Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
Dave Cowens' debut as the player-coach of the Boston Celtics was hardly an artistic triumph. But you will have to pardon him for jumping about six feet in the air and screaming jubilantly when his team escaped a frantic, ragged fourth quarter with a 120-118 victory over the Deaver Nuggets Friday night.
The Celtics had lost their previous six games and were 12 of 14 for the season. Under the circumstances, any kind of victory would have been enough to make a housepainter feel like Michelangelo.
Cowens, the fiery redhead who replaced soft-spoken and gentlemanly Satch Sanders Tuesday, inspired his team to its best first half of the season. Then he watched in horror as a 20-point lead in the third quarter dwindled to 120-118 with 31 seconds left.
Cowens the Coach had relied on Cowens the Player to halt two earlier erosions. But it was his sixth foul that sent Robert Smith to the line for the two free throws that pulled the Nuggets within two.
After fouling out, Cowens took charge on the bench - a task he had left to assistant coaches K. C. Jones and Bob MacKinnon - and started to deliver a Rockne-esque pep talk.
But guard Jo Jo White interrupted with a technical point, and the speech turned into a debate - Cowens, Jones, MacKinnon, White and several other players all jabbering at once. It was the most horrible example of a game-long trend toward coaching-by-committee.
When play resumed, the Celtics looked confused and stagnant. Marvin Barnes, who had helped blow leads with amazing swiftness the three previous times he had spelled the foul-plagued Cowens (17 points, 12 rebounds) at center, went back into the game but could not get free underneath.
Nate (Tiny) Archibald - who joined White as a starting guard for the first time since the season opener - was in Cowen's first lineup change. He took the ball and held it near midcourt, waiting for something to happen.
Nothing did, and so Archibald lobbed a panic-stricken pass toward Chris Ford underneath, but not in time to avoid a 24-second violation. It was the Celtic's 15th turnover of the second half, after only four in the first half.
With seven seconds remaining, the Nuggets got possession with a chance to tie the game. Denver Coach Larry Brown called time out, which gave the Celtics a chance for another chaotic group discussion.
When play resumed, Cowens looked rather desperate on the bench as the Nuggets' David Thompson - the game's high scorer with 33 points - went up for a jump shot with three seconds left.
It was bedlam at Boston Garden, where a crowd of 14,636 had come in a chilly rain to see Cowen's maiden voyage as skipper. Thompson appeared to be hit on the arm as he shot. He later said that he was hit twice, but there was no whistle and his shot bounded off the back rim as time expired.
Cowens leaped off the bench as if Boston had just won another of the National Basketball Association championships that used to be routine around here. He slapped several players on the rump, and trotted to the dressing room an ecstatic man.
"These guys were a credit to themselves tonight. We played good defense and did the little things well," he said, a statement that rang out more with elation and diplomacy than truth.
"We just wanted to play strong and play agressive, and we did that," he continued, an accurate assessment of the first three quarters but not the mistake-filled fourth.
He seemed to realize that almost immediately, adding, "We beat a good team tonight. We didn't let them get us. We didn't let them take it away."
The Nuggets (9-8) have lost four in a row, but that didn't diminish the Celtics' achievement in the mind of their new coach. It was a big victory, indeed.
In sports-crazy Boston, the naming of Cowens as the NBA's first playercoach since Lenny Wilkens during the 1974-75 season, and the second in Boston history (Bill Russell won two championships in three seasons as center-coach in 1963-66), pushed the Red Sox' loss of pitcher Luis Tiant to the archenemy Yankees off the front sports page this week.
But there was widespread skepticism that Big Red would be able to do much in the way of straightening the erstwhile Big Green Machine that had fallen into terrible disrepair.
"If I were Dave Cowens, and the Celtics win tonight," chirped a disc jockey yesterday morning, "I'd retire."
Cowens had no intention of hanging up his clipboard now that he has a 1-0 record. When asked how many years his coaching contract covered (he is signed for three more seasons after this one as a player), he smiled wryly and said, "I thought it was a permanent job."
Cowens as a coach has a good deal to learn, as he readily admits. His role during games, vis a vis that of assistant Jones and MacKinnon, will evolve gradually.
"He's going to turn things over to K.C. and Bob when the games starts. He can't substitute from the floor, but he's smart enough to know that," said Red Auerbach, who coached the Celtics to 11 world championships and is still the man everyone thinks of as the boss of the franchise in his role as general manager.