05/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Sit Down With Big Red: Dave Cowens on Being a Good Man

During his 11-season, hall-of-fame career in the NBA, Dave Cowens led the Boston Celtics to two championships, played in seven all-star games, and earned one league MVP award. Following his third and final retirement, after playing for the Milwaukee Bucks during the 1982-83 season, Cowens ran the Sports Museum of New England and then returned to professional basketball, serving two stints as an assistant coach and two as a head coach in the NBA and one as a general manager and head coach in the WNBA. Since 1972, he has run the Dave Cowens Basketball School an overnight summer program in Massachusetts for boys and girls ages 10 through 18. Cowens estimates that over the years some 35,000 kids have participated in the camp.

Good Men Project cofounder Tom Matlack, an unabashed Celtics fan, met with Cowens, now 61, last month at Cowens' home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Matlack gave Big Red the Manhood Quiz and also spoke with him about the first time he retired as a player and his becoming a cab driver, which, contrary to common belief, are two different stories.

Tom Matlack: So what are you up to these days? Are you scouting for the Pistons?

Dave Cowens: Scouting. My contract ends in June. I went to Detroit as an assistant coach with [former head coach] Flip Saunders a few years ago, and then they fired him. I wanted to be the head coach, but instead they hired Michael Curry.

So I went to Joe [Dumars, the Pistons president of basketball operations] and said, "I've got one year left on my contract. Why don't you have me do some college scouting? I've got a place in Florida, and we've got the ACC, the SEC, the Big East all playing in Florida. I could scout for you down there." This was last February. He says, "I don't know about that." And I said, "OK, just think about it."

And then after the season, during my exit interview, Joe said, "You know, Dave, what you talked about, I think we're going to do that." So it was one of my better negotiations [laughing.].

TM: Tell me, when you were playing and you kind of semi-retired for a little while, what was that all about? And what did you learn during that period?

DC: I retired three times. The first time I stopped playing [at the beginning of the 1976-77 season] was right after we won a championship. I just got burned out on basketball. I didn't care to compete anymore.

I wasn't the most talented guy around, so I had to give it that big effort just to play against an average guy. So, I said, "Red [Auerbach, then the general manager of the Celtics], I need a break from the game. My attitude isn't what is should be, and I don't feel right about taking a paycheck when my heart isn't in the game." He was really good about it and told me to take as much time as I needed to get right.

The dumb thing was I went all the way through training camp, which is the hardest part of the season, and then decided to leave. I guess I just needed to prove to myself that I needed a change of atmosphere.

TM: What did you do when you took time off?

DC: I was thinking about working for a racetrack down in Foxboro [Massachusetts], harness racing. I had owned a harness horse, so I was interested in that business. When I began my internship down there I started talking to a lot of people at the track, and I realized it really wasn't what I wanted to do.

I'm pretty independent, and I don't really like working for people to a certain degree. I feel like, as an athlete, I was an independent contractor in a way.

I wasn't married then, so I did a little traveling. I hooked up with some guys I went to college with, and we took a trip to Florida, visited some people. I just went on a long, extended road trip. Then after 60 days, I said, "I don't know what else to do. I better start playing basketball again [laughing]." That's when I went back and played the rest of that season and the next few seasons.

TM: Tell me about the time you became a cab driver.

DC: I think that was in '77. We were in the playoffs. A buddy of mine from Kentucky was in town, and I said, "Hey, let's go get a cab." At that time, for like $35, you could get a cab to drive. You had to pay for your own gas, but whatever you made you could keep for yourself.

We were driving around, trying to pick people up. But no one wanted to get in the cab because there were two of us in the front seat.

So I let my buddy out and then business picked up. And then a crazy thing happened. I was stopped at an intersection, at Boylston and Tremont. A guy gets in and asks me to take him to Newton. As we're driving down to the Mass Pike, he tells me he's a reporter. He had been covering a Bruins game that night when he heard that Cowens was driving a cab. So he left the hockey game and started walking the streets of Boston, looking for my cab, and he found it at that intersection. Now you tell me, what are the odds of that happening?

