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Bird proved that beyond any doubt two weeks ago against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Holding the ball facing the basket at the left-wing position and guarded by Toby Knight, Bird saw a teammate break over a pick and toward the basket, but appeared to have no opening for a pass because Knight had defended the play well. Without moving his feet, Bird shoveled the ball behind his back with his right hand, and delivered a perfect bounce pass that Knight never saw. It was a dazzling play—so dazzling, in fact, that Bird's teammate, Jeff Judkins, missed the layup, and two New York newspaper columnists missed Judkins, reporting instead that it was Celtic Guard Gerald Henderson who had received the pass. One of the columnists even insisted that Henderson had made the layup. With Bird, what you see is what you get, but what you get isn't always what you think you see.
The addition of Bird has not only made Celtics games more exciting for the Boston faithful, but it has also had a tonic effect on Cowens' game at center. Recently Cowens was asked if it was fun to play for the Celtics again, fun in the way it had been in 1974 and again in '76 when he was a near-heroic figure on Boston championship teams. Cowens knows all about fun. Wasn't it he, after all, who, on the occasion of being introduced to Phyllis George when she was a CBS headliner, told the former Miss America she had some food caught in her teeth and asked her politely if she wouldn't like some dental floss to get it out? Wasn't this that Dave Cowens? Well, no, apparently not. Cowens considered the question for a long moment, then said, "Define fun." Hoo, boy.
Fun wasn't the only thing missing from Cowens' game last season. Gone, too, was The Look—the zombie-crazy aspect of a very disgruntled werewolf that comes over Cowens' face when his concentration on the game is complete. Cowens is now in his 10th season with the Celtics, and when he was good he was very good. But he no longer jumps as well, so without The Look he is really just another 6'8" white guy trying to play center.
Cowens' play last year was a matter of considerable concern to Fitch when he arrived at the Celtics last June after nine seasons in Cleveland. "Dave has to have a high level of intensity to be a great player," Fitch says. "A center is like a bullfighter—if he loses that intensity he gets gored. Dave was getting gored, and it hurt to watch."
No one was more painfully aware of Cowens' shortcomings than Cowens himself. The Celtics' long winning tradition had been an emotional rudder for him during his first seven seasons in Boston, a kind of psychic automatic pilot. "Anytime you have a tradition like the Celtics have," he says, "you get so you do things without question, because that's the way they've always been done. It's like a religion. Last year we didn't do a lot of the things people associate with the Celtics' tradition, and that was because there were a lot of people here who weren't willing to pay the price. And what it boils down to is if you want to win you have to pay a price."
Not until training camp was Fitch convinced that Cowens was willing to pay his price. "I only had Dave's word that he was going to bend it to win," Fitch says. "He had to prove himself like everybody else."
Fitch didn't leave any fan clubs behind him in Cleveland, but after two sea-needed in Boston, and the Celtics seemed to welcome Fitch's tough discipline. "Getting Fitch was the smartest move I ever made," says Auerbach. "He's a disciple of mine, you know. He studied the way I coached and everything."
Fitch's job was made easier when the Celtics signed free-agent Forward M. L. Carr from Detroit and then unloaded McAdoo as compensation in the bargain. Only two NBA players had more playing time last season than Carr, and he led the league in steals, but it was as much for his disposition—which is resolutely cheerful—as his skills that Boston went after him.
When Fitch arrived in Boston he decided it was important to make Carr happy about becoming the Celtics' sixth man. If he mentioned the names of other great Celtics sixth men of the past—names like Frank Ramsey, Havlicek, and Paul Silas—it didn't have much of an effect on Carr. "I don't want to get caught up in that sixth-man syndrome," Carr says. "I have a role to play, and it doesn't matter if I'm the sixth or the seventh or the eighth man, I'll still play just as hard. This is the happiest I've ever been. I'm one of the most fortunate people in the world. I think I have the best job in the country, a better job than President Carter, and I'll probably keep mine longer."