A Conversation With Bob Cousy
Bob Cousy, the legendary play-making point guard for the Boston Celtics from 1950 to 1963, celebrated his eightieth birthday this year. In July, I was privileged to interview “The Houdini of the Hardwood” to commemorate this momentous milestone. I came to the interview with a fixed list of questions, and my goal was to find out what life was like for this former Celtic, who retired 45 years earlier as the highest paid player in the NBA and still holds the league’s single-game playoff record set in 1953 for the most free throws made (30) and attempted (32). We met at Cousy’s office at his home in Worcester, Mass.—a four-acre residence where he and his wife, Missie, have lived for 43 years. Within minutes of the start of our interview I knew that it would be unlike any other that I have conducted. Formality and adherence to a routinized Q&A script vanished and was replaced by Cousy’s cordiality, warmth of spirit and graciousness. Our interview quickly turned into an afternoon of effusive, candid and free-flowing storytelling, and the subjects of which we spoke etched a wide-ranging path through history and Cousy’s 80 years of life-experience.
Robert J. Cousy was born on August 9, 1928 in Manhattan, New York. Raised by his French immigrant parents Cousy’s first language was French; he spoke it exclusively until he learned English at age five. Cousy experienced the deprivation and poverty that typified The Great Depression during his childhood. Its impact remained with him throughout his life and molded an instinctive drive to be successful, which when applied to playing basketball translated into the insatiable hunger to win no matter what the cost. The Cousys lived in tenement housing in New York’s East End. In 1940, they left behind the city’s squalor and moved to a house in St. Albans in Queens, where there was trees and green grass and clean air to breathe. There was also O’Connell Park—the playground where the teenaged Cousy learned the game of basketball.
By the time Cousy finished high school his athletic skills were primed enough to play college-level basketball. In 1946, Cousy enrolled in Holy Cross College in Worcester, the oldest Catholic college in New England, but a school that had no gymnasium and no discernible basketball tradition. Within the year, however, Cousy and his teammates shifted Holy Cross’s standing in the world of collegiate sports. The Crusaders won the 1947 NCAA Championship, making Holy Cross the first school in New England to win a national basketball title. And when Cousy graduated in 1950, he was regarded as the best college basketball player in the country and recognized for his distinctive style of play: his behind-the-back dribbling; his no-look passes; his quick-footed court speed.
Even though Cousy had become a superstar college athlete and enjoyed the thrill and force of competition, pursuing a career in professional basketball was not an all-consuming aspiration. And going pro in the 1950s, for that matter, didn’t necessarily guarantee a life of fortune and fame. Professional basketball as a spectator sport suffered in popularity and appeal and lacked the national audience that college basketball enjoyed. The NBA, having formed only four years previously, appeared to be a disorganized entity with an uncertain future, and there were few successfully structured and long-lasting franchises. For Cousy, earning a living upon graduation stood as his main objective. If that meant doing something other than playing basketball, then that suited him fine.
As we know, Cousy did indeed choose to become a professional basketball player. Yet, joining the team that would soon be the most triumphant franchise in NBA history was an absolute act of fate. In the spring of 1950, Cousy received a telephone call from a sportswriter who told him that he’d been drafted by the Tri-Cities Blackhawks of Iowa—and passed over by the Boston Celtics and their new coach, Arnold “Red” Auerbach. Cousy made it clear to the Tri-Cities franchise that he had absolutely no desire to play in Iowa. He was then traded to the Chicago Stags, but maintained his stance: he had no intention of playing in Chicago, either. Before the regular season began, however, the Stags disbanded and allocated all but three of its players—Cousy being one— to other teams. The New York Knicks, the Philadelphia Warriors and the Boston Celtics were each slated to select one former Stag. As the storied legend in sports history goes, representatives from the three teams had squabbled and wrangled for hours and could not reach consensus on who was to go where. Maurice Podoloff, the first president of the NBA, tossed each player’s name into a hat. Walter Brown, owner of the Celtics, pulled Cousy’s name. In that instant and by the luck of the draw, Bob Cousy became a member of the Boston Celtics. He ended his 13-year career with the Celtics as one of the NBA’s greatest and most influential players of all time, and he is credited with revolutionizing the game of basketball.
In addition to 2008 being a significant year for the now-octogenarian “Mr. Basketball,” it was an astounding one for his former team. The Celtics had just won the NBA Finals— the franchise’s first World Championship title in 22 years—when I met with Cousy, which made the timing for our interview even more ideal. Who’d be better than the “Cooz,” a six-time world champion himself, to discuss the team’s winning strategy; Doc Rivers’s coaching techniques; and the commendable performance of “The Big Three”: Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce? I can state emphatically that listening to Bob Cousy talk openly about the Celtics and today’s game of basketball was an exceptional delight.
As one may expect, a conversation with the NBA’s MVP for the 1956-1957 season would focus on all things basketball-related. And ours did. But whether it was the topic of basketball about which we spoke or the myriad of other subjects that comprised our conversation—religion; current events; racism; his health; golf; his beloved alma mater (which erected on its campus this summer a bronze, life-sized statue of Cousy and in November lifted to the rafters his basketball jersey); being part of this year’s “rolling rally” victory parade in Boston to honor the NBA champions; his family; or politics—Cousy demonstrated that he’s far from being a one-dimensional character.
He is a thinking person, who once believed that bigotry was the biggest problem in the world and who nearly succumbed to the imprisoning demands of his celebrity and the unrelenting pressure of his role as basketball’s unanimously acclaimed individual player. He is a man who realized in the mid-1950s that he had frittered away some of his chances for self-improvement during college, and so started to read regularly and began a ritual of learning five new words from the dictionary every Monday morning and using them in sentences throughout the week. In 1956, he marketed his name to PF Flyers for the manufacture of custom-made basketball shoes—it was the first-ever affiliation between a professional basketball player and a sneaker company. (Go to www.pfflyers.com/cousy and watch inspiring videos of the Cooz at play and learn the history of Cousyy’s collaboration with PF Flyers.). He broadened his sphere in the world of professional sports and became Commissioner of the American Soccer League from 1974 to 1979. He is a contented and wise lover of life, who today is more apt to read the latest best-selling nonfiction book or watch cable television news shows than he is to watch a game of basketball until the final buzzer.
