"I know that anything he's ever put his mind to do, he's done," says Auerbach. "So I'm thinking, when I quit as coach I had to have somebody who could motivate Bill Russell, so I hired Bill Russell. Now I have to have somebody who can motivate Dave Cowens. Why not Dave Cowens?"
At 5 p.m. Cowens came back to see Auerbach and Brown.
"I'd rather play for me than for someone outside the organization," said Cowens.
Brown nodded at Auerbach. "Then you're the coach," said Auerbach.
The next day in his office, sucking on a cigar and clearly pleased with himself, Auerbach took another in an endless string of phone calls from his "old guys." Russell had called, and so had Cousy. Now he had Frank Ramsey on the line. "Yeah..." Auerbach was saying. "How about that?... Yeah, we've gotten a lot of publicity from it, a lot of ink. A lot of times attitudes can win more games than anything else.... He'll knock some bleeping heads off if he has to."
Meanwhile Coach Cowens was conducting his first practice in preparation for Friday night's game against Denver. There was no joking or goofing off—not with Cowens running and working harder than he had all season, and harder than anyone else. Jones and Bob MacKinnon, the assistant coaches, did their best to help, constantly looking at Cowens to be sure of not overstepping their authority. During lulls, Cowens would sprawl in a corner with selected players—Archibald, Barnes, Maxwell—to discuss their roles and listen to suggestions. After practice, Auerbach gave his protégé a 20-minute lecture on coaching.
"Put it in the paper that Dave Cowens has given Marvin Barnes blisters," said Barnes, now the backup center, because the coach was returning Cowens to his rightful center spot.
Arriving at the Garden two hours before game time on Friday, Cowens was all business. He diagramed some Denver plays on the locker-room blackboard, and scribbled a series of numbers down one side. "Secret code," he said. "Get these guys' minds working." He joked that he had spent the afternoon reading a "How to Coach" article in Jet magazine, but when it came time to start the game he said, "Let's just go out and play hard tonight, bust some butts." And that was it.
For one night, it was like watching the old Celtics winning a seventh playoff game. There were 14,636 people in Boston Garden, the largest crowd since opening night. In the first five minutes, Cowens totally unleashed himself for the first time all season, ripping down five rebounds, making two spectacular outlet passes for patented Celtic fast breaks, two baskets and a steal. Everybody picked up on his act and the Celtics blew out to a 71-60 halftime lead, expanding it to 98-78 near the end of the third quarter.
Once Cowens was chastised by Referee Darell Garretson for huddling his team at midcourt before a free throw—"Excuse me," said the coach—and at times he was trying to handle non-priority things like time-outs and substitutions while on the floor. Then MacKinnon and Jones gently reminded him that those were their responsibilities, as per Cowens' order.