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Cousy: His Life, Career, and the Birth of Big-Time Basketball

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Cousybil_medium About 2 weeks ago Comcast announced Bob Cousy would not be involved in its Celtics broadcasts during the 2009 season.  The Cooz did not agree with the decision:

"I would have liked to have continued. I'm only involved in 10 games a season, so it's not that big a deal. But I would have liked to have been allowed to keep my hand in, especially after 22 years of [Celtics] mediocrity - last year was kind of fun, frankly, and I was looking forward to doing it again. Comcast can choose to do the hiring and firing, but if it's a financial situation, I'm not being overpaid. What they pay me is what they spend monthly for office supplies." - Bob Cousy

The "22 years of [Celtics] mediocrity" gets to a crucial point about Cousy's tenure.  He was not one to sugarcoat his feelings and pretend that a fundamentally flawed basketball team had a bright future.  Unfortunately his pessimism was a downer at times.  Still, the fact that he enjoyed last season was one of the underrated developments of Boston's return to glory. While you may not have cared for Cousy's presence as much as I did, there is no denying he is one of the strongest links to Red Auerbach.  Consider parts one, two and three of this tribute to Red.  That, coupled with the fact that Cousy turned 80 this past August, motivated me to look at Bill Reynolds' Cousy: His Life, Career, and the Birth of Big-Time Basketball.

The book opens on March 17, 1963 (St. Patrick’s Day), Cousy’s last game in the Boston Garden.  Five aspects stood out from the first chapter.

1. Author Bill Reynolds noted that John F. Kennedy was President, Martin Luther King Jr. was five months away from his "I Have A Dream Speech" and a wool suit with two pairs of trousers cost $49.  And yes people said trousers.  But I was more struck by an excerpt from the New Yorker, which described the gradual acceptance of basketball,

"spectacle of ten, tall, skinny young men running around in midwinter in costumes that look very much like summer underwear no longer appears as bizarre as it once did." – Rober Rice (Reynolds 12).

2. Cousy retired at age 34 even though he could still get it done, albeit playing fewer minutes.  Yet he chose to leave for a number of reasons:

- He did not want to tarnish his image.  Fair enough.  Think Michael Jordan if he really walked away in 1998.  Actually that analogy is decent since the Cooz made somewhat of a comeback (7 games) seven years later.

- It was no longer fun for Cousy.  Instead the game haunted him.  Nightmares, fear, hatred and seclusion.

- Cousy was genuinely concerned about making a living once he retired and figured he should focus on profiting from his image, which he was absolutely terrified of tarnishing.  Even though he may have saved the NBA and was one of its brightest early stars, he faced financial insecurity heading into retirement.  And not in a Jason Caffey sense. It was an entirely different league back then.  As I typed that I thought of Carmelo Anthony and his fall from grace last spring.  If the former Syracuse standout cared for his image as much as Cousy did, he would be a lot better off.  And this commercial would not be so appropriate after the fact.

3. Cousy was a really, really big deal. He was the “Houdini of the Hardwood”, a magician with the ball, the first little guy to star in a big man’s league, a player people knew even when they did not know the NBA, the Babe Ruth of the NBA, and on and on. And yet where does he fit in a discussion of the best Celtics of all time? I bet most people would immediately mention Bill Russell, Larry Bird, John Havlicek and now Kevin Garnett. Paul Pierce, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish would probably get mentioned before Cousy too. But make no mistake, the Cooz could flat out play.

4. Tommy Heinsohn recalled that everyone on the Celtics wanted to win. However, Red Auerbach, Cousy and Russell had to win for their emotional and physical well-being. Reynolds described them as

“the point guard who had grown up the only son of French immigrants, the black center who had spent his early years in segregated Louisiana, and the Jewish coach who had hustled his way out of a Brooklyn ghetto.” (Reynolds 16)

Yet the three dominant personalities on the Celtics were more alike than they were different.  Their need to win was a borderline sickness.

5. Cousy often found the open man instead of shooting and asked for advice on how to get better.  Yet he would also “throw the ball at the back of a teammate’s head” if said player was not performing as Cousy wanted.  It was the demanding, perfectionist in him.  As a side note, I immediately thought of Michael Jordan intentionally throwing difficult, bad passes to Bill Cartwright after reading that.  Realistically the great ones seem to choose fear over love.

Cousy’s Youth

Cousy was no stranger to poverty and family dysfunction.  He lived in an apartment that lacked running water and was eventually condemned.  However, the awkward silences that dominated his home life may have had an even bigger impact on him.  I won’t go to into detail, as ultimately I want you to read it.  But I was struck by two thoughts:

- My great grandmother and her brother reused paper towels over and over again.  It was a product of the Great Depression. And even though Cousy was born 20+ years after them, he had the same mentality. It was the reason why he continued to do speaking appearances, which he despised, well after his accountant told him they were unnecessary.

- You could make the argument that Cousy escaping the streets of New York and making it in the NBA was as much of a long shot as Stephon Marbury doing it 45 years later.  On the one hand Marbury overcame an environment far more loaded with violence and drugs.  Meanwhile, Cousy made it out when scouting for college was almost non-existent and the NBA was a far cry from the marketing behemoth that exists today.  Also Cousy’s family eventually bought a house and then rented out two thirds of it to pay the mortgage.  Still, Marbury fits the stereotype of the ghetto.  Cousy does not.

