In Boston, Dave Cowens made his return last week, too—somewhat ahead of schedule and with the Celtics in less desperate shape than the Bucks. Minus their center since he broke a bone in his right foot during an exhibition game, the defending NBA champions were 9-8, far below their .800 record at this time last year but still definitely in the division race. Half of Boston's losses had come in one-point games. The night of Cowens' return the Celts won a one-pointer, 95-94 over Phoenix—an omen, the faithful were sure.
In his second game, against Seattle, Cowens was in and out all evening, still tiring easily and obviously out of sync. But, back in at 6:40 of the fourth period, he set off a rally that produced 12 straight points in a mere 1:55 and turned the game around. Three fast-break baskets, two Cowens free throws and bombs by Cowens and John Havlicek detonated the Celtics toward a 104-99 win.
"He sparks everybody," says Forward Paul Silas. "Seeing a big guy diving for loose balls sets up a chain reaction. We knew if we could stay around .500 until Dave got back, we'd be O.K."
While his teammates waited and hung in at about .500, Cowens single-mindedly prepared for his comeback. He worked out a conditioning program for himself and, unlike Abdul-Jabbar, attended every Celtic practice and home game. "We appreciated the fact that he wanted to be around," Silas says. "He was concerned enough to show up."
"Once I was able to scrimmage," Cowens says, "20 minutes was as good as two hours of exercise." Cowens is encouraged by his progress. "I can't go for a prolonged period at a fast pace," he says, "so I pick my spots. But my timing is coming back and I can jump higher and more consistently." In his fourth game, against New York, he started for the first time and played 41 minutes of the rugged sort of game everyone remembers him for—barreling down the floor, thrashing around like a man possessed. "Even with his timing off," says Coach Tommy Heinsohn, "it's like night and day when Dave is in there. He's a commanding figure. He goes in and sticks his fanny in somebody's face."
"He may still not be able to do a lot of things," says Havlicek, the spiritual leader of the Celtics, "but we weren't very fluid in our offensive patterns without him. In those four one-point games, the lack of timing on a play could have been the difference." Characteristically, Havlicek brushed aside questions about his own physical problem, a right knee that has become increasingly painful because of suspected calcium deposits in the joint. The knee is not too painful to play on, Havlicek insists. Yet he has not quite been able to run with his old abandon, and it would be ironic—and trouble for the Celtics—if just as one of their big men came roaring back, the other one headed for the infirmary.