Here is “The Magician,” Bob Cousy. Enjoy him in all of his loquacious grandeur and captivating charm.
Amy O’Loughlin: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. I appreciate you taking the time out of your day to speak with me. You have a beautiful home here. I take it that this is your office?
Bob Cousy: Yes, we’ve been here forty-three years, and it’s worked out very well. Our two daughters [Marie and Ticia] went to school next door at Notre Dame Academy and walked through the bushes to go to school. We have about four acres of land behind us and we’re just five minutes from downtown and we’ve got the isolation and privacy we need. We’ve done well. It’s a little big now for [my wife], me and our French poodle. During the [Holy Cross] statue dedication, we had a houseful. We had eleven guests and it came in handy.
O’Loughlin: Yes, congratulations on the statue dedication. Did everything go well?
Cousy: It went very well. It’s unusual when you plan something for two years—I wasn’t involved in that part of it, but the committee was—and everything goes off pretty flawlessly. Everyone was happy. It had drizzled for three days prior, but the weather cleared up. So I told two of the priests involved that they were the two who got us through with flying colors.
O’Loughlin: The timing for this interview with you is perfect. Not only as a way to honor you and your achievements—which, I think, is a very important story—but also to learn about your involvement and sentiments regarding the Celtics’ big win. What was it like to be a part of the Duck Boat parade that wound through the streets of Boston?
Cousy: The Celtics won on a Tuesday, and I went [to the Garden] on that Thursday not knowing what to expect from the parade. Because when we’d win a championship —six times in a row—two days later we’d have a breakup dinner at the local hotel and about a dozen fans would show up. We’d all kiss and say “Good-bye” and “See ya’ in November.” And we’d all go off and play golf. This [parade] thing, as I said I had no idea what to expect, I have never seen anything like it. There had to have been a million-and-a-quarter people on a Thursday morning throughout that whole route! There were green people everywhere! They were hanging from the trees and the poles. I asked our Duck Boat driver after he took us back, “Did you work the Red Sox and the Patriots parades?’” He said that he worked both and that there were more people there that day than the other two [parades] put together. I’m sure weather had something to do with it. . . . But the point is, basketball, historically, had been in New England, at least, so far behind other sports. And in the fifties and sixties, [the Celtics] were the low men on the totem pole. Every other sport, including hockey, was way ahead of us. [Basketball] hadn’t been established in New England. So, it’s caught up. I’d say eighty percent of the people were young people, so [basketball] is capturing the younger generations.
O’Loughlin: It must have been an amazing experience for you as a former Celtic to see that kind of enthusiasm.
Cousy: Oh, yeah! It was! I told [John] Havilcek—he was on our Duck Boat—that I wasn’t going to smile for a month. We stood there for two hours waving and smiling. My shoulders started hurting. But it was very interesting to be part of it. And, as I say, I couldn’t believe the number of people. No matter how you look at it, it’s a great time to be a fan in New England.
O’Loughlin: And for the Celtics, it maybe seemed like it’d be a once-in-a-lifetime win?
Cousy: Yes. Well certainly thank goodness for [Paul] Pierce, who looked like he was going to go through a spectacular career individually, but never getting the brass ring. It was great for him, for all three of them for that matter. [Kevin] Garnett looked like he was going to be buried in Minnesota. No one would ever know anything about him.
O’Loughlin: Garnett brought such passion to their game . . . .
Cousy: Yeah, he did. And it was contagious. And [Coach Doc] Rivers did, I thought, a hell of a job of exploiting and selling them on “ubuntu,” which is just another word for sacrificing for the whole. They bought it, and they sustained it pretty much the entire season.
O’Loughlin: The one-year turnaround that was accomplished is just unbelievable. How do you think Doc Rivers was able to make such a turnaround?
Cousy: Obviously, the talent was provided for him. And as they say on a professional level all the time, if you don’t have the horses, it doesn’t get done. You could be the best manager or coach in the world, but rhetoric doesn’t do it if your talent’s not there. If you’re mediocre, you can get them to perform as well as that standard will allow, but obviously they’re never going to overcome great odds. In college, you can do that sometimes because you’re dealing with younger people. But on a pro level, it’s a lot different. I dropped Doc a note afterwards saying basically those of us who’ve been through it know that it is much easier to coach mediocre talent than it is superior talent, and even though you need the superior talent you still have to draw them together. And now especially when they’re all zillionaires, getting enough money for this life and the next one and all, you have that added challenge. You’ve got to bring twelve egos together, too. So this is where [Rivers] sold him on this village idea; and the fact that Pierce, Garnett and Allen wanted the championship so badly, they all sacrificed and made his job a little easier.
Then, the key was Ainge, I thought. Having “The Big Three” is fine. They were going to perform because they’re all outstanding talents. But he filled in a couple of empty spots that I thought is what made the difference, frankly. Pat Riley found out two years ago in Miami that even with Shaq and [Dwayne] Wade you’re not going to win [unless you lift up the other talent on the team.] And then, you let that that other talent get away and they went literally from first to last. They did the reverse of what the Celtics did. In basketball, unlike other sports as much, you need the complete participation of eight or nine or ten people, and they all have to be on the same wavelength. And Doc put it together. I, frankly, shared your skepticism. And I would say to people last fall that I didn’t think it was possible. Plus, it was compounded by the fact that they didn’t stay here to train. They went to England and their training period was cut short dramatically. So, they had less time to put everything in, but it still came together almost from day one . . . . [Doc] made believers out of them. He deserves a great deal of credit.
O’Loughlin: Controlling the personalities too is a difficult task. . . .
Cousy: Oh yeah, at the professional level it’s almost impossible. And if those guys all had a couple of rings, I don’t think it would’ve happened, frankly. I don’t think they would’ve had the sustained motivation or been ready to sacrifice the way they did. The timing—everything—was right. And now, they may do it again. I don’t know if they’ll repeat it, but at least they’ll be in the hunt for the next couple of years.
