Bird’s Rookie Year – Game 19 vs. the Hawks

Celtics (14-4) vs. Hawks (13-9)
Saturday, November 24
Omni Coliseum

Both teams entered the game on streaks: the Celtics were winners of the past two while the Hawks had dropped road games to the Bucks and Bulls.  The difference in this game, however, came down to one simple fact: the Celtics had Dave Cowens and Atlanta did not.  The Green Team received a vintage performance from the 6’9″ product out of Florida State.

 

 

Cowens dominated the Hawks with 28 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists in a 106-101 road win for the Celtics.  Entering his tenth season in the league — and what would turn out to be his final season with the Celtics — Cowens had only one switch, and it was always turned ON.  His NBA.com Legends page goes into further detail:

Celtics general manager Red Auerbach realized that he needed someone to at least attempt to fill the shoes of Bill Russell, whose retirement after the 1968-69 championship season left the Celtics a team that could only muster 34 wins the following year despite the presence of the great John Havlicek. He liked Cowens’ hard-working attitude and work ethic, so Boston made Cowens the fourth overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft, behind Bob Lanier, Rudy Tomjanovich and Pete Maravich. “He’s a very dedicated kid,” Auerbach said at the time. “A dedicated kid isn’t unheard of, but there aren’t as many around as we would like. But our problem with Cowens is telling him when to lay off. He does too much.”

One of the things Cowens did too much in his rookie year with the Celtics was foul other players; he committed a league-high 350 infractions. (He would foul out of 90 games by the end of his career, a total that ranks among the top 20 of all time.) But he also averaged 17.0 points and 15.4 rebounds, the most ever by a first-year Celtics player besides Russell. Cowens’ achievements earned him a share of the NBA Rookie of the Year honors, with Geoff Petrie of the Portland Trail Blazers. The Celtics improved to 44-38, and Cowens quickly won accolades for his hustle, mobility, tenacity and unselfish approach to the game.

At 6-9 and 230 pounds, Cowens certainly was neither the biggest nor the most overpowering center in the league, particularly when compared to the likes of Lanier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain. His versatility and energy were his greatest assets, along with a willingness to sacrifice his own scoring total — and his body — for the good of the team.

Cowens ran baseline to baseline, set picks, made heady passes, participated in full-court presses, blocked seemingly unblockable shots, dived into the crowd after loose balls, muscled through the paint for tip-ins, and generally made himself a nuisance to Celtics opponents. He once broke his foot in an exhibition game by slamming into a basket support while blocking a shot.

“I thought he was a wild man,” former teammate Paul Silas said. “I’d never seen anybody with that much talent play that aggressively.”

Cowens returned to his wild man form against Atlanta, and the Hawks paid dearly.  Larry Bird finished with 10/7/4, playing a little more like an NBA rookie, while Tiny Archibald produced 8 more assists before fouling out.  Cedric Maxwell had yet another terrific night, finishing with 22 points (he was 8-of-9 from the field) and 10 boards.  With Archibald plagued by foul trouble, Chris Ford quietly enjoyed his finest night of the season.  Ford was 3-for-3 from three-point land and finished the night with 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists.  Even with a 30-minute delay due to condensation on the floor, the Celtics’ never lost their momentum through the second-through-fourth quarter, outscoring the Hawks by 12 points through that stretch.

The first-place Celtics returned to action on Wednesday, November 28 against the Denver Nuggets.

NBA Scores from Saturday, November 24, 1979

  • Golden State 106-Chicago 101  (22 from Robert Parish, 7 from Jo Jo White)
  • Phoenix 115, Denver 101
  • Washington 105, Houston 103
  • Indiana 115, Pistons 97
  • New York 133, Cleveland 113
  • Philadelphia 91, New Jersey 82

 

About Justin Barrasso

Justin Barrasso has worked in the Boston sports scene in various different capacities since 2001, including writing for the Boston Herald and WEEI.com.