He wrote a story about it, and eventually--because not too long before that I had taken my leave of absence--people started thinking that I had quit basketball to drive a cab. I drove the cab for one night, just as a lark, just for something to do.

The other day I was watching an NBA game on TV, and [color commentator and former NBA coach] Jeff Van Gundy says, "Cowens was always my favorite player. Do you think any of these players today would stop playing basketball and go drive a cab for a living?" So the story goes on and on.

TM: Let me ask you some of the questions from the project's Manhood Quiz. Who in your life taught you about manhood?

DC: I have quite a few, because of sports and my father. However, I really had my eyes opened to manhood by strangers. Let me give you a couple of examples. The first time I ever saw to grown men fight was at a picnic on the Ohio River in Kentucky. It was mid-afternoon on a hot summer day. Families were grilling food over campfires; the men were playing horseshoes; me and the other kids were running around like crazy people, etc. All of a sudden these two very muscular men started to fist-fight. There was blood and mud, and a scary violence when you heard the fists hit their target. They punched and wrestled for what seemed like a long time, and then one of them wasn't moving anymore. It was over, and everyone went back to their business. But I can still remember and feel the fear of wondering if that was what I would have to do one day to prove my manhood. I was 9 years old at the time.

The next school year a boy who was older than me challenged me to a fight. I don't know why, but I was goaded into the fight by all the other older boys. I was pretty athletic, so I guess they wanted to find out if I was tough as well. After school we went across the street into his backyard. Everyone was there to watch us fight. This was a first for me. As I was remembering the two men from the picnic, he punched me in the head. I survived this hit and proceeded to fight him with all I had. When it was over, he was lying on the ground, and I was standing over him. I remembered nothing of what I had just done. I just walked away with a feeling of relief that I had prevailed. That boy and I became friends until he went to high school, and I hoped I would never have to do that again.

Then a few years later, when I was 15 years old, I was in the backseat of a car making out with this young woman who I had met at a dance. She was older than me, and quite frankly, I have no idea why she took an interest in me. Well, while we were going at it pretty hot and heavy, I hear this rapping on the window. I look out and there is this grown man standing there, looking really pissed off. I open the door, and he asks me what the hell I'm doing with his wife. Man, I about shit myself. I had no idea this woman was married, and I told him so. I thought back to the picnic fight again and realized that this time my ass was going to get whipped bad. But for some reason he just looked me up and down and said, "Take off." Well, he didn't have to say it twice. I started walking down the street and didn't look back until I was at the end of the block. Then what I saw was this big man on his knees, pleading with his wife to love him.

My father was a pretty good guy. I had a lot of issues with him, but I still had a dad who was morally intact and tried to do the right thing, I suppose, and was pretty supportive of everything I did. And then I had good coaches. Even in elementary school, I had just good guys, not the whackos who sometimes coach kids and beat them over the head and push them to win, win, win. They were people who were kind of laid-back and were doing it because they were having a good time. They had the right perspective. I had a really good disciplinarian for a high school coach, which I needed. And I had a college coach [at Florida State] who was a good teacher and task master. But my attitude at that time was that I could take anything you threw at me. By that time you're a man, and if you don't have it figured out by then, shame on you.

TM: How do you suppose romantic loves shape you as a man?

DC: Romantic?

TM: Yeah, with women. How did it shape you growing up?

DC: I wouldn't have any vices if it wasn't for woman [laughing]. I grew up with guys who were two, three years older than me, so they were always more advanced. I'm watching those guys work, and I'm watching them with the dialogue, and I'm going, "Gee, I can't do that. I just want to go play sports. Forget about that. That's too stressful [laughing].

I took care of physical needs but kind of just decided I didn't need that relationship thing. And that went on a long time.