O’Loughlin: It’s been so painful to watch Celtics basketball the last couple of years. It was so obvious that Paul Pierce needed somebody. He was always out there trying to do it all on his own.
Cousy: I never knew he could play defense the way he did. He worked hard. My own belief in terms of his Hall of Fame credentials were suspect before this year. In fact, I dropped him a note and said, “Paul, if there was any question about whether or not you belong in the Hall of Fame, your work this year, especially defensively, proved all your critics wrong.” It is difficult when you’re the man, but you’re the only man and there isn’t a lot of help [on the court]. Last year and the season before were such long seasons for Pierce. It’s easy to put your tail between your legs. But this year was a piece de resistance for him. It was nice to see him—to see all three of them—get their due.
O’Loughlin: Do you know the players on a personal level?
Cousy: I used to, Amy. Up until five years ago I was [part of the broadcasting team that called the games] and we were doing fifty games and lots of on-the-road games, so we used to travel on the plane with the players. So, you got to know them reasonably well. We wouldn’t go out and have beer with them after the game or anything like that, but some of those plane rides can be pretty long. So, you’d interact with them and see how they’d interact with their contemporaries. I had a much better idea of them then than I do now. But I do hear from [Jeffrey] Twiss, our PR guy, and a few others who deal with the players all the time and what they tell me is that there are no badasses at all on the team. We used to say the same thing about our teams in the fifties and sixties. Even if we drafted a badass, the situation was so positive: the key guys were all on the same wavelength and wanting to do it the right way that those [types of] guys would never get a chance to influence or penetrate the atmosphere.
There’s been some talk about the three kids the Celtics just drafted. One kid, I guess, has got some negative history. But some people are saying that none of that will get [publicized] here, especially coming into the team the way it is now. The team leaders have been established. Garnett seems to be for real. His passion has been infectious. Pierce is a pretty passionate player, though not quite as demonstrative as Garnett. And Allen is Mr. Cool, but he’s got his moments, too. They are all on the same wavelength emotionally and defensively. That’s what won it for them . . . . People were asking me before the final round started who I thought was favored. Obviously Los Angeles, I said. They’ve got the best player in the league and they scored whatever it was by the numbers. But, I hadn’t seen them play all year long and after the first game I did a flip-flop and said: oh, hell, this’ll be over in five games or six because LA couldn’t play any damn defense. I wrote to my friend, Billy Sharman, who’s still their honorary president, and said, “Billy, that bunch of turkeys you had couldn’t have guarded you and me. What the devil happened out there?” Their heart wasn’t in it, and the Celtics wanted it so badly. That combination is how you end up with a forty point victory, which is so unusual at a championship level and when two teams are fairly evenly matched. The answer is that emotionally the Celtics were sky-high and the Lakers came out flat.
O’Loughlin: How does it feel when you are at a game? Do you look at the court and say to yourself, “I would have played that pass this way . . . ?” Or, “I would have taken the ball to weak side just then . . . . ” Do you find yourself thinking of plays?
Cousy: I’m not a “yesterday” person at all, Amy. I’m a “today/tomorrow” person. I don’t dwell a lot, maybe every now and then. But this year, especially, I got lured back to the past for obvious reasons. Those of us who played in those years can relate to what a great feeling it is for these kids. You’re king of the hill. You can walk into places and get instantly noticed. Basketball is the number two sport in the world, with soccer being the only sport ahead of it. More kids play basketball than any other sport in this country. Someone told me that the NBA Finals were televised in one hundred and seventy-seven countries in the world. Basketball is huge now from the standpoint of participation. Spectator-wise in this country football and baseball are still ahead, but basketball has made such strides in the last twenty to twenty-five years. And with the [Larry] Bird years, that’s when it turned in Boston.
For the first time, really, I can say that [I was affected by the Celtics' win]. We called the games for the Bird years. We were part of that, and it was nice. But I didn’t have the same passion for it that I did this year. This year, I got very emotional. I don’t go into the games anymore. I’m the Howard Hughes of the sports world. I avoid large crowds of people . . . . Any games that start after my bedtime, I don’t go to. My wife and I watched most of the games from the living room couch. My wife, I think, thought I was going into early senility because I’d be jumping up and throwing things at the television set and screaming. I haven’t done that since, I don’t know, since I played, I guess. I got much more emotionally attached to the outcome. Everything was in place this year . . . so it was easy for this old-timer to get attached to it.
And as far as thinking about play-making when I’m watching, if I’m [broadcasting] the games and the team is running transition or something, I have a habit of going ahead of the play in my mind’s eye, trying to will the point guard to dip his left shoulder to move the defender to go to his right. I used to do it almost instinctively. I don’t do that much anymore . . . . And now, they don’t run transition like we used to. The coaches are more conservative, and there’s more walk-the-ball-up-the-floor. We did some running this year though, and [Rajon] Rondo did a reasonably good job—although he’s insecure about his shooting, which affects his play-making. But, he did come to the floor in the last game. He shot and scored twenty points or whatever it was. He has all the talents to run an up-tempo game; it’s Doc who’d I’d like to talk into speeding it up more. It’d be easy for them, because they have young players and the players who have the speed and athleticism to run more transition. [Tommy] Heinsohn and I have been flailing away at that one for years and nobody listens to us . . . . . Unless you’ve got four or five big Frankenstein monsters and no point guard, obviously you’re not going to run transition. But, that’s unusual. Every college team in the country has a guard—he may not be Steve Nash, but they call him a point guard and he’s the best passer they have. The fun part of the game for basketball players is running up and down the floor, especially offensively. And so, if a kid likes to do something, it becomes more effective. It’s a component that I think ought to be part of every agenda at whatever level of play and certainly in the pros. But I bet there are three, four, maybe five teams out of thirty that rely on any kind of transitional game even the ones with good point guards . . . . My skills were all geared toward the transitional game. If I had to play for a walk-the-ball-up-the-floor coach, we wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d have been bored to death. You would never have heard of me.
O’Loughlin: Do you watch college basketball?
