A Labor Day NBA Tribute

If there was one NBA player who typified the spirit of Labor Day, it was Dave Cowens.

Cowens was not, should we say, a delicate player.  He played with a burning intensity that bordered on rage.  <Insert redhead joke here.>  During his rookie season, he amassed what was then the second-highest single-season foul total in NBA history.

Eventually, Cowens harnessed his inner fire and used it as fuel for a Hall of Fame career.  His work in 1974 slowed Kareem just enough to prevent the Bucks from winning their second title, but the manner in which he defended Oscar on a single play may have left the most indelible image.  Don’t believe me? Watch these clips and see the steal from Game 6 at least 5 different angles, one of which shows the streaky mess he left on the floor. Gross.

Following 10 seasons in Boston, he retired, only to return to the NBA as a Buck in 1982 after a two-year hiatus. 40 games later, following a season of tag-teaming the injury list/center position with Bob Lanier, he retired once again.

A 6’8″ center, Cowens defended taller players by pushing them, leaning on them, scrambling around them, and yes, fouling them.  But even fouling had a certain dignity to it:  Offensive players tried to score, defensive players tried to stop them, and referees blew the whistle when either side broke the tenets of the rulebook. Everything was on the up and up, at least from Cowens’ view.

But then all hell broke loose.  The floppers arrived and they drove Cowens crazy — to the extent that he committed ridiculous fouls in retaliation to drive home a point.  As recounted in Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball,

A guard named Mike Newlin flopped to draw a charge from the great Dave Cowens… Completely and utterly outraged that Newlin committed such a phony act of sportsmanship, Cowens berated the ref who made the call, yelled at him some more, then started running back on defense when he noticed Newlin dribbling up the court. Now, our seats were at midcourt, so this happened right in front of us and nearly caused me to pee my pants — as Cowens was running, he snapped and suddenly charged Newlin like a free safety, bodychecked him at full speed (much, MUCH harder than Horry’s foul on Nash) and sent poor Newlin careening into the press table at about 35 mph. Then he turned to the same ref and screamed …


Celtics beat writer Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe took Cowens to task for his actions, berating him in a column the next day in a column titled “Shame on Cowens — his act indefensible”. (Side note: In the one part of the article where Ryan empathized with Cowens, Ryan cited, among others, Jerry Sloan as one of the floppers.)

Ok, now what?  You’ve won an NBA title and the MVP award within the past three years, you’ve just assaulted a fellow player, and the hometown beat reporter just ripped you to shreds.  What do you do next?  Of course!  You write a 400-word manifesto on the inherent perils of letting floppers do their thing.  I can’t say that I disagree with that line of thought.  Flopping IS evil.  If karma is any indication of taking the just side, Cowens and the Celtics won a title three months later.


THE PURPOSE — To once and for all impress upon the referees, coaches, players and fans that fraudulent, deceiving and flagrant acts of pretending to be fouled when little or no contact is made is just as outrageously unsportsmanlike as knocking a player to the floor.  I would not and never have taught youngsters to play other than by the rules, morals, ethics and character of the game.

The following are the reason why I disagree with the acting that is going on in high school, college and professional basketball:

1.  Pretending makes players think they can achieve their goal without putting in the work or effort that it takes to develop any skill or talent.

2.  Hostilities arise among the players who are obviously being victimized by the actor’s ability to make the officials react instinctively to any flagrant, out-of-place action.

3.  It distracts anyone who attends the game to study fundamental basketball skills and traits of the game, i.e., scouts, coaches, players, et al.

4.  It arouses the ignorant fans who react vehemently to violent gestures or seemingly unsportsmanlike conduct (almost always on the home court of the actor) and can lead to minor uprisings, thrown articles on the court, and so forth.

5.  If this practice continues unrestrained or the actor is allowed to utilize this fraudulent exercise successfully, it will gradually become an accepted strategy and will be taught to kids more enthusiastically by their coaches.  After all, everyone wants to win and will take advantage of any ploy to do so.  This way, a weak defensive player will have another method of getting by without having to learn how to play defense properly.

You may think I am exaggerating this point and I am sure the public is tired of hearing about this technicality, but I have noticed that the number of pretenders has risen over the past three or four years resulting in numerous, invisible contact fouls being assessed.  This happens especially as a result of the fundamentally-sound strategy of creating mismatches close to the basket with the smaller player taking a dive because of the high percentage that the big men will score. Nowadays, some average defensive big men are taking to falling down unnecessarily to get the more skilled big men in foul trouble, leaving the better player at a disadvantage.  This, in plain words, is what I call “cheating”.


Cowens calls it ‘cheating’.  Does flopping rise to that level of fraudulence?  Regardless of the degree to which faking fouls violates ethical codes, the NBA had the same problem in 1976 that it has 35 years later: too many people taking a dive to sway the refs.  At the same time, it has ample time to make revisions to its rules during the lockout.  The league needs to convene its Competition Committee and figure out a way to institutionalize a way to punish players who pretend. 35 years is long enough… even the crazy, workaholic, redhead says so.

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Tags: Boston Celtics Dave Cowens Mike Newlin Milwaukee Bucks

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