SI Vault
John Papanek
November 27, 1978
The Atlantic Division of the NBA has a new-old glow, with Boston's fiery Cowens joining the coaching ranks and New York's intense Holzman re-upping
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November 27, 1978

Call It The Redheaded League

The Atlantic Division of the NBA has a new-old glow, with Boston's fiery Cowens joining the coaching ranks and New York's intense Holzman re-upping

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Red Holzman and Dave Cowens. Two redheads. Together they would make the oddest couple—like George Burns and John Belushi. One is 58, the other 30. One is a stern old master, the other often acts like a latter-day Huckleberry Finn. But suddenly there was Holzman again kneeling on the sideline, clenching a rolled-up program, and there was Cowens motivating his teammates by example and by dictate.

First, in New York, Sonny Werblin, Madison Square Garden's boss of bosses, finally grew tired of the egotistical blunderings of Knick Coach Willis Reed, and gave Holzman another chance to teach the team's talented young zillionaires how to play winning basketball. Next, in Boston, venerable General Manager Red Auerbach, acting with equal parts desperation and calculation, axed gentlemanly Celtic Coach Satch Sanders and shocked everyone by turning the team over to Cowens, onetime leave taker, tree grower, taxi driver, race-track PR man, snow shoveler and all-round eccentric to "knock some bleeping heads" on the lethargic Celtics. And both redheads made their bosses look good.

If Cowens' appointment was stunning, Reed's dismissal and Holzman's return seemed almost inevitable, by comparison. Reed had had problems last year—his rookie year as a coach—in communicating with Knick nonconformists like Bob McAdoo, Spencer Haywood and rookie Ray Williams, but his deficiencies were excused because of his inexperience. Reed carried a chip on his shoulder, however, and after the season ended, he loudly reminded everyone that no team could be expected to win without a big center, such as he so conspicuously was in his glory days with the Knicks, and with all that money around, the Knicks just better get one—or else. Management accommodated him by acquiring Marvin Webster at great expense from Seattle. Reed also had another notion: that Earl Monroe, the veteran, magical guard, was nearly washed up. If he wouldn't take a $175,000 pay cut and sit as fourth guard, who needed him? The Pearl figured he didn't need the Knicks under those terms and remained unsigned.

When New York got off to a 6-8 start this season playing the same helter-skelter, no-defense ball that had characterized it last year, Reed's job was in jeopardy. Moreover, in the midst of a lackluster West Coast road trip, Reed publicly blamed management for not signing Monroe, and he demanded—through the newspapers—a vote of confidence. That was the last straw.

"I thought, 'Here he goes again,' " said Werblin, who promptly fired Reed. "It's not because of his record," Werblin said. "It's this 'We and They Syndrome.' I told Willis maybe a dozen times that we were all in this together, that he could not play himself against management and do his talking through the papers."

Re-enter Holzman, who a year and a half earlier had been treated like so much excess baggage. Having spent 13 years establishing himself as one of basketball's best minds, Holzman was told by the Knicks that the game had passed him by. It was said that he didn't "relate" to the younger players. He was made a "consultant" and was never consulted. But in the crunch, ever the company man, Holzman took the job again. "When the company needs you, you come back," he said. And so, very shortly thereafter, did Monroe.

The Knicks then went out and won four straight under Holzman. In so doing they held their opponents to an average of 97.8 points a game; under Reed this season the average was 114.6. And, with so much raw talent in their forward line—McAdoo, Webster, Haywood and Toby Knight—plus a young and gifted backcourt of Williams, Jim Cleamons, rookie Michael Ray Richardson and the ever-wondrous Monroe, who is to say that Holzman won't be this year's Lenny Wilkens?

By a curious coincidence, Holzman's re-debut at Madison Square Garden two Saturdays ago was against the Celtics and thus witnessed by Auerbach and the Celtics' new co-owner, John Y. Brown. Boston's woeful performance that night and a 128-123 loss at home on Sunday to lowly Detroit left its record at 2-12, the worst start in Celtic history. Brown was at that one, too. Since Brown rarely attends Celtic games, his presence lent credence to the rumor of an imminent coaching change.

Sanders' problems had been intensified by a deal that Brown had negotiated without Auerbach's knowledge, bringing to Boston Tiny Archibald, Billy Knight and the perplexing Marvin Barnes, none of whom had ever played in anything resembling the Celtic system. Sanders was therefore forced to experiment; in the first 14 games he used eight different starting lineups involving 10 different players. To make room for Barnes, he moved Cowens from center to forward, where Cowens seemed to lose all his renowned intensity. In 30 minutes against the Knicks he had one rebound, and he had taken to doing most of his shooting from 20 feet. Archibald's style of play infuriated veteran Guard Jo Jo White, who wanted the ball, too. Meanwhile, Cedric (Cornbread) Maxwell, last year's outstanding rookie, was sharing playing time at small forward with Knight, who was recovering from knee surgery and had been a total disappointment.

After the Detroit loss, Brown and Auerbach huddled in Auerbach's office. The team had a six-game losing streak. Worse, attendance had sunk from 12,165 to 9,500 per game. Sanders would have to go. But who would replace him?

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