Cousy: No. I guess as you get older a lot of your attitudes and preferences change. Part of that is television viewing. Believe it or not, my wife and I have become addicted to Fox News Channel. And I do a lot of reading, but I’m behind by five books. I did Woodward’s [Bush at War], I did Bernstein’s [A Woman in Charge] . . . I’m doing Obama [The Audacity of Hope] now . . . . And good old Bernie Goldberg. I just got through Wimps. . . [Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right: How One Side Lost Its Mind and the Other Lost Its Nerve]. My interest has sheered toward current events and politics, which Fox answers for me. We’ll sometimes start at four in the afternoon with Cavuto and go to Gibson and Brit Hume. Then we go over to MSNBC for Matthews because Chris Matthews went to Holy Cross. I like Chris. I’ve met him a few times. I know he’s on the other side. Fox leans to the right. Chris leans to the left. I’ll be honest with you, though; I don’t watch a lot [of college basketball]. After The Final Four, we give out the [Bob Cousy] Point Guard Award. We’ve done it for the last five years or so. The Award is given to the best point guard in the country. I’m kind of ashamed because I have to do some homework before I give it out to find out who these kids are, because I don’t see them during the year . . . . Even watching an NBA game—of course with the exception of this year—I’m not really into as opposed to watching Fox. But I was mesmerized watching the tennis finals at Wimbledon. I have an interest in golf, so I watch the Masters, the Open, and so forth . . . . ”
O’Loughlin: Do you golf everyday?
Cousy: In the winter I do, if I can get out of bed and get on my bike and ride to the first tee and make it safe and sound. In the summer, I play two to three times a week. But I generally hit balls. I’ve reached a point where I prefer hitting balls than playing for four hours. I’ve found that it’s a good way to keep the blood flowing and get a little physical activity in. I play Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. And if someone calls and really twists my arm, I may do it Sunday. Two to three days a week is enough to get the juices flowing. I’m just coming off of a three-day tournament from this weekend, so I’m satiated. I enjoy golf, but I’ve had a terrible swing for years and years and years and I’d never go out and hit practice balls. I jump out of the car, head to the first tee, and start hitting away. So for the last twenty-two years—ever since we got to Florida (The Cousys reside in Palm Beach County during the winter)—the course there has a pretty nice practice area and I’ve gotten into the habit of practicing and targeting balls every day. Although, I noticed this year that the degree of urgency was a little less than it has been, so I’d take a day off here and there.
I had a hip replaced in 2000. It didn’t affect golf, but I had to give up tennis even after all the rehab . . . and even with the “exies” (exercises) that I’ve been doing for thirty years. I hurt my back playing racket ball about twenty-five, thirty years ago, and I got someone to put me on [an exercise] regimen. Every morning I lay right there (Cousy points to the floor of his plush-carpeted foyer), or if I’m in a hotel—it’s almost like brushing your teeth—I’ll get down on the floor and do some “exies” . It takes me twenty minutes to work and warm the blood down to the quads and hamstrings, and then I do the full range. During the rehab for the hip it progresses through stages, and [when you're stable enough] they put you on the machines in the gym. I continued that three times a week. I’d go to Holy Cross where they have a nice health club. I’d go in the mornings at seven-thirty, when there wasn’t a boy in sight. But, there were always nine or ten coeds. The girls would be working off an all-nighter and the boys would be sacked out. The girls would look at me and say “What’s that old fart doing busting in at seven-thirty?” But, this year I stopped doing that, not for any reason but your body tells you what it can do and what it can’t. I’m still with the “exies” every morning on the floor, but I’ve stopped going to Holy Cross. In Florida, we used to go to the Bally’s nearby and my wife would join me. This year she’d say, “‘Do you want to go to Bally’s?” I’d just be back from golf and [having already done] the “exies” and say, ‘Well, I’m just going to lie down for half an hour, and then we’ll go.” Well, we’d never end up making it. That was the end of Bally’s.
For tennis, the lateral movement is okay, but the up-and-down is not. And the barracudas that I play with, if they know I can’t go for the drop shots or the lobs, that’s all they’re going to hit to me. So, I packed it in. In the next life, I’ll come back as an athlete or something. Knowing my competitive nature, my fires are banked, but they’re not out completely. They’re smoldering, and every now and then a small spark will flash up. But, if I went out and played and they kept hitting drop shots, I’d be trying to get to them and I’d fall and hurt myself and wouldn’t be able to play golf. Then, they might as well put me in a pine box. I decided the better part of valor was to forget tennis for this life.
O’Loughlin: Were you pleased with the way the statue at Holy Cross came out?
Cousy: Yes, very much. The twelve committee members worked very hard for two years to put this thing together. Usually when you plan for something [years in advance] nothing turns out right. But, my goodness, there wasn’t a thing out of place, and everything went very well. The flowers even bloomed. My Seattle daughter did a hell of a job with her two or three minutes [of speaking]. It was well received, and the pigeons were all happy with their depository program.
O’Loughlin: I read in the newspaper that you stated in your remarks that one day you’d like to see your statue flanked on one side by an African-American athlete and on the other by a female athlete.
Cousy: The power behind the throne on the committee was Father John Brooks, who was the former president of Holy Cross and who is my hero. He and I have remained close, close friends over the years. He was the one responsible for breaking the color line at Holy Cross. He hand-picked three or four kids from Philadelphia to come to Holy Cross. He was so concerned and anxious to do it effectively, so that everyone was satisfied that academically and character-wise these students would be the first [who'd succeed at college]. He borrowed my wife’s station wagon himself—the President of the school!—and drove all the way to Philadelphia, put them in the car and drove them all the way back [to Worcester]. Incidentally after those forerunners, one student from Holy Cross ended up being Clarence Thomas. And when Anita Hill was doing her thing, I remember I was so proud because at the hearings there were at least three black lawyer-types or businessmen-types all Holy Cross graduates, who testified on Clarence’s behalf. They were magnificent, and it was such great PR for the school. And then, a few years later about seventy-six, [Father Brooks] broke the gender barrier and brought in girls.
