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Our Rich History: Dave Cowens and his life in Newport before the Hall of Fame

Part 63 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”By Steve Preston

Special to the NKyTribune

“Our Rich History” editor’s note: This column is the 300th article in the “Our Rich History” weekly series for the NKyTribune. Many thanks to our publisher, our readers, all of our authors, and especially to Judy Clabes! Together, we look forward to continuing to celebrate the richness of our regional heritage.

The percentage of student athletes who make it to the NBA, according to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, is a microscopic 0.03%. If the chances of just playing in the NBA are this small, imagine what the chances are of also winning two NBA championships and being selected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Despite these overwhelming odds, a boy from East Newport accomplished just that. But first, he learned of life coming of age in 1960s Newport.

Dave Cowens is pictured here standing (third from right), with his baseball glove in his right hand. He played Knothole baseball, on a team sponsored by the Avenue Nite Club (Bellevue, KY). This photo was taken at the Newport East End Field, circa 1959, and appears here courtesy of Joe Hummel.

David William Cowens was born on October 25, 1948 to Jack and Ruth Atwood Cowens of Lexington Avenue, just three blocks from the Ohio River. His was a true family home. Modest in stature, the two-story residence housed the family on the first floor, and his paternal grandparents and great-aunt on the second floor.

The son of a stay-at-home mother and World War II veteran-turned-barber father, Cowens grew up in a loving family and enjoyed a typical childhood of those growing up in mid-Century Newport. He recalls that “we were not wealthy, but we ate well. A milkman delivered dairy products, a vegetable truck made deliveries… [we purchased] meat at the corner butcher store and other essentials at the A&P.”

Cowens’ youth was lived as a modern Tom Sawyer. Adventures awaited, either by Huffy bike or by other modes of transportation.

“I fished in the Ohio River with roaches we scooped up in the alleys at night,” he relates. “My brother and I collected baseball cards and played with them, flipped them and traded them to get complete teams. I rode my Huffy bike everywhere or walked and knew which areas to avoid where the tough kids hung out. . . . We hopped the long slow trains on Saratoga St. and rode them over the bridge to Cincinnati.”

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Cincinnati was an exciting city awaiting youthful exploration. Cowens remembers running the streets with his friends: “My friends and I would walk to downtown Cincinnati and explore the hotels and department stores and hang around Fountain Square every so often. We would walk to Crosley Field or get a ride from someone’s big brother to see if we could sneak in to see a ball game. I never went to a Cincinnati Royals [professional basketball] game as a kid other than one time that St. Anthony’s played in a pre-game game which was pretty cool.”

Dave’s adventures were self-financed. His family taught him early about responsibility

Dave Cowens is pictured here standing (third from left and next to the coach), with hands clasped. This photo was taken at the Newport East End Field, circa 1960, and is courtesy of Joe Hummel.

“I had a paper route,” he reminisced, “that none of the other kids wanted, collected bottles to cash in and did yard work around the neighborhood.”

Cowens showed an early affinity for basketball, playing on an organized team at age eight, along with little league baseball and competition in the Junior Olympics until high school. When he was younger, he played basketball indoors at St. Anthony’s.

“The basketball gym at St. Anthony’s was in the church basement. It had a very low ceiling, a stage on one end and four very large posts marking the sidelines.”

Cowens’ early days consisted of many sports. He relates that “I normally went to Beech Street Park on Second Street where there was a pool, basketball court, and open field that served as a football or baseball field depending on the season My friends were all one or two years older so I was not the first guy chosen in pickup games. But I was good enough to always get chosen. We played all the sports in sandlot fashion . . . played a lot of follow-the-leader doing stuff on the monkey bars, gymnastics type activities and roughhousing.”

Beech Street Park used to stand right on the border between Newport and Bellevue. Sadly, it has since disappeared, replaced by the I-471 access ramps.

Dave Cowens, honored by Newport Catholic High School.

Family has always been very important to Cowens. When he was young, it provided another avenue of adventure for summers given over to outdoor activities. He cherished those times: “We went to Old Coney Island, the Bellevue Vets and the Newport Gun Club on occasion during the summer months for picnics and family gatherings. I had a lot of cousins, so we played together during these outings while the dads pitched horseshoes, played cards and cooked on the grill. Moms brought prepared foods like potato salads, baked beans, and hard boiled eggs, while the kids ran around playing baseball, looking for snakes, playing tag, or getting into minor scuffles.”

