It was 6:30 on Friday evening when Dave Cowens' train pulled into North Station. It had been a harrowing ride for him amongst throngs of people on their way to Boston Garden specifically to watch his return to the Celtics after an absence of 65 days. Cowens' fellow passengers were not hostile. They yelled encouragement to him, told him they were glad he had returned, clapped him on the back, asked for his autograph. But all the attention made Cowens uneasy. He had taken the train in from his apartment in Wellesley because more snow was forecast, and now, at this critical time for him, he was already half an hour late for a game against the Portland Trail Blazers.
In the Celtic dressing room the rest of the players were suited up and sitting in front of their stalls. A fresh uniform hung in Cowens' locker and a pair of his Japanese-made Tiger shoes were on the floor. The Celtics were tense. Coach Tom Heinsohn was twisting his thumbs nervously through his belt loops. It had been this way in the Celtic locker room for most of the season. There had been contract bitterness with John Havlicek and Paul Silas. Then Silas was gone, traded away, and new players arrived, Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks. Then, on Nov. 10, after a 4-4 start, Cowens stunned everybody by saying he was quitting his job, leaving the team and his $280,000 salary. Finally, two days earlier, premier Guard Charlie Scott had broken his arm and was lost for perhaps the rest of the season. But tonight, at least, Cowens was coming back.
Now it was 6:35, and still no Cowens. Someone told Heinsohn to smile. His eyes widened, his nostrils flared and he bellowed a long, loud humorless laugh. "My funny bone's been tested enough this year," he said.
Havlicek, three months shy of 37 and suddenly a starting guard, tried to break the tension. "Well, everybody wants to know what's going to happen next," he was saying. "Here it is: a paramilitary unit in Burma hard pressed for money comes to the Garden and holds all the players and fans for ransom—the players for their salaries, the fans for twice the face value of their tickets...."
At 6:37 the door was flung open and in blew Cowens. Heinsohn let out his breath. "Man," said Jim Ard, who had helped fill in at center in Cowens' absence, "they said you were everywhere but New Mexico."
Not playing for two months never did go quite the way Cowens had envisioned it. He spent some nice days over Christmas with the family on the farm in Cold Spring, Ky., worked out a bit, shot a few baskets, sold about 1,000 Christmas trees and put 6,000 miles on his van during leisurely pleasure-and-business trips between Florida, Kentucky, Boston, Houston, Philadelphia and New York. But he found that he did not stop being a celebrity simply because he was no longer playing. He was constantly asked by reporters why he left the game and when he would return. Cowens never understood why the questions never ended or why so many people seemed to care.
During the second week in December, Pres Hobson, general manager of the New England Harness Raceway in Foxboro, Mass., arranged through one of Dave's friends to discuss with Cowens the possibility of Cowens taking a job at the track. Hobson had known for some time of Cowens' interest in harness racing, that Cowens had owned a trotter and that he had been thinking of investing in a breeding farm. The track (then known as Baystate Raceway) had been purchased the previous week—50% by a partnership of Edward J. Keelan and Dr. Thomas Carney, who own dog tracks in New England and Florida, and 50% by a group headed by Eddie Andelman, a real-estate developer known in Boston for his weekly radio talk show, SPORTS HUDDLE. A few months earlier Keelan, and Carney had also bought Midwest Raceway in Henderson, Ky., about 30 miles from Cowens' home. The two tracks run meets in alternate three-month periods, and Hobson is also general manager at Midwest.
Hobson insisted that Cowens' natural connections to the two tracks—via the Celtics and his Kentucky home—were merely happy accidents. "I wanted a nice young person with unquestioned integrity and an interest in the business to take some of the load off me," he said. "I told him this was absolutely not a stunt for publicity, that he would have to work hard and learn to do all the things I do." Hobson offered Cowens the position of assistant general manager at both tracks, at a salary of $12,500 at each. "What we would pay anyone who was just learning the job," he said.
What Hobson hadn't mentioned to Cowens was that Keelan and Carney were regarded as carpetbaggers by the folks in Kentucky, and that Keelan had awakened one morning with the stupendous idea of eventually installing Cowens as president of Midwest.
Cowens told Hobson he would let him know about the job after Christmas and headed to Kentucky, feeling renewed by the job offer. But he was back in Boston a week later, this time to attend the Celtics-Milwaukee Bucks game on Dec. 15, the night the Celtics were to retire the No. 19 worn by Cowens' close friend Don Nelson, now the Bucks' coach. Cowens thought he could slip into the Garden unnoticed. Instead, he was assaulted by photographers and reporters and pretty much turned Nelson's night into a fiasco.