[There was a time when] I almost gave up my religion, literally. They made a big fuss out of the fact that I roomed with one of the first African-American players in the league, Chuck Cooper. He was a basketball player and his color was academic. He was high-class and intelligent. We shared similar things: we both liked soft jazz and we used to go to clubs and listen to Earl Garner if he was in town and we’d hang out until two in the morning. The story’s been told about when [Cooper] couldn’t stay in a hotel in Charlotte. We went to Auerbach and said, “Arnold, let’s not make a fuss. After the game we’ll bring our bags and we’ll take the train and sleep the way through.” We got to the platform. Now, I grew up in New York and Chuck went to school in Pittsburgh, and we were fairly sophisticated and we knew there were a lot of bad people out there. We ran into colored and white signs at the platform, which meant we couldn’t even be together. It was the first time I ever saw such a thing. It was so embarrassing. I was embarrassed to be white, and I didn’t know what to say [to Chuck]. And it was at that time that I found out that there were segregated churches in the South. I wasn’t aware. I must’ve been naïve in that regard, because in my mind I could not relate that to religion at all. And in fact, I said in my remarks—and maybe it stemmed from that [realization]—that if a belief system or a philosophy or a religion doesn’t have as its basic tenet the equality of the human, then anything else they tell me to believe becomes irrelevant. So, as I said, I could’ve [given up my religion]. I came very close to it. Maybe it’s not necessarily the church, but it’s certainly bigoted priests. For me, at twenty-three-years-old or how ever old I was, to try to rationalize segregated churches while they preached to me since I reached the age of reason that God loves all of his creation didn’t make any sense. But, getting back to Father Brooks, he was the man who made Holy Cross gender-blind, color-blind and ethnically diversified, which is the way any Catholic Jesuit or non-Jesuit school should be . . . . And that was the point I was making in my remarks, that inclusion is what the Jesuits should reflect: a minority; a female; and a male.
O’Loughlin: Do you see your grandchildren often?
Cousy: No, that’s the problem. My Seattle daughter is the one who produced the two grandkids. My Florida daughter didn’t have any children. The kids and the grandkids used to come home for three weeks in the summer, so we’d see them for that period. And we’d go out [to Seattle] occasionally for special events. And now, one granddaughter has graduated from Santa Clara. They’re both good kids and they’re both geniuses. My granddaughter was summa cum laude. She was National Honor Society, the whole nine yards. We tell our granddaughters that obviously they took after their grandparents. But, unfortunately, we don’t see them as much of them as we’d like.
O’Loughlin: I have here in my notes a section called “Fate, Luck and Destiny.” It pertains to the incredibly well-timed series of circumstances that shaped you into becoming one of the best basketball players in the NBA. At age 12, you and your family moved to St. Albans. You met Morty Arkin, Director of O’Connell Park, where you and your boyhood friends played. He introduced you to the game of basketball, opened your eyes to a whole new world of competition and became your earliest basketball mentor. In your 1957 book, Basketball Is My Life, you tell the story of when you were a boy and you fell out of a tree and broke your right arm. You were in a cast for weeks, so you started to play handball with your left arm. You write: “And although no one told me, somehow or other I got the idea that I had something good going for myself. I made up my mind to play with both hands after my right was O.K. again so I wouldn’t lose the use of my left.” You instinctively developed dexterity as a two-handed ball handler when you broke your arm—an indelible skill that would come to characterize your game. You came to the Celtics in 1950 by virtue of Walter Brown picking your name out of a hat.
How do you interpret these coincidences? Do you believe it was luck, destiny, fate or perhaps an amalgamation of all three? Do you think you would have risen to the level of your career choice if one of these factors had not occurred? And if you had never discovered the game of basketball, what do think you might have done?
Cousy: In my case, my career started with a lot of God-given athletic talent. I was fabricated overseas. I was born six months after the boat landed at Ellis Island. It was 1928, in the heart of the Depression. We went back to the farm my father left—thank God!—which was in a little farming community in northeastern France. This was in the mid-sixties, and I had my two daughters with me—they were eleven and twelve—and I was doing public relations work in France for Gillette, which was one of the few companies doing sports marketing in those days. They hired me, and we went out and did twenty-two cities in twenty-four days and did the whole periphery. We kicked it off with a press conference in Paris. L’Equipe, the big sporting newspaper over there, found out about the human interest story. They said when you get here, we’ll detour and we’ll visit [where your father is from].
I’d had no communication with the family. Family dysfunction breakdown and all that. My father’s three brothers were still mad at my father for leaving the family farm, for leaving them to go where the streets were paved with gold. So we get there, and I found the parish priest and asked him where the Cousy farm was located. We walked up to the door— and of course they don’t expect us or anything—it was [this little house] with earthen floors. No electricity. They had to go out and milk the goats and bring us bread, cheese, and milk.
At that point, I’d been told over and over for twenty years, “Hey Cooz, ole boy, your timing sucks. You were born twenty years too soon.” Because I was the highest paid player in the league when I quit, making thirty-five thousand during my last year. I used to go out [and make speeches] and when I spoke, I’d say: “The highest paid player fifteen years ago was Michael . . . ? What’s his name? Michael . . . ?” And someone from the crowd would yell out: “Jordan!” And I’d say: “Yeah! That’s the sucker! He made thirty-five million during his last season!” So now I’m sitting there [at my father's family farm] and I’m saying to myself: “Oh, boy! If I were born twenty years sooner, I’d be here on the farm picking potatoes all day!”
And so, my uncles are saying to me: “Comment va le bon vivant?” referring to my father, which means “How’s the playboy?” My poor father. From the minute he got here in 1928, he had two jobs, worked eighteen hours a day, died penniless. He was certainly no playboy. It took him twelve years to save five hundred bucks to get us out of that terrible ghetto on the East River and get us out where there was fresh air and hoops. And so, that was the first stroke of pure good luck. I was thirteen when I started to play basketball, which was kind of old even then. Now, it’s ancient—kids start playing basketball these days when they jump out of the womb. Then, seventeen years later I ended up at Holy Cross. Most of my contemporaries never went to college. We didn’t have the wherewithal to even think about college. So, I’d say first, it was the God-given athletic talent, then somehow finding my way to Holy Cross. There was no recruiting done [in those days]. I had a letter from the coach that said essentially “Hey Kid, we need a hotshot. If you want a scholarship, fill out this form.” Which I did. So, I wandered off to school. Ten of us—most of them GIs—wandered in the same way, and we win the damn NCAA! In fairness, the NCAA was not the big deal that it is today, but still. The funny thing about going to Holy Cross was that they had given up their basketball program—it was so low on the totem pole. They had given it up during the war years and resurrected it in forty-five/forty-six— one year before —and now in the second year, we win the NCAA! It was incredible! Again, good fortune. And then, we did well in New England tournaments and went to the NCAA twice more.