Cowens recalls the Newport of his youth as “a wild town.” Known as the “Sin City of Kentucky,” Dave paints a vivid picture of the city and the streets he roamed during the 1960s. Despite its dangers, he observed that as kids, they felt invincible, that the dangers to adults didn’t apply to them.

“I loved to walk the streets of Newport at all times of day and night. In the sixties Newport was a wild town. There were many saloons where a teenager could buy a drink, there were strip clubs, pool halls, gambling rooms and places of prostitution. Being that I could run fast, I knew most times I could escape danger.”

It seemed that the city never slept.

“The town stayed open 23 hours and 50 minutes a day. Lots of convention goers in Cincinnati visited Newport till late in the night because closing time in Ohio was 2 a.m.,” Cowens states.

The rough-and-tumble nature of Newport’s nightlife and its associated reputation, while exalted by some, was derided by others. Dave Cowens’ father found the Newport of the 1960s in need of reform. The year 1961 was an election year, when reformer George Ratterman, a former Notre Dame standout and former professional football player, won election as sheriff. Meanwhile, Dave’s father ran for City Commissioner. Not all merchants and voters, however, were on board with the proposed reforms and fought them at the ballot box. None of the reform candidates for commissioner, including Jack Cowens, was elected. However, Ratterman still won the election for sheriff in spite of all the controversies. He then deputized all four reform candidates and proceeded to implement cleaning up Newport.

On a lighter note, Dave Cowens — then a teenager — campaigned for his father. He later recalls trying to date while working for his dad’s campaign.

“We had a station wagon with a sign on top that I drove on occasion when I had a date, which, I suppose, was not the coolest thing to do when going to the drive in.”

Cowens’ dating life was typical of the 1960s, spent “going to dances or the movies on Sunday afternoons on Monmouth and York Streets.” His dates, which he says “were a rarity due to lack of spending money,” sometimes consisted of “sitting on a porch or taking a walk to downtown Newport to get a pizza or you know, just hanging out. This time period really did simulate the movie, Grease. Guys went stag to the Sunday afternoon dances on York Street so we could dance with any of the girls who were also there without dates.”

Dave Cowens, Boston Celtics photo, 1976

Dave Cowens attended Newport Catholic High School, explaining that “My parents decided that I would attend Newport Catholic instead of public school. My parents and all my aunts and uncles never went to college but they all valued education. Plus I think my father believed I needed the extra discipline that existed at a Catholic school. Most mornings I walked to school because my Dad had to be at work at 80 a.m. in Bellevue, and many times he walked to work.”

Dave looks back at his time at Newport Catholic with obvious pride: “As athletes, we quietly thought it was our place to set an example in a school of hundreds of boys from all around the county. The priests, nuns, brothers and lay teachers helped lay down the rules for us to emulate. Don’t get me wrong, we raised hell and bucked authority, but we admitted when we screwed up and suffered the consequences.”

At Newport Catholic, Cowens was a member of student government, and he organized intramural activities. One scheduled activity allowed him to be a bit of a “hustler”: “I ran for the office of student athletics which organized intramural activities. One of my projects was a checker tournament. Kids put in a quarter to play in a winner-take-all. Since I used to hang around my dad’s barber shop, where customers played checkers while waiting for a haircut, I picked up a few tricks. Anyhow, I ended up winning the tournament.”

As Cowens grew older, his participation in organized sports increased.

“I competed in track and field in high school at Newport Catholic all four years. I played on the freshman football team. I made the freshman basketball team but quit after a month or so because it just wasn’t any fun. But I ended up playing in a men’s league that winter on one of my friend’s father’s teams who worked at a paint factory in Cincinnati.”

Cowens was always an avid swimmer, stating that “I loved to swim and dive so I was a regular at the Tacoma Pool in Dayton (Kentucky) at age 12 and 13. I usually rode the Monmouth Street bus to and from the pool that cost 10 cents each way . . . I swam across the Ohio River and back many times. My sophomore year I made the first-ever swim team that Newport Catholic had. We rode the bus to the Fenwick club [Cincinnati] for practice after school since the school did not have a pool. The coach was a physics teacher who we found out could not swim himself so he was careful around the pool deck, as he knew we would throw him in if we got the chance. Sometimes we would smoke cigarettes on the way to and from practice. Needless to say, we were not the best team, but we all earned letters that could be sewed on a sweater.”

