“I took the first guy from South Boston over to the Back Bay and he was a New York guy, so I took him the long way,” Dave Cowens, recalling his evening driving a cab in the midst of an NBA playoff series. “That was my first trip. Must have been a Knick fan.”
Thirty-five-years ago, after donning green and white for ten years, Dave Cowens closed out his final regular season as a Boston Celtic. Although captivating Cs fans with his above-the-rim, painted-area warfare, and two World Championship banners, Cowens’s interest in the everyman proved more fascinating.
“I had driven so many other kinds of machines, and I had rode in a lot of cabs, so I just said let me see what it’s like to drive one and pick people up,” recalled Cowens.
Catching up with Cowens forty-five years after embarking on a career with the Celtics, the Hall of Famer delivers his taxicab confession. He sets the record straight on cab driving, champagne swilling, park-bench bedding, renegade men’s leagues, and eating basketball camp cafeteria food.
In 1977, after receiving an impromptu visit from a hometown pal from the Blue Grass State, during a three-game playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs, Cowens vetoed a touristy afternoon riding the Duck Boats and opted instead for a more hands-on approach as sightseeing ambassador.
“My buddy came up from Kentucky, my good friend, and some guys told me I could go down and get a cab from the ITOA (independent taxi operators of America) for 35 bucks, and all I had to do was bring it in full of gas and I got to keep what I got,” said Cowens.
Although initially planning a moving tour of the Athens of America, Cowens’s competitive juices resonated, sacrificing city sightseeing to collect a few fares.
“The two of us started riding around in the cab together. Then we found out that people didn’t want to get in the cab with the two of us, so I made him get out and he went and did some things for a while,” reflected Cowens.
It’s inconceivable imagining LeBron James chauffeuring a cab without passenger notice. But for a night in the 1970s one of the 50 greatest basketball players in history drove one during the NBA playoffs and nobody knew the guy in the front seat started at center for the defending NBA champions.
“Actually, nobody even knew who I was,” Cowens remembered. “I put my cap on and just you know drove around. I got decent tips, though.”
Perhaps Cowens’s unassuming look, along with his working-class playing mentality, allowed him to become one with the fabric of blue-collar Boston. The Hall of Famer’s driving excursion proves that in the 1970s superstars enjoyed a more incognito form of stardom.
“It’s just a different marketplace today,” Cowens tells Breitbart Sports. “These guys just have so much to do. I don’t think these guys are any different, they are just a product of their environment and what they grow up in.”
Speaking to the era he starred in and blending in with the landscape spared Cowens unnecessary embarrassment after beating the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1974 NBA Finals.
“We had won the championship in Milwaukee, and by the time we had got back it was about 9:30 or 10:00. My brother and I got back to my little pool house in Weston, and I said, ‘I’m just still too geeked up,’” recalled Cowens.
Driving downtown, arming himself with a gym bag full of champagne, rather than attending a velvet rope after-party, Cowens elected to celebrate by going belly-up at blue-collar watering holes like an Improper Bostonian.
“That was my own way of doing it,” Cowens tells Breitbart Sports. “So then I just ran out of steam at 2:00 or 2:30 or so in the morning right down there at the Public Gardens.”
Stumbling blotto at the corner of Boylston and Arlington Streets, forgoing a suite at the adjacent Ritz—although inebriated enough to meet the prerequisites for a shared room at the Y—Cowens slept in a far less comfortable, although far-better ventilated, after-hours dormitory.
“My car was parked down there on the corner and I said I’m just gonna lay down here and rest my eyes. Well, about four hours later, I woke up,” the previous season’s MVP explained.
Sleeping on a park bench, just hours after winning the NBA title, Cowens, like all city-park snoozers appeared as just another faceless boozehound to early-morning strollers. Almost.
“I know it got in the paper, because someone obviously said something to someone, but I didn’t see any pictures,” Cowens explained. “Which is a good thing because nowadays, oh my God, now I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m just sleeping. But the only thing was there was a champagne bottle beneath me that was open.”
Spending a night on a park bench, any NBA player, let alone a former Rookie of the Year and MVP, would relive the experience on the internet for months if that happened today. But perhaps the pervasiveness of the cell phone recording, while capturing more, captivates our imagination less, retiring marching-to-the-beat-of-a-different-drummer characters such as Cowens and replacing them with caricatures of superstars living far less original, authentic lives.
Even after sharing Rookie of the Year honors in 1971, and returning to Florida State’s campus to finish the remaining thirteen hours towards a degree in criminology, Cowens hit the books that summer anonymously.
“I went down that summer and nobody even knew I was on campus. Of course, you didn’t have the internet at all or anything back then,” said Cowens.
Examples abound of Cowens coexisting with the plebeians while a member of basketball’s most storied franchise. Traversing local men’s leagues, he was infatuated with local players in the renegade circuits.
“I used to go around in the leagues to see what kind of talent was out there. I played in all kinds of leagues,” said Cowens.
In addition to spending his summer nights competing against over-the-hill, Schaefer-beer swilling, municipal-league, post players, Cowens dedicated summer mornings to blossoming ten- and eleven- year-olds attending his basketball camps. Rather than serving as a figurehead to the youth camp—signing autographs on camp pickup day or adding mundane observations at canteen—Cowens seized the camps as an outlet for vitality.
“I was with 1,200 kids, and I’d workout like a dog—do all the drills and calisthenics, sleep in the dorms, and eat cafeteria food with kids for seven weeks in a row. It’s all part of being young and strong,” recalled Cowens.
On a spring night in 1977, finishing his anthropological fieldwork as a cab driver, putting up his taxi at 10 p.m., while sporting a handful of five dollar bills, Cowens had reportedly told the Boston media that he was “suffering from burnout” and needed to “clear his head.” This is a notion he’s refuting today.
“I was burnt out when I arrived in 1970, they just didn’t know it,” joked Cowens.
Cowens’s passion for “regular” people grounded the NBA Hall of Famer’s career on and off the parquet floorboard.
“Well, I’m just interested in other people,” Cowens confesses. “I’d rather find out what you’re into than talk about myself.”
When reflecting on today’s narcissistic social-media culture ensnaring both pros and joes, it’s hard to fathom how an NBA all-time great’s night driving a taxi or his off-court, in-the-park transgression doesn’t live on forever on YouTube or win endless re-Tweets.
All proving our heroes’ most fascinating stories are best told the old fashioned way—because life’s true characters are rarely birthed in 140 characters or less.
Follow Sean Flynn in 140 characters or less @coachsflynn.