Basketball in His Formative Years

- There is a tendency to assume that smaller players have to work a lot harder than bigger players to get to the NBA.  And to a certain extent that’s fair.  Tall people are encouraged to play basketball, even if height is their only basketball attribute.  That was the case with Robert Parish.  He developed skills over time.  After a certain height someone will always take a flier and hope everything else falls into place like it did with the Chief.  Unfortunately that line of thinking ignores the skills and talents of smaller players.  Yes Cousy was lucky that playground director Morty Arkin taught him how to shoot and insisted that Cooz develop a left hand.  Also the fact that Cousy’s high school did not have football made basketball the focus of every male that wanted to play sports.  Finally Cousy benefited from the play or go home, kill or be killed, and learn to innovate while doing so mentality that permeated New York City basketball.  All of that mattered.  However, Cousy, Isiah Thomas, Chris Paul and every other smaller player did not make it on hard work and toughness alone.  They’re gifted athletes with physical attributes that helped propel them to extraordinary levels. Rant over.  Oh, and for the record Cousy had large hands, which enabled him to do some pretty remarkable things with the ball.  Remind you of anyone? Hint: his first name is Rajon.

-  Having finished with that over the top rant I can now say that Cousy’s rise as a basketball player was still remarkable.  He was cut from the varsity his freshman year after essentially going through a lay up line with 250 other kids.  It was one of those times being 6-5 would have helped.  But he was persistent and fortunate enough to join a city league.  Through that league he eventually caught the eye of the varsity coach, due to his ability to play with both hands, and landed a spot on the JV team during his sophomore year.  Ironically Cousy’s ascension to the varsity was delayed for a semester the following year when he failed citizenship for talking too much in home room.  Still, it was only a brief speed bump and Cousy established himself as a high school basketball star.

The Catskills

Back before gambling almost destroyed college basketball with the CCNY scandal, amongst others, gamblers had tremendous access to some of the best basketball players in the country – George Mikan, Dolph Schayes, Ed Macauley, Cousy and many more – due to the hotels of the Catskills.  That’s not to say that everyone got in with gamblers.  But the fact remains that talented high school graduates and college players were hired by the hotels and given a variety of responsibilities, including two games a week against teams from rival hotels.  Cousy was introduced to that world during the summer before his freshman year of college.  He was away from home for the first time, played against intense competition and saved $1,200.  Needless to say he loved it. 

Holy Cross

Having grown up in Worcester I’m fully aware of the fact that Cousy is one of Holy Cross’ most famous graduates.  However, had Boston College not been a commuter school he most likely would have been an Eagle instead of a Crusader.  Furthermore, Cousy landed on a team loaded with talent and New York natives.  And while he was the team’s third leading scorer, the future Celtics star was more of a role player.  He did not enjoy coming off the bench and was actually quite miserable.  Reynolds captured the frustration from that first season:

“He felt he was being snubbed. When practice started and he was not on the first team he often sulked. He was upset and made no attempt to disguise it (Reynolds 57.)

Despite Cousy’s unhappiness Holy Cross had an impressive run in the regular season that culminated in an appearance in the NCAA tournament.  You have to read the book to get a better idea of how that team was assembled and truly understand what an accomplishment it was for them to defeat Navy, CCNY and Oklahoma to win it all.  And it was a huge deal in Worcester, which Reynolds described so well,

“Worcester was home of the national basketball champions, and who could have ever believed that could happen to Worcester, the gritty mill town in Central Massachusetts, the place you went through on the way to someplace else? (Reynolds 63).


But back to Cousy. He was so unimpressed with is playing time under coach Doggie Julian that he tried unsuccessfully to transfer to St. John’s.  As a result he returned for a rocky sophomore campaign, which was highlighted by a complete breakdown in his relationship with Julian.  The season also ended on a sour note when Kentucky bounced the Crusaders in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament, a game in which the Cooz was awful from the field.  Just when it seemed like it could not get any worse Julian left to coach of all teams the Celtics and Cousy became a star. Magazine stories, praise from opponents and limited team success (unfortunately) followed.  Of course that raises a fantastic question.  Was Bob Cousy happier as a star on an average team than he was as a role player on a winning team in college?  Tough to say.  However, that’s the kind of mentality that NBA fans, writers, and bloggers would jump all over a modern day player for.

Almost Not a Celtic

Cousy was originally drafted by Tri-Cities after Red Auerbach passed on the Holy Cross stand out because he was not out to “please the local yokels.”  But Cousy had no intention of calling Moline, Rock Island or Davenport home.  Even a trade to Chicago did not entice him.  Ultimately Chicago folded and Cousy ended up in Boston.  Based upon Auerach’s draft decision the player/coach relationship did not get off to a great start.  And even after Cousy landed in Boston the legendary coach worried about controlling the hotshot talent.  Of course after peaking as slightly less than a champion in all of Cousy’s early years Red Auerbach brought Bill Russell to Boston, the organization dominated professional basketball as never before, and Cousy and “Arnold” went on to have a close, albeit at times complicated, relationship.

Ultimately I encourage you to buy the book and brush up on the rest of Cousy’s career and life.  For example he was instrumental in the creation of the players' union.  Meanwhile, I understand the Boston Celtics do not run Comcast.  Rather the company is going to make its own decisions.  However, one of the great aspects of being a Celtics fan is the feeling that the organization is different than the other 29.  And it’s not just the 17 titles, the parquet, all the great moments, the numerous living legends that made a name for themselves in Boston, or the fact that the franchise held off on adding a dance team until 2007.  It’s also the Celtics Mystique or Celtics Pride, which even K.C. Jones admits sounds corny on the surface.  Yet Cousy is one of those guys that made it real.  I wish he could have gone out on his own terms.

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