And then I met [his wife] Deby--this was later in life--who I fell in love with, and I decided I'd like to have a family. So you make the commitment. If we had met in college, we would have been polar opposites. But because of when we met, and how we met, what we were ready to accomplish in our lives at the time, it worked out.

TM: How old were you when you met?

DC: Let's see, we got married in '78, so I was almost 30. She was the same. So I had already gotten all my honky-tonking out of the way, for the most part. I had lived that life, so I knew what that was all about.

But still, it becomes a way of life, and when you get married there's an adjustment. So it's never easy.

TM: You were talking earlier about your dad. What are the two words that you would use to describe him?

DC: Two words? I don't know if can do it in a couple of words.

TM: Then just tell me about him. What was he like?

DC: He was a typical World War II guy--never said anything about his whole deal over there and didn't really talk about himself, about anything really. He just went to work, raised kids, and tried to do the right thing. Basically he was a barber. That was his main deal, being a barber. I used to go to his shop when I was a kid and watch all the men play checkers and listen to them talk about their families and politics and baseball. He was very active in the church and had leading roles in schools plays and sang in the choir.

Before the war, right out of high school, one of his jobs was as a dance instructor. He would go and do all these Fred Astaire dances. And he'd be there with women, showing them how to do particular dances That's what he was doing in the late '30s, early '40s. And then he went into the war.

On his enlistment forms, it said he was a dance instructor, so they thought he was an entertainment guy, and they assigned him as a radio guy instead of an infantry guy. "That probably saved my life," he used to say. "I'd probably have been shot when I went over there and went on the beaches. But I was a radio guy, so they'd put me up on top of a hill, and I'd relay the messages about where the enemy was. And then they'd shoot from the ship to get them." He got a Purple Heart because the enemy blew his jeep up one time. He just happened to jump out of it in time.

When he came home from the war, instead of going to college on the GI bill, he decided he had to go to work. He got married and had kids right away and went to work as a finance guy. And then eventually he decided he wanted to be a barber; he had done some barbering in the service to make a few extra bucks.

TM: How do you suppose you're different from him?

DC: He worked hard. He just went to work every day and tried to make ends meet. Sometimes he'd say to me, "I really feel like I'm a failure. I don't have anything to give you kids." We'd try to tell him, "You're all right. You did a good job. You gave us what we needed."

I've got a brother who was an oncologist--real bright guy. And my other brothers and I got married and had kids and had steady jobs. Everybody's been good, solid, no problems. So that says something for him and my mom.

TM: How do you think you're different from your dad?

DC: I'm much more free-spirited and wild. I was kind of the black sheep of the family. If somebody was going to do something crazy, it'd be me. I don't know anybody who ever said that about him. He was very civic-minded, and I remember when I was young, handing out cards for him at bingo and standing at the polls on election day. If the old ladies didn't like your candidate, they would just throw the cards on the ground or say something negative to you. If they were for your candidate they would wish you luck.

TM: When you look back, what mistake in your life do you think you learned the most from?

DC: My mistake was not being serious enough about things. I'm kind of still that way. If something doesn't work out, screw it [laughing]; I'll do something else. Thanks to the patience and support of many people everything has worked out well for me and my family.

TM: I'm kind of that way, too.

DC: I think I probably should have been a little more disciplined in terms of reaching a potential for myself, a little more disciplined and not as carefree and immature about things. It probably would have helped me make better decisions.

TM: Are you talking about your athletic career or other aspects of your life?

DC: Just in general.

TM: Here's our next question: How would the women in you life--your wife and daughters [Meghan, 29, and Samantha, 26]--describe you? And do you think what they would say is true?

DC: Whatever they say is true [laughing].

TM: That's what I say about my wife and daughter.

DC: I don't know what they would say, but whatever it is, it's OK.

TM: Who do you think is a good dad, and why do you think he's a good dad?

