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The scouting trip

Posted by Bob Ryan, Globe Staff  March 10, 2008 04:26 PM

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Pat Riley is playing hooky from the dreadful Miami Heat in order to scout college players. I'll bet it won't be as interesting a trip as the one I once took with an NBA coach who was off doing the same thing.

The year was 1979 and the coach was Dave Cowens. The big difference between that trip and the one that Riley is scheduled to take was that Cowens only arranged to miss practices, not games. But it was an honest-to-God scouting jaunt, all right.

The funny thing in Cowens' case was that there really was no reason for him to make the trip. After all, only a few days earlier mercurial owner John Y. Brown had just traded away the three first round draft picks the Celtics had cleverly accumulated in exchange for Bob McAdoo. Player-coach Cowens had been planning this trip for a while, the purpose being to look at big men. But without the three draft picks, what difference would it make?

But we're talking about Dave Cowens here, and in my 39 years covering sports in this town I have never encountered anyone quite like Dave Cowens. Perhaps he just wanted to get away from his team for a few days. Perhaps he liked watching big men for big men's sake. Perhaps he just wanted an adventure. By God, he was making this trip. I asked if I could tag along, and he said, sure.

First, a prelude. The Celtics would be taking a somewhat leisurely five-game West Coast swing spread out over 11 days. It would begin in San Antonio on a Wednesday. It would not resume until the following Sunday night in Portland. The rest of the trip would consist of games in Oakland (Tuesday), Los Angeles (Friday), and San Diego (Sunday afternoon). Ah, those were the days.

But the McAdoo trade was a big deal. Sort of. Well, yes, it was, but things were a bit different in those days. Today, a player of that magnitude would be sent to his new team by private plane. He'd be picked up at the airport by a club official and he would be treated like royalty.

Yeah, well, Bob McAdoo arrived in San Antonio to join his new team on Wednesday afternoon. No one picked him up at the airport. Bob McAdoo strode into the lobby of the hotel where he was greeted by, well, me. Seriously. No one else was around.

He suited up that night, and while I cannot tell you how he did, I can tell you it wasn't a glorious evening in the Hemisfair for your Boston Celtics. The Spurs, won, 149-119.

The next day Dave Cowens and Yours Truly headed out to see big men. Cowens put the team in the custody of assistant coach Bob MacKinnon and they flew to Portland.

Our first stop was Reno. We were going to see Nevada-Reno, with Edgar Jones, play the University of San Francisco, with Bill Cartwright, at the Reno Auditorium, or whatever they called it. There were plenty of NBA scouts there, including the legendary Marty Blake, the league's head of scouting, who informed me that Cartwright was the best center prospect to be presented to the NBA in 10 years.

I, of course, had already decided I didn't like Cartwright, whom I had seen in the Cow Palace for that great USF team two years earlier. It wasn't that he couldn't play. I just hated everything about his game, especially that god-awful ugly shot of his.

Now Edgar, of course, was something else. The prevailing folklore was that Edgar was in no danger of Mensa recruitment, that, in fact, he had not quite understood the difference between Nevada-Reno (now University of Nevada) and UNLV, and that when he appeared on the doorstep of the Rebels they politely pointed him north, in the general direction of the Wolfpack. Sounds to me as if would have been an ideal Tark player. Anyway ...

There was also the matter of Edgar's look, which was distinguished by the fact that he had a ready-made NHL mouth; i.e. no teeth.

I don't remember a whole lot about that game, other than I'm sure USF won. Nor do I recall any pertinent Cowens observations about either of the big men in question.

You all know what happened to Cartwright. As aesthetically unpleasing as his game was, it was good enough to get him a 15-year career in the league, and he got three rings with the Bulls. Edgar Jones played for four teams in six wild-and-wooly seasons, and I'll never forget the game in which Kevin McHale deliberately fouled himself out of a game in order that Edgar Jones wouldn't hurt him, and, no, I'm not making that up.

It wasn't all work and no play. We were, after all, in Nevada. Casinos beckoned. I was a casino virgin, this being my first trip to Nevada, and all. So we went to the blackjack tables, where Cowens staked me to a few chips, and where I proceeded to invoke the Beginner's Luck clause in my contract to the approximate tune of $250.

The original itinerary had called for trips to Reno, Las Vegas, and Corvallis, Ore., but the Vegas thing fell through for some reason so we went to Corvallis, where the three big men he'd be evaluating were Steve Johnson of Oregon State, as well as Stuart House and James Donaldson of Washington State. After tipping the dealer, dinner was on me. And I've seldom played, and never won, again.

We went to dinner prior to the Oregon State-Washington State game, and Dave had no sense of urgency. All he was worried about was playing "Rocky Top" on the jukebox. I abhor being late for anything, but he was in charge. So we strolled into Gill Coliseum four or five minutes into the game. Worse yet, we had to go to like the 25th row. You think anyone noticed this big redhead and his flunky making this grand entrance?

The game goes along for a while, and now Cowens makes an observation. He says, and this is pretty close to a verbatim quote, "I feel sorry for this guy Donaldson, having to go through life that clumsy."

Donaldson was 7-1 and listed at 275, and he was certainly no candidate to be on "Dancing With The Stars," then or now. But he would carve out a 14-year NBA career. So Dave might have been a bit hasty. House never played in the NBA.

The 6-9 Johnson, then a sophomore, stayed for the full four years, becoming the No. 1 pick of the Kansas City Kings (7th overall) in 1981.

He once led the league in field goal percentage, and he was a three-time leader in both personal fouls and disqualifications. He was a strange combo: a finesse player on offense and a butcher on defense.

I will never forget Gill Coliseum, which remains the home of the Beavers. That thing has 12 gargantuan girders holding up the roof. I have never seen such girders.

The game in Corvallis was on Friday night. We drove to Portland on Saturday, but not before stopping at a roadhouse kind of place to have a few beers and watch John Tate KO Duane Bobick in the first round. We went to the movies that night in Portland. The flick was "Movie, Movie."

With Dave there would invariably be a lot of laughs, but one thing we hardly discussed on that trip was the team. So I was more than a little surprised on Sunday night when the starting lineup was announced and McAdoo was in. Dave had taken himself out of the lineup. Knowing Dave, he had probably decided to do it five minutes before tip-off.

I should point out that the Celtics really didn't need any of those draft picks. All they had to do was make sure they signed the guy they had drafted the year before. It was a 6-9 forward out of Indiana State named Larry Bird.

I'm also going to guess Riles hasn't agreed to have any members of the Miami media tag along with him. Just a hunch.

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