After Holy Cross, [my co-captain, Frank Oftring, and I] were going to go into business because we had some notoriety. We’d gone to see some bank presidents and asked them how do we capitalize [on our notoriety]. They said, “Where it’s at is gas stations! Open up a string of gas stations!” Well, we opened up an auto driving school along with [the gas station]. The gas station went down the tubes quickly, but the auto driving school took off like gangbusters. By the middle of the first summer we had three cars going around-the-clock. We were doing the teaching ourselves and we’d hired a couple of other guys, and that’s probably what would have been my career: Cousy and Oftring. We would have had a bunch of auto driving schools until I learned that I’d been drafted by some place called Tri-Cities.
The NBA wasn’t a big deal, and I really didn’t aspire to play on a professional level. I’d never seen an NBA game while I was at school. I had just gotten married and I wasn’t about to move to a tri-city and play for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. I said, “Geez, I was a pretty good student. I must have slept in class or something. What the hell is a tri-city?” They put that in the headlines of the Tri-City Bugle, which didn’t endear me to the good folk of Tri-Cities. The owner [Ben Kerner] was in Buffalo, so I went up [to meet him] and he said, “What’s it going to take [to get you to sign with the team]?” I said, “Ten thousand, Mr. Kerner.” “Oh God, Cooz, I can’t!” he cried for half an hour. So, I said, “What can you pay me?” He said, “Six thousand.” Well, hell I knew I could do better than that. We had a road tour around New England with all the college players and we’d all made well over ten thousand and I knew I could have done that for another ten years. And The Globetrotters series had just begun, so when [Kerner] said six thousand and I’d have to pick up and move to someplace called Tri-Cities, a place I never heard of, I shook his hand and said, “Thank you very much.” I went home and continued teaching ladies to drive. I guess [Kerner] decided I was serious because he traded me to Chicago [to play for the Stags]. I said it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to Chicago, either. The team disbanded. They dispersed the players, and there were three of us left: [Max] Zaslofsky; [Andy] Phillip and I. New York [Knicks] picked first and they got Max Zaslofsky and they were ecstatic. Philadelphia [Warriors] got Phillip, who became a Hall of Fame point guard. And the only thing left in the damn hat other than the lining was moi. [Celtics owner] Walter Brown called me the next morning and said, “Bob, we picked you out of a hat. Come on in. We’ll talk.” I got there and he said, “What do you need?” And I said to him, “Mr. Brown, I needed ten thousand.” He said, “Would you settle for nine?” I said, “Yeah, not a big deal.” And the rest is history.
Six years later we win the first championship, and I’m around for six of them. Yes, luck had everything to do with [my success]. And I said that in my remarks [at Holy Cross], too. You’ve heard so many jocks over the years get up and say they’re the luckiest jock in the world. I’d put my history up against all of them put together. I can’t imagine things working out any better. So yeah, you need a lot of luck. You need a lot of God-given talent, but you have to be in the right situation, too. I think moving out to St. Albans, which at the time was a hotbed of basketball—that’s all the kids wanted to do—getting to Holy Cross; coming to Boston with Auerbach the same year he joined the Celtics: it was a whole series of fortunate events.
But in fairness also to the idea of continuing success, you also have to exploit opportunities. A lot of people sit on their ass and just never activate things. I’ve never been aggressive about it, but I’ve always been aware of exploiting situations that develop if they’re available to me. So, to be successful is a combination of all of those things.
O’Loughlin: When you first picked up basketball when you were young, did you know, or could you tell, instinctively that it would become such a huge part of your life?
Cousy: Not really, no. But I do remember the first “organized” game I played was for the Long Island Press League. The Long Island Lindens, we were. We won the game, and I was the high scorer with fourteen points. I wasn’t expected to do much—I wasn’t a good shooter—but in terms of a competitive nature, most good athletes will respond to the moment, even if you are only fourteen-years-old and playing in your first organized game. Good athletes will respond to the high pressure situations better than those with mediocre talent, because when they’re faced with that kind of stress, they generally underachieve. But the good athletes need that kind of motivating factor. Just the fact that you’re all nerved up and you think you’re going to fall apart, but if you’ve got the God-given skills, you don’t. You respond to the moment, and then you overachieve. And after that, the sky is the limit. You’ve got to be practical about it and realistic about it. I was five-ten, five-eleven; and until my senior year in high school I landed All-City as a scorer, I never thought of myself as being a scorer. I thought of myself as more of a passer, so I kind of surprised myself. By nature I’m not a cocky person at all, but I’m also not insecure about the things I know I’m no good at and the things I am. I’ve never been plagued by thinking [I was] better—and that’s good—than [I really am]. Because that always instills the fear factor in whatever it is you want to do in terms of sports. When you’re a little frightened going in to it, you’re always going to overachieve as apposed to thinking, “Well, all I’ve got to do is show up.” Because that’s when you get burned. I suppose if you’re Wilt Chamberlain and you’re seven feet, if you’re towering over everybody, it’s hard to be insecure about your game. But, as a five-ten or eleven guard in high school—in college I eventually got close to six-two—it was the same situation for me as it was for Magic Johnson, who was six-nine as a point guard, and even Steve Nash at six-four—these guys [take into account their size and know their performance level]. So, being a little taller and stronger, I guess, you could fall into that trap of becoming overconfident about your game. But that never happened with us. Me and my contemporaries, we were just out there working at it as hard as we could.
During my first six years with the Celtics, we did pretty much as well as we could, which is the criteria for achievement in anything. If you work hard and do the best you can and get to be as good as you possibly can be, that’s what it’s all about. Auerbach had a lot to do with that [philosophy]. His first six years with the Celtics we all knew we were never going to win anything, but every day of every season we probably always overachieved. That’s how you do it, though, in professional sports. You’ve got to have the talent. You can overachieve one day, but you won’t continually do it if the skills aren’t there. And then, you’ve got to have the temperament to complement those skills. For me, I’m assuming my ghetto experience honed whatever killer instinct I needed.