DC: I've still got a lot of friends who I grew up with. I still see them. I still hang out with them. I don't know all their grandkids' names and everything, but I know what's going on in their lives to a certain degree. They have had a lot of different experiences and are all totally different people, but all of them have just strived to do the right thing most of the time, to take the responsibility that goes along with being a father or a husband. Someone who tries to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time--to me, that's a good guy.

TM: Do you think you've been more successful in your public life or you private life?

DC: Mine are so intertwined, because many of the people I work with publicly are in my private life. As Dave Cowen the athlete, I was pretty successful. People have an idea that they know what I was about, and that's partly true. They know what you show them when you lay it on the line. You're showing them who you are to a degree. But they don't know what kind of an asshole you might really be [laughing]. That's the private side.

TM: One of the guys who write on our blog was saying that he thinks the definition of a good man is someone who lives a life of congruence, meaning that you're the same person whether you're in the spotlight or you're at home or wherever. What you're saying is that you're the same person, but that you show something a little different in different situations.

DC: Kind of. What is important is to have character, not just to be one...

TM: When was the last time you cried?

DC: I cry all the time. I see a movie, somebody does something that's extraordinary I tear up. I hear a story, whatever--yeah, I well up on occasion..

TM: In England, a parliament member, David Cameron, lost his 6-year-old son recently. He's usually a really stoic guy, and he was on national television and started crying. That threw the country into a tizzy.The Telegram, the newspaper in London, called me and asked me what I thought was going on with Cameron. I said, "He lost a kid. Don't you think you'd cry? He's human."

DC: My father passed away a few years ago. He had been sick for a while, and before he died my mother had become kind of a caretaker for him. And when he died, my mother said, "I don't know what it is, but I can't cry." They had been married for 60 years. She tells me now that she really misses my father, but at the time, when he finally died, she was ready for it. She knew it was coming, and she had prepared herself.

My mother had a big impact on my life when I was young, because I had a lot of respect for her. She had to live in an orphanage when she was like 10, 11, 12 years old. Back then, once you got to 13, you couldn't stay in the orphanage anymore. You had to leave and go to work. Her father died at an early age, and she had a lot of brothers and sisters, and her mom couldn't take care of all of them. So she and two other younger siblings went to the orphanage for a few years.

She went to high school and then she just started working in grocery stores until she ended up meeting my dad.

I remember one time when I was about 14 I decided I was going to run away from home. I wasn't afraid of going out on the streets, because I could run and nobody could catch me. So I figured I could always get out of trouble.

And so I'm sneaking around downstairs, and I'm getting all my stuff together, and then my mother gets up and she comes downstairs. She says, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm leaving. I got to go. I'm running away." And she said, "Well, let me fix you a sandwich." And I decided maybe I won't go [laughing].

TM: That's great.

DC: I remember John Wooden telling a story about Bill Walton. You probably heard this one.

TM: No, go ahead.

DC: Walton was at UCLA, and he was going to rebel. He wanted to grow a beard and all this stuff. This was during the early '70s. Wooden had said there's no facial hair allowed, and you've got to keep your hair cut. So Walton came to Wooden and said, "Coach, I don't think it's right. I want to be able to grow a beard." Walton was a pretty good player, of course, but Wooden looked at him and said, "I respect that, Bill, and we'll miss you." So what are you going to do? Wooden put it right on his ass. Walton shaved his beard; he went along with the program.

That's a good man, somebody who can be just like that--figure it out, say, "That's the way it is," and not worry about it. "Hey, that's the rule. You don't like it, we'll get along without you."

TM: What advice would you give adolescent boys about being a good man?

DC: I think one of the things that I would say would have helped me a lot. I wish I had asked questions and went and got help when I was struggling with making a decision, instead of trying to figure it out all by myself. That's what I would suggest to everybody: If you're having a problem, stop thinking about it by yourself and go talk to somebody who you really respect, and you'll get a whole different look at it.

I think that's good advice for all men, because men tend to think, "I can handle anything on my own. I can handle it. It ain't no big deal. I can handle it."