Dave Cowens has been coach of the Charlotte Hornets for two seasons now, and still there are no shades of gray in his hair or his personality. There are no bags under his eyes, and his ego is still harder to find than the remote control during an Amigo commercial. He doesn't practice Zen Buddhism, write motivational books or give speeches to vitamin salesmen at $40,000 a pop. He drives a powder-blue 1964 Mercury Comet convertible that gets dirty looks from every Lexus and Land Cruiser in the players' parking lot.
Unlike so many of his colleagues, Cowens, whose Hornets were in the driver's seat at week's end after winning the first two games of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks, still doesn't realize that NBA coach is the most important job on the planet. "The players are in control of the game," he says. "Anyone who doesn't believe that isn't dealing in reality."
After 11 seasons as an NBA center, 10 with the Boston Celtics and one with the Milwaukee Bucks, Cowens spent 11 years away from the league and then two years as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs before Hornets general manager Bob Bass hired him to replace Allan Bristow. Cowens, 49, says he has learned many things since his last NBA head coaching job—a forgettable 68-game stint as player-coach of the 1978-79 Celtics—but kissing backsides and blowing smoke are not among them. Despite Cowens's being named one of the NBA's 50 greatest players, his hiring was considered a risk because there was no telling how this quintessential throwback would handle the malcontents and megalomaniacs who populate the league today.
"The toughest part of the job?" says Cowens, who won two NBA titles and an MVP award with Boston. "I'd say lack of an outlet for my emotions. When I was a player, I got to hit people. Unfortunately, I don't get to do that anymore."
Not that he wouldn't like to. Cowens has won 105 regular-season games in his two seasons in Charlotte but still has endured the grumblings of unhappy players and spoiled fans. Last year a franchise-record 54-win season ended with a thud when the No. 6-seeded Hornets were swept by the New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs. This year the team won fewer games (51) but earned the No. 4 seed and thus the home court advantage against the Hawks. "The guys have been talking about the playoffs since November," says point guard David Wesley, who joined the Hornets as a free agent before this season. "All year it was like, 'Let's get back there and do it right.' "
This year the Hornets were noticeably looser and more relaxed heading into the playoffs, if not quite as handsome. As a show of unity, the Charlotte players shaved their heads, drawing protests from some of their wives and children but lightening the mood in the locker room. "Last year was very intense, like minicamp before the playoffs," says center Vlade Divac, who, with a ragged buzz cut and beard, looks as though he were just sprung from a gulag.
Cowens focused on fundamentals. "This year I think we did two things: We got the home court and we just prepared more," he says. "We watched more film and went in better prepared—especially offensively."
Nevertheless, the Hornets could not have imagined a much more ominous matchup in Round 1. Atlanta went 4-0 against Charlotte in the regular season. The average margin of victory: almost 17 points. The Hornets wanted to see the Hawks again like Kenny Lofton wants to see Randy Johnson. "We've been a good team in crunch time," said Wesley after Game 1. "But how would [the Hawks] know? They blew us out every time we played."
Last Thursday, soon after Game 1 began, it looked like more of the same. The Hawks jumped to a 13-point lead in the first quarter, and from the Hive crowd came an early sprinkling of boos. Then Charlotte, fueled by forward Glen Rice's 34 points, rallied for a 97-87 victory. In Game 2, Charlotte came back from a 15-point deficit to win 92-85, meaning Atlanta would be facing elimination on Tuesday in Game 3 at the Georgia Dome. "We turned a lot of doubters into believers," said Cowens.
As the key to the Game 1 comeback, the Charlotte coach cited his team's defense against Atlanta's pick-and-roll, which is often executed to perfection by point guard Mookie Blaylock or shooting guard Steve Smith in conjunction with center Dikembe Mutombo. Cowens estimated the Hawks ran the simple play 30 times, and his players initially had trouble defending it because they hadn't seen anything like it in practice. "We just don't have anyone as quick as Mookie to allow us to duplicate it," says Cowens. "We got a total team effort on the defensive end, five guys doing everything they could to stop it." ( Charlotte's toughened D would have a carryover effect, deterring Atlanta from using the pick-and-roll in Game 2, when the Hawks went to more of a post-up offense.)