O’Loughlin: It is certainly challenging to face that pressure of having to get geared up physically and mentally for that next game, night after night. That pressure to perform. What would you do to manage that demand?
Cousy: Yes, it’s difficult, but it’s a motivating factor, too. The last two or three years [before I retired] when I knew that every father had his kids at the game saying, “There’s the best basketball player in the world! Watch and see what he does!” Once I started to recognize that and also to recognize that my skills were starting to fade, that’s the kind of pressure that no longer becomes a motivating factor. I was lucky, however, because I really dodged that bullet, because by then I was surrounded by these five or six Hall of Famers. My getting-on in years—I was thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five, whatever it was when I quit—were kind of hidden behind them. I could do my play-making skills and I could fake it in playoff competition when the pressure does become so magnified. In my mind I’d do it as if I was going to do it myself. I’d pass off to one of the five teammates that I was playing with: Sam Jones; [Bill] Russell; [Tommy] Heinsohn; [Frank] Ramsay; [Bill] Sharman. I was surrounded. I couldn’t have done it if I’d been like Paul Pierce had been— all by myself out there—knowing my skills were eroding and having reached certain pinnacles and knowing the parents were saying, “There was the greatest player in the world!” The fear of falling off the pedestal gets so big and it gets you to wonder. But, up until that point I knew what I could do. I knew my limitations.
I think [how you handle the pressure] though depends on your makeup. I listen to [the commentators] and they’re always saying, “Boy, is that guy a competitor!” Well cripes, they’re all competitors! You don’t reach that level [of professional play] unless you’re competitive! But, there are degrees of preparedness. I’ve said it often and I still believe it today, today’s jock will work every bit as hard as the Celtics did this year to get to the top of the hill the first time—because they’re just as competitive as we were. But, I don’t think any of them today will work as hard to stay on top of the hill as we did forty years ago. Because what they have today works against them. We were making two or three times what the average [professional] was making at the time. Now they’re making so many millions of dollars that it’s difficult to maintain this killer instinct. When you’ve got everything you want, you’ve got limos waiting to take you anywhere, you’re behind armed guards, you’ve got [surveillance] monitoring your property—it’s a distraction.
I’ve said many times that they’ll never be dynasties again. As I’ve said I don’t go out in public much anymore and I didn’t used to boast. I’m not a yesterday person, but whenever I’m interviewed I assert the past and say that what I’m most proud of is having played a role in the greatest team sport dynasty that this country will ever produce. I understand that records are made to be broken, but that one [winning eleven NBA championships in thirteen years] will stand forever because of the circumstances. When Michael’s team a few years ago won three in a row, I’d be getting these phone calls: “Is this the best team that ever was?” I’d say, “Wait a minute! We’re eleven out of thirteen! They won three in a row. Wait a few years, and then ask me the question!” Well, you know, people always obviously remember the present better than do anything else. But, that’s something that will never be done again. Eleven out of thirteen years in a team sport at a time when it was tougher to do. The players today are bigger, stronger, more athletic—I’m not saying they’re not. But, there wasn’t the number of teams then that there are now, and the talent level was much more concentrated. That was the time when the old cliché about the last place team beating the first place team used to happen frequently. There wasn’t that much difference [between the teams]. So, it was a lot harder to dominate the way those units did. To win eleven out of thirteen years, that will never be replicated. I don’t care what the conditions are—unless, of course, they revert back and start paying these guys a normal wage and year-to-year contracts. That’ll never happen. So, I’m very proud to have played a role in that, because that’s going to be forever. It’s never going to be surpassed.
O’Loughlin: You visited the White House several times during your career. You met Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan. What was that like?
Cousy: Yes, we were invited six times. Eisenhower was the first. He was kicking off his physical fitness program, and I represented professional basketball. In fact, Russell was there and he represented college basketball. What struck me about the Eisenhower visit was that everything was done on a minute-to-minute schedule. There were about fifteen or eighteen of us and we waited in the green room. An aide came in and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, would you please form a semi-circle. The President will be down in exactly a minute-and-a-half.” And in exactly a minute-and-a-half, Eisenhower showed up. Of course, with his military background he would anyway. I was impressed because he went around and shook everyone’s hand and had appropriate remarks, so you knew he’d been briefed a little bit. “Bob, how’s your basketball?” or whatever it was. He had something appropriate to say. That was impressive as opposed to [President] Johnson. I went back twice for Johnson. In those days, The Big Brother of the Year Award was presented at the White House. Johnson was the recipient the year before, and I was the recipient that year (1965). You could tell [Johnson] didn’t know why he was there. I had both of my daughters with me—they were nine and ten— and he was nice to them. Everyone else he was terribly rude to; and the press, he’d be screaming at all of them. The press jumped in as we entered the Oval Office. They were jockeying for position and falling on each other, and he got pissed off and screamed at them again. I went back the next year because Billy Graham won [the award], and they always asked the former recipient to come back [to present the award to that year's winner]. We sat for twenty minutes, maybe a half hour waiting for [Johnson] to arrive. As far as punctuality goes, I remember Eisenhower was the [best at it]. John F. Kennedy was like one of the boys. It ended up being fun to be with him and, of course, he had his Massachusetts connections. It was cute—the story that came out of that visit. [Tom] Satch Sanders was our rookie that year and Satch was so nerved-up. As the President was saying good-bye to all of us on his way out, he said to Satch, “Tom, thank you for joining us this morning. Congratulations.” And Satch said, “Yeah. Take it easy, baby.” And the President looked up, and it was just hilarious! That phrase was just coming into use and that’s all Satch could think of. Sports Illustrated did a story on it. It was real cute. My wife and I went back for Reagan when we had a small exhibit—I don’t know if it’s even still there—in the Smithsonian. They did some updating of ornamentation or whatever, but the focal point was anyone who’d been involved with the Smithsonian was invited [to the White House]. Reagan spoke to the group, but I didn’t have any personal contact with him. We were invited by Nixon, but that was during the [Vietnam] War years, when I coached the United States against the big, bad Russians. In the spring of nineteen seventy-three, the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) brought the Russian (Olympic) team back to make some money. They asked me to coach, and we played six games and won four out of the six. We played in Baltimore. Nixon invited us to the White House for acknowledgment. All of my guys were anti-Nixon and they politely declined. So, we didn’t go . . . . But, the other five visits were great. It was interesting to get a glimpse of how the political world runs. It’s a nice experience to look back on.
