtics, who will enter the NBA playoffs this week with the league's best record. The Celts are favored to win their first championship in four years—and their 12th in the last 17—largely because 24-year-old Dave Cowens is the first great white Black Center.
Cowens is also the first of the super-rich young players who owns a four-wheel-drive wagon instead of a car; the first of the All-Star pivotmen to wear suspenders; the first of the bigtime basketball bachelors who has purchased neither silk sheets, a fur coverlet nor a Magic Fingers. He has, it turns out, neglected to buy a bed. To Cowens' way of thinking, if you've got it, hide it, save it, stash it in the attic or invest it in a cat-fish farm in British Honduras.
In fact, if Cowens had his choice, nobody would notice him do anything except play basketball, and he would prefer to do that in anonymity, wearing a numberless uniform and keeping no statistics other than the score. The major flaw in this notion is that he plays his position so distinctively that fans would know it was Cowens even if he wore a mask and a purple tutu Taglioni.
The best of the other pivotmen create an impression of grace, in part because of their practiced smoothness but also because they pace themselves. By contrast, Cowens is an unguided missile, a runaway freight. During any given game he is apt to run more baseline-to-baseline sprints, take part in more fast breaks, guard more outside shooters, dive for more loose balls and trample over more opponents, teammates, referees, ball boys, front-row spectators, scorekeepers, sportswriters and sundry pieces of courtside furniture than some centers do in their entire careers.
That Cowens has yet to impale himself on a basket stanchion or gore himself on a TV camera or keel over from exhaustion remains something of a marvel to the men he plays against. They often liken him to teammate John Havlicek, long the NBA's most irrepressible runner and a candidate for this year's Most Valuable Player Award, which Cowens deserves to win. While Havlicek drives a sinewy 6'5" body, Cowens is trucking a 6'8�", 230-pound frame. Havlicek is a step faster and a better shooter, but less imposing when it comes to bashing heads at top speed. And physical punishment at high speed and high altitude is the essence of Cowens' style.
"I feel less talented than a lot of the guys I play against," Cowens says, "and I know that most of them are a lot taller. But I can run the 100-yard dash with anyone in the league. To be effective, I've got to use my speed all the time. I've got to force the bigger guys out of their usual patterns and into mine by making them afraid that I'll run away from them and score easy baskets. They seem very conscious of my speed now. They're chasing me harder all the time. I started running because I didn't want them to embarrass me, and now they're running so I won't embarrass them.
"It's the same with my aggressiveness. It's the only way I can play because if I don't fight for the positions I want, the big guys will eat me up. It's absolutely necessary that I box out on every play, even if it means I might not have a chance for the rebound. By keeping my own man off the board, I know I've increased the odds that one of our other guys, like Paul Silas or Don Chaney, will get the ball.
"The times I go really hard after the ball are when I know we must have it. It's my job to get it then. I don't worry about injuries. I'm the one going a little bit nutty out there. I don't get hit because I'm doing the hitting."
Celtic Coach Tom Heinsohn believes Cowens may revolutionize the pro game as much as Boston's other dominant center, Bill Russell, did in his time. While Russell took the territory within 10 feet of the basket away from opposing shooters, Cowens, not a shot blocker of Russell's caliber, has extended the center's area of play to the four corners of the court. He has brought speed to the one spot in the lineup where it always has been considered least necessary. Cowens can slip outside for his vastly improved jump shot or curl inside for a quick, left-handed hook. He can fill a lane in the fast break and yet is strong enough to rebound against anyone. He is able to participate in the full-court press and still effectively guard far taller men close to the basket. He helps Boston play the NBA's switchingest defense because he is capable of going man-on-man against the quickest outside shooters. During Cowens' first pro season his opponents felt that he would ultimately serve Boston best as a forward. Now most pros think he is the perfect center for the Celtics' fast-tempo style.