By: Michael D. McClellan | “Before Elvis, there was nothing,” John Lennon once observed, this in reference to all those popular singers who crooned so statically and politely in front of rigid dance bands in the style of Perry Como. The white ones did, anyway. But Elvis was different – he grew up in Memphis, drawn to the blues and hooked on the black artists of the day. So when he took the stage and pumped his legs, everything changed: Pop music, staid and formulaic to that point, was suddenly freed from its well-mannered straightjacket, opening the door for acts like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Eminem to come barreling through. Elvis was a flashpoint. His appearance transformed the music industry from something relatively benign to something inherently dangerous, injecting it with color, lacing it with sexuality, and unleashing a torrent of emotion that had been bottled up in us for decades. With Elvis came a new breed of idol, one far more potent than any film star had ever been, namely, the rebellious, modern, sexy, young rock star, a species seemingly from a different planet to the family entertainers who’d preceded him.
NBA basketball was on a parallel track with pre-Elvis pop in the early 1950s, the game played below the rim, set shots all the rage. It was a nearly all-white league, played for nearly all-while crowds in mostly dank, smoke-filled gyms, the teams owned by cigar-wielding hockey men desperate to put butts in seats. The product on the court was medieval by today’s standards. Bruisers clogged the lanes, while coaches, in the absence of a shot clock, often resorted to stall tactics in order to protect a lead. Gamblers hung around the action like flies, giving the game an unsavory feel, which was fine for the hardcore fans who shouted obscenities from the cheap seats and cheered loudest when the pushing and shoving erupted into bare knuckle fistfights. College basketball was more popular than the NBA in those days. Boxing and golf, too. The NBA was viewed by many as on par with pro wrestling, the circus, rodeo, and other events that came into arenas in the dark of the night and disappeared almost as quickly.
Bob Cousy came along and changed all of that. He’d been a college star at Holy Cross, a consensus first team All-American, and a contributor as a freshman on the Crusaders’ 1947 national championship team. He also spent plenty of time on the bench, and not because he didn’t have the requisite skillset to play against college basketball’s elite; his coach, growing increasingly agitated with Cousy’s behind-the-back passes and penchant for flair over fundamentals, decided to play lesser point guards who could be counted on to execute the game plan. But try as he might, the coach, Alvin “Doggie” Julian, found it impossible to keep Cousy off the floor. The product of Manhattan’s East End ghetto was simply too talented, his gifts to great to ignore. By his senior season Cousy was a household name, leading Holy Cross to 26 straight wins and a #4 national ranking, with his basketball wizardry earning him a well-deserved nickname: Houdini of the Hardwood.
Drafted third overall in 1950 by the Tri-Cities Blackhawks before landing in Boston when his name was literally drawn out of a hat – much to the chagrin of the team’s iconic head coach, Red Auerbach – Cousy immediately brought sizzle and showmanship to the pro game. He was AND1 basketball in a league full of stiffs, a hoops equivalent of Elvis whose arrival on the scene polarized everyone who paid to watch him play. There was no middle ground when it came to Bob Cousy: You were either a hater, dismissing him as a shameless self-promoter with a Harlem Globetrotters’ game, or you saw something totally different, someone not unlike Reese Witherspoon’s character in the movie Pleasantville – a ball handling magician whose game jolted the drab world of 1950s professional basketball with brilliant splashes of color.
Today, the criticism leveled at Cousy during those early years is downright laughable. It’s also ironic, given that Cousy not only became one of the league’s biggest stars, but remains in the conversation as one of the greatest point guards to ever dribble a basketball. More importantly, he served as a gateway through which a generation of high definition, cloud-connected celebrity athletes would ultimately flow. Consider the lineage: Without Cousy, one could argue that there could have been no Pistol Pete Maravich, no Magic Johnson, no Steph Curry.
Bob Cousy had to happen.
And with each wraparound pass, with each behind-the-back dribble, Cousy pushed the game out of the Dark Ages and toward the global, multi-billion dollar business it is today.
~ ~ ~
The prevailing mythos – that Bob Cousy saved a league teetering on extinction – is all dandy fine, but there’s more to the story than grandiose hyperbole and overused narratives. The story doesn’t begin at Holy Cross, or with the Boston Celtics, where he won six NBA Championships and helped spark the game’s first basketball dynasty. It begins instead in a tenement block on East 83rd Street in Manhattan, a full year before the stock market crash that wiped out $10 billion worth of wealth and plunged the United States headlong into the Great Depression.
Dirt poor, his parents were French immigrants who came to this country in search of the American Dream, and urban legend has it that Cousy was conceived on a boat bound for New York. Cousy does not dispute this. His father drove a taxi for a living and didn’t talk much, while his mother more than made up for the silence with her loquacious personality. She was also a high-strung woman, and prone to emotional outbursts, so it’s of little surprise that friction was the overriding constant between the two – with a young Bob Cousy often caught in the crossfire, an uncomfortable spectator with a front row seat to their unhealthy dysfunction. It didn’t help that his father had been conscripted into the German army as a young man and had fought for Germany in World War I, or that the Cousy’s settled in the German enclave known as Yorkville, where Julie Cousy’s hatred for the German people occasionally bubbled to the surface. Old grudges die hard – a Kraut was a Kraut, whether it was a soldier fighting on the battlefield in the south of France or a neighbor passing her on a New York side street. That’s just how Cousy’s mother rolled. The derogatory comments, heated