O’Loughlin: In 2000, you sold a lot of your memorabilia. Were there any specific pieces that you held on to?
Cousy: We used to have it all in the cellar. [When we decided to sell, the auction company] was here for three days inventorying everything. I said to them a few times, “Guys, this is junk. You’re not going to get . . . .” “Oh, no, no!” they said. “This is your junk. You’ll be amazed [at how much things will go for!"] My wife used to sneak down in the middle of the inventorying and she’d grab little pieces when they weren’t looking. So, she’s saved a few and we’ve accumulated a few more since then. There’s enough left. The only time I used to go down to the cellar was when a friend or someone would bring by his twelve-year-old son and I’d say, “Okay, come on down. Let’s look at the old days.”
O’Loughlin: So, you had no real attachment to your collectibles?
Cousy: Well, I don’t know. I probably would have kept it. We split the proceeds and gave them to our daughters. [Selling] came at a timely fashion, especially for my Seattle daughter because the grandkids were just starting college. To me, it was done for a good cause. As I’ve said, I’m not a yesterday person. I can’t say I had an emotional attachment to the stuff. It was going to sit there. The jacket they gave the fifty best players ever—the jacket was just going to hang in the closet. Some of the laminated plaques when I retired—there were about eighteen of them—my wife snuck only one away. Eighteen of them we had on the wall and they depicted my career of thirteen years with the Celtics. They were well-preserved and they were nice. If I brought someone downstairs, I used to like to point out the different years. [Parting with the memorabilia] wasn’t traumatic. I wouldn’t have sold it just for the sake of selling it . . . . [The reasons for selling] far outweigh, in my mind, hanging on to old relics. How much do you need of the old days to focus your attention?
O’Loughlin: Do you have a favorite piece?
Cousy: Well, I don’t know. The [Bob Cousy] Point Guard trophy is nice and [giving out the Award] has worked out very well. Hopefully, it’ll last for a few more years. By the way, they used the same sculpture for the Holy Cross statue. That’s a seven-foot five replica of this trophy.
O’Loughlin: That piece has an interesting–looking sketch of you. It reads: “Presented to Bob Cousy. Player of the Decade.”
Cousy: Oh, yes. That’s from the Philadelphia Sportswriters. Player of the decade [from the fifties]. Fifty-seven was, I guess, my piece de resistance. We not only won our first championship, but I won the MVP award. An MVP is a big man award, and I was the first point guard to win it—now there’s been about five others and Steve Nash has won it twice. He almost won it a third time.
O’Loughlin: I was beyond privileged this March when I had the chance to meet Steve Nash when Phoenix played the Celtics. A dear friend who works for the NBA gave me tickets to the game. I brought to the game a friend who works in marketing for the Boston Breakers, the women’s professional soccer team. She had some promotional materials to give to Steve Nash, who is heavily investing in women’s professional soccer here in the U.S., as well as in Canada. After the game, we were introduced to him. He was kind and so friendly.
Cousy: He’s a good guy. I dropped him a note when he won the first [MVP award], and he wrote me a nice note back.
O’Loughlin: You’ve been interviewed hundreds, maybe thousands of times. Is there a question that has never been asked of you that you’ve always wished had been? Or a topic that you would have liked to discuss, but never had the opportunity to do so?
Cousy: Oh, I don’t know, Amy. There’s a kid in the pro shop [at my golf course], one of the assistant pros. He’s a sports fan. He’s always asking, “Mr. Cousy, of all the people you’ve ever met, who are the most . . . ?” You’ve caught me by surprise with the question, and I haven’t been asked that question. I just don’t have a good answer. I haven’t had time to think about it. But, I said to the kid that probably the private audience with the Pope was a very significant moment for me. That one’s up there [on the list]. Arthur Ashe has always been my kind of hero, because I thought he handled the race situation with dignity and class; he helped his cause because he wasn’t inflammatory. He wasn’t Al Sharpton. He wasn’t my good buddy Bill Russell or even my friend Jesse Jackson, who’s come here to Worcester once or twice to help us out. But, the way they handled it is fine, too. If you’re under that kind of pressure, well . . . we all react differently. Sometimes when I do something I’m ashamed of and when the pressure’s on, I revert back to my roots. Instead of shaking the guy’s hand after losing, you want to kick him in the groin. Those things stay with you. But, with an issue like [race], I’m sure Arthur Ashe in the privacy of his own thoughts used to say, “Those white SOBs!” and I don’t blame him. I can empathize with Russell. He was king of the hill after I left. When I got into Worcester Country Club I found out years later that the secret committee [only asked one thing] when my name went through. It was: “If we let him in, do you think we’re going to have Russell up here?” When you’re sitting on top of the sports world in Boston and you can’t play at the local country club and people are breaking into your house, how would any of us react? I don’t know. But, what I’m saying—from a distance—Arthur Ashe’s approach I respected because he didn’t turn off the moderates, he handled it with dignity, he didn’t become an Uncle Tom. He fought the good fight. I think he did his cause immeasurable good. It’s easy to tell the other guy to turn the other cheek when it’s not your cheek. It takes a lot of willpower and discipline to do what Arthur Ashe did—and, as a result, I think the benefits are far greater. Therefore, I have great respect for Arthur Ashe. And I mentioned [Arthur Ashe] to the kid, too. And, as I’ve said, meeting the Pope was “pretty cool,” as the kids say today.
O’Loughlin: I think we’ve come to the end of our time together. Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?
Cousy: Well, as far as the Celtics win, it’s capped not only my year, but it’s made me ready to go off to the big golf course in the sky now a happy camper.
Photo Credit: ICON Sports Media