SI Vault
John Papanek
November 22, 1976
Dave Cowens left the Celtics for a reason that seemed simple to him: he had lost his enthusiasm for the game
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November 22, 1976

The Fire Was Gone And So He Quit

Dave Cowens left the Celtics for a reason that seemed simple to him: he had lost his enthusiasm for the game

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Dave Cowens is discovered in a toy store in Wellesley, Mass., above which he has his bachelor apartment. A few good friends are with him and he is wearing a huge grin. He does not look depressed, drawn, tortured or ill in any way. What he looks like is a kid who has just finished his last day of school. "I'm doing fine," he chortles. "I just don't understand why everybody is making such a big thing out of this. I'm just a guy who quit his job."

Why, indeed, would anyone want to make a big thing out of that, even if the job he quit was worth $280,000 a year, and even if at 28 years of age he was one of the very best basketball players going and the key man on the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics? And why should it be so noteworthy that he decided to leave his team, out of what seemed a clear blue sky, nine games into the new season, not because he wanted to renegotiate his contract, or because he was mad at anyone—teammate, coach, general manager or owner?

Cowens does not see what he did last week in apocalyptic terms. In his view, he has merely left basketball for the time being, taking an unprecedented, unpaid leave of absence. He is going back to his home in Kentucky. He says he believes he will return to basketball, but he does not know just when. "Probably not this year. I've got a lot of thinking to do."

In the toy store he talked about why he decided to take the time off.

"I just lost my enthusiasm for the game. That's all I can say. This wasn't something sudden for me, I'd been thinking about it for three months. I even thought seriously about quitting before the season started, but I figured, aw, I'd try it and see how it was. And then I just didn't have it. Nothing. When somebody drives right by you and you shrug your shoulders and say, 'Aw, what the hell,' when you go down and make a basket like a robot, when you win or lose a ball game and it doesn't matter either way, when you can't even get mad at the refs, then something's wrong. I couldn't do anything about it. When there's nothing left, there's no use making believe there is. I don't want to spoil the Celtics and I don't want to take their money if I'm not earning it. I just quit my job, that's all. What's wrong with that? Other guys do it every day. Nobody makes a big thing out of them."

But when the Celtics announced last Wednesday that Cowens had left the team for an "indefinite" period, it did become a very big thing. And before Cowens chose to explain what he was up to, rumors and speculations of every sort arose. First, it was guessed that he might be seriously ill. A spokesman for the Celtics said that he was 15 pounds underweight and that blood tests had been taken. ( Cowens laughs and says that he weighs 235, as much as ever, and feels fine; that the blood tests were routine for all team members.)

It was then suggested that Cowens was distraught because he had lost money on the several basketball camps he ran last summer. ( Cowens' business manager said the idea was ridiculous: Why would a man quit a $280,000 job if he had money problems?)

Other stories seemed to have some grains of truth. It is known that Cowens does not get along with Coach Tom Heinsohn, a loud and abrasive man at court-side. Cowens is also known to have been unhappy with the drastic turnover of Celtic personnel. He misses his old friends Don Nelson, Hank Finkel, Paul Westphal, Don Chaney and especially Paul Silas, who was traded to Denver this year after a bitter contract dispute. And some of Cowens' friends say that he was extremely tired after personally directing his summer camps, beginning the day after the playoffs ended last June. He was able to spend only two weeks at home in Kentucky all summer and had dreaded the opening of training camp.

"All that stuff is ridiculous," says Cowens, patiently. "Nobody and nothing had anything to do with this. It's me. That's all."

But nonetheless, it is true that without Silas, Cowens has had to work much harder around the basket this season. He seemed to be tiring earlier than usual and committing more fouls. He was disqualified three times in Boston's first eight games, including the last two he played in. Not at all like Cowens.

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