Who knows why Dave Cowens is returning to the NBA after a two-year retirement? Who knows why Cowens, the 6'8�", 228-pound center who was the NBA's MVP in 1973, is now in the Milwaukee Bucks' training camp instead of the Boston Celtics', his former team? Who knows? Well, certainly not Cowens. "I don't intend to go out and brag about my coming back," he says. "Honestly, I don't know why I am."
Nonetheless, for whatever reason, Cowens, being perhaps of sound mind and body, decided early this year to determine just how sound each was. That ultimately led to his return to the NBA last Saturday when he reported to the Bucks' training camp.
But until he pops in a lefthanded jump hook from the baseline or blocks a shot in the lane, and does it more than 30 games into the season, the jury will be out on whether the Bucks and Cowens, who's nearly 34 and for the last 17 months has been athletic director at Regis College in Weston, Mass., made the right choices. "I see it as fun and a challenge," Cowens says, "but I'm not interested in doing it part time. I don't want nagging injuries to bother me all the time."
"There's a real question as to how successful Dave can be in his comeback," says General Manager Jerry Colangelo of the Phoenix Suns, who almost signed Cowens. "But Dave Cowens is unique. If his mind is set to do it, he will."
Ah, yes, the famous Cowens on-court mind set, the crazed look, the nonstop intensity. And that mental toughness still seems to be there; over the nine months since Cowens decided to give the comeback a shot, he has run and lifted weights with such unyielding purpose that he arrived in Milwaukee in remarkably good shape. Although he weighs about the same as he did before his retirement, his body is tauter, his muscles tighter. "If nothing else, he'll look great in the team picture," says Bucks Coach Don Nelson.
The Bucks had more than a little beefcake in mind last month when they traded starting Point Guard Quinn Buckner, 28, to the Celtics for Cowens. In the past two years Milwaukee has fallen just short of overtaking Eastern Conference rivals Boston and Philadelphia. "We could beat them or anyone else on any given night," Nelson says, "but in a seven-game series they tended to wear us down. We weren't a powerful team. Bob Lanier, the most powerful guy we have, is too old [he's also 34, but his knees are 106] to be the muscleman anymore."
Yeah, fine, but if Cowens is so tough why isn't he pushing opponents around for the Celtics, for whom he toiled so zealously for 10 seasons? One reason is that Boston is well-stocked up front with Robert Parish, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Rick Robey, all of whom are as big as or bigger than Cowens. Another, although Cowens won't admit it directly, is that he didn't like playing for Celtic Coach Bill Fitch three years ago and found the prospect of doing so again less than inviting. Nelson is another story. He and Cowens were tight when they were teammates in Boston, where Cowens was the main cog and Nelson the wily forward on Celtic teams that won NBA titles in 1974 and 1976.
Besides, coming back to the NBA but not with Boston might have had special appeal to Cowens' iconoclastic soul. He has always gloried in the unconventional, whether it was living in a pool house or dressing in the cheapest clothes possible or taking a 65-day "leave of absence" during the 1976-77 season or driving a cab later that season.
If Cowens can make a successful comeback, then Nelson will have his powerful front line, with Lanier in the middle and Cowens and Marques Johnson at the forwards. But the price the Bucks had to pay—Buckner—may have been too high. Some Milwaukeeans, and more than one member of the Bucks, believe that Nelson traded the heart of the Bucks for a player who may turn out to be no more than an expensive drinking buddy. "Time will tell" should be the Bucks' motto this season, but Nelson isn't sure he has that luxury.
"I read where people were going to start shooting at my dog like they did [former Green Bay Packer Coach] Dan Devine's," says Nelson.