High school basketball would once again appear in his life. Cowens modestly recounts that “the summer between my Sophomore and Junior year, I was asked to try out for the JV basketball team by the Head Coach, Jim Connor. He had scrimmages that summer and I realized that my conditioning for that level of play was not up to the task but I stuck it out and learned what it took to play with the big boys. I played my first JV game and then while sitting on the end of the bench during the varsity game, the coach put me in during the first quarter . . . played the rest of that game and was a starter from then on. The rest is history.”

But there’s more to the story. Cowens credits his brother as having a direct impact on his achieving the “history” we all know.

“My oldest brother Wayne graduated from Covington Latin and earned a full academic scholarship to Xavier University. He essentially moved out of the house at age 16 and lived on that school’s campus for the next four years. Our house was just too noisy and crowded for him to get any schoolwork done. But because of his example and the demands of sports, I became a better student, which allowed me to gain entrance into college.”

Despite being recruited by most colleges in the area, except the University of Kentucky, Cowens chose to attend Florida State University based on the coach’s promise that he would start as a sophomore. Dave’s father had hoped he’d stay closer to home and attend a university better known for sending players to the pros, but Florida State suited Cowens. And he flourished in Florida State’s fast-break style play, averaging 19 points a game. While in college, he also averaged 17 rebounds per game. Rebounds became, in his own words, “his calling card.”

Looking for a center to replace the legendary Bill Russell, the Boston Celtics drafted Cowens fourth overall in the 1970 draft. Being undersized at 6’9” for center, Cowens made up for his lack of height with scrappy, fundamentally sound physical play. One can’t help but wonder if that style of play was a result of his youth spent in Newport.

Cowens says, “I simply loved to run, jump, and compete.”

When asked to sum up his thoughts on growing up in Newport, Cowens’ response shows the depth of the seeds planted there: “. . . upon my reflections on growing up in Newport, I must tell you that I still stay in touch with my friends from my youth. Many of them went into the service and then went to college, and they all settled in Northern Kentucky. These guys mean the world to me and are the only people on earth that I can share the memories of the many years we spent together as friends. It is a bond that is stronger than any contract could provide.”

Dave Cowens (Wikipedia photo)

The talented young man, Dave Cowens, may have left Northern Kentucky for better opportunities, but the Newport “boy” within him never really left. Indeed, it is indelible. That “boy” lives in Cowens’ fond memories and in the moral and ethical man that he became.

“I have lived and worked most of my life in New England,” states Cowens, “raised a family up here and know far more people in this area than I do in Greater Cincinnati. After all, I have lived in a house in Massachusetts or Maine since 1970. But, Newport is my home away from home and I love to visit there to see friends and family and see how things have changed. When I drive down some street in Newport and see kids out and about, I reflect on my time as a youngster down there. I have been blessed and fortunate to have survived this long and I credit many of my survival skills to what I learned growing up as I did. It was the beginning of my adventure and it served as the cornerstone of my development. It was not all roses, but the good far outweighs the bad, most of which I brought onto myself. My parents provided me with a solid foundation and a moral compass. They raised six very successful people and did it with dignity, hard work, sacrifice and a good sense of humor.”

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at NKU and the author of many books and articles.

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  1. Willie says:

    Great story. Loved reading this.

  2. Susannah Fedders says:

    Dave Cownes my memories of him my childhood girlfriend Kathy Atwood and Dave were cousins we were younger his brother Gary was our age, we all went to Saint Anthony in Bellevue. We went to all Basketball games and ROOTED FOR DAVE he was so TALL AND HAD BIG FEET he would let us put our feet on top of his and walk around on porch IT WAS BETTER THAN PEANUT BUTTER Mr.and Mrs.Cowens were the Greatest people you ever wanted to meet, my Family Fitters 12 Kids 3 sets of twins 1set triplets 3 single kept Mr.Cownes Barber business going our Father Moon Fitters and Mr. Cowens were good friends. We all who grew up with Dave are very proud of him we even named route 8 Dave Cowens Drive ❤ Dave always kept the saying” you can take the kid out of Newport but… you will never take the Newport out of the Kid Dave is still down to Earth We Love him our Hero

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