Visitors to The Sports Museum, in Boston, are greeted almost immediately upon entering by Larry Bird and Carl Yastrzemski—both life-sized and carved out of wood by Armand LaMontagne, a Rhode Island sculptor. Bird is poised to shoot, elbows and knees bent, eyes fixed on an invisible basket. Yaz is caught at the end of his famous swing; you can almost hear the craaack! of his bat. And upstairs, a life-sized Bobby Orr seems ready to send ice chips flying all over the room as he races toward the goal. Each representation is accurate: The poses were selected by the athletes and modeled by them. The sculptor then took photographs and measurements and worked from them. The representations radiate energy and concentration, lending an air of excitement to the rooms. The walls surrounding the main exhibition space are hung with an impressive collection of photographs and memorabilia representing high school, amateur and pro athletes from a variety of sports.
Upstairs, a show featuring the Boston Bruins is the current exhibit. Also upstairs are the museum's archives, a video library and staff offices. Folded into a desk chair in the middle of one of the offices is Dave Cowens, not only life-sized but also alive and breathing.
Cowens is the chairman of The Sports Museum. He is its name player, its attention-getter and its leader. A Boston Celtic for 10 years, he played basketball with an intensity that inspired his teammates, and Cowens hasn't changed in his new role. There is a significant difference in the two jobs, however. For his efforts with the Celtics, Cowens was rewarded handsomely (for that era). For his work with The Sports Museum, a full-time job, he receives no compensation.
But money has never been much of a motivator for the independent-minded Cowens. Remember, he was the guy who, even when he was a Celtics star, lived above a toy store; the guy who drove a taxi for a night just to see what it was like ("I only took one guy the 'long' way," Cowens says. "He was a Knick fan. He deserved it"); the guy who, for a couple of months in 1976, walked away from a $280,000-a-year job to return to his family's farm in Cold Spring, Ky., because his enthusiasm for the game had ebbed. "That was a mental-health leave," he says today. "But I've never been out to make all the money. What do I want to buy? Food and gasoline. That's it. My first contract was for $90,000, and I was a fourth pick. I was probably one of the lower-paid people, but I'm a real company guy, and that was still a lot of money, coming right out of college."
That was Florida State University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in criminology. Almost 20 years later, Cowens, 42, can afford to buy a great deal more than food and gasoline, but he's still not interested. He's busy with his new position as special-assignment coach for the Celtics, his summer basketball camp, and the continuing demand for him on the speaking and appearance circuits. Earnings from these add up to a comfortable living for him; his wife, Deby; and their children, Meghan, 10, and Samantha, 7. "I was able to take my wife to Maui recently," Dave says. "All I had to do was play tennis, golf, a little basketball. We might never have come back if we hadn't missed our kids. I find it hard to feel sorry for athletes. Being in sports has given me such opportunities, including an education. You know, a lot more people get helped by sports than harmed."
Cowens's work at The Sports Museum is a manifestation of his faith in the positive powers of athletics. The three-year-old museum, currently situated at 1175 Soldiers Field Road, is incorporated as a nonprofit educational organization and offers a number of programs for school-age children. A corps of volunteers, all educators, from colleges as well as secondary schools, oversees writing-skills and arts programs funded by corporate donations. There is also a program that selects athletes, sportscasters and journalists to work with junior high school students in the Cambridge area to foster academic interests. The museum stages fund-raising events, like golf tournaments that include such celebrity players as Luis Tiant, Derek Sanderson, John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, John Hannah, Jane Blalock and, of course, Cowens himself. And there are dinners and sports trivia bowls and ceremonies to open newly mounted exhibits.
Two years ago, while planning a Boston Braves exhibit, museum staffers scheduled an entire weekend of events to call attention to the new show. During one event, Art Haley, of Milford, Mass., came up to the dais and confessed into the mike that he and his chums had committed a dastardly act 36 years earlier. He then donated to The Sports Museum the home plate that he and his buddies had dug up from Braves Field and kept hidden for almost four decades.
Cowens particularly enjoyed the revelation of that bit of light-hearted larceny—"We're the Salvation Army of Sports," he says—but gathering a large permanent collection is not high on his Sports Museum agenda. Finding a new location is, however—one less isolated than the museum's current home, which gets few drop-in visitors. Says Cowens, "We don't have to own everything. We can borrow for shows, or book touring shows. I don't care about owning. But a museum is essentially a retail business. You have to have foot traffic in a museum."
A perfect location would have been at the historic Custom House in downtown Boston, right near the tourist mecca of Quincy Market. Cowens and the museum staff and supporters, including local athletes, organized an intense lobbying campaign for that site. Cowens says, "If Mayor Ray Flynn was at an event, I was there too, smiling at him." In June 1988, a year into the campaign, The Sports Museum was chosen as the organization to fill the lower three floors in the soon-to-be-refurbished Custom House office tower complex.
Then, last spring, faced with the declining Massachusetts economy, the city's redevelopment authority decided that a hotel at the Custom House was more feasible than a combination of museum and office space. It was a devastating blow to everyone involved with the museum project. But Cowens was not discouraged. This is the guy who, at 6'9", took on 7-footers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain and in 1973 was voted the NBA's Most Valuable Player. This is also the guy who returned to the court for a brief second career, with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1982, two years after his original retirement from basketball. Of the Custom House loss, he merely says, "We'll just have to find another location. You know, I have two suits. When I wear the knees out of one from begging, I always have another."
Cowens still looks like Huck Finn. His hair is as red as ever, his face unlined. He radiates energy, and he laughs easily. He spends his free time working around his house in the Boston suburb of Needham and serves as a volunteer in a reading program at the local high school. "Basically, what I am is a community servant. I've been the honorary chairman of a zillion organizations. But the job at The Sports Museum isn't done yet. That museum is going to be my legacy."
The museum's Bird goes one-on-one with Cowens, who enjoys his new role.
The museum features every variety of sporting memorabilia.
Cowens was an emphatic Celtics presence through the 1970s.
Daphne Hurford's most recent story for SI was "Ballet Takes a Swing at Baseball" (Dec. 3).