"He doesn't even have a dog," says Milwaukee Assistant Coach John Killilea. "People may start to think it's me, so now I don't walk anywhere near him."
One reason the trade is especially controversial is that last spring the Bucks' title hopes were dashed when Buckner suffered a dislocation and torn ligaments in his right thumb 12 games before the end of the regular season. In the Eastern semifinal series against the 76ers' half-court traps and presses, Sidney Moncrief and Brian Winters struggled to get the ball up the court, a task Buckner usually performed with consummate skill.
"People who had no idea what a point guard is are moaning that we need a point guard," says Buck Vice-President John Steinmiller, who on Oct. 1 signed the team's No. 1 draft choice, Paul Pressey, a 6'5" guard. "Just like up to now we've needed a 'power forward.' Now we need a 'point guard.' "
"I wouldn't make a major deal just to get a friend to have a beer with," Nelson says, "but it was an important point that I know Dave intimately. I know that he won't fail unless there's a physical reason for it. He was the best player in the league at one time, but I don't expect him to reach that level. If he's very mediocre we'll still be a better team. I'm more confident than Dave is. He just says, 'I don't know how good I'll be, but I'll give it my best shot.' " Indeed, Cowens is officially only on leave from Regis.
And being able to give his all is important to Cowens. When he walked out on the Celtics—and his $280,000 salary—in '76-77, he did so, he said, because he'd lost his enthusiasm. During that time, Cowens sold Christmas trees back home in Kentucky. Eventually, after some gentle arm-twisting by Celtic President Red Auerbach, he resumed playing. When asked at the time why he came back, Cowens replied, "Because if I didn't, I would be denying myself the privilege of doing what I do best."
But Cowens was never able to rekindle his old spark. A 27-41 record as player-coach of an uncharacteristically selfish Celtics team in 1978-79 did little to help his psyche. Nor did nagging injuries to his back, ankles and feet. Nine days before the start of the 1980-81 season, Cowens stood up on the team bus as the Celtics were traveling to Evansville, Ind. for an exhibition game and announced his retirement, saying he could no longer perform effectively.
In April of '81, when the Celtics were en route to their 14th NBA title, Cowens accepted the position at Regis, where he had run a summer basketball camp for 10 years. His visits to Boston Garden that season and in 1981-82 were infrequent.
Although Cowens says he doesn't know why he chose to make a comeback, he does admit that the bug hit about the first of this year. "I had decided that I would try, so I started to tone up my body," he says. Then six weeks before the start of this past summer's camp at Regis, Cowens invited an old friend, David Guidugli, to Boston for a couple of months to help in his training.
"At first I couldn't even run, my condition was so bad," says Cowens. Apparently it wasn't that bad, because after seeing Cowens work out, representatives from the Suns were impressed enough to get Auerbach's permission to negotiate with Cowens. By now Cowens himself was game enough to try. "I never did come to any great conclusions," he says. "I managed to go through the whole training thing without hurting myself, which was what I wanted to discover."
At first, Auerbach was adamant about not trading Cowens to an Eastern Conference team, particularly a powerful one like Milwaukee. Phoenix, a Western Conference team long in need of a bruiser, was more to Auerbach's liking, and the Suns were ready to fork over a top draft choice. "I value first-round picks, but ours is invariably in the range of 16 to 22," says Colangelo. "We were prepared to give that up to get Dave and had reached a tentative agreement with him and his agent, but when Milwaukee went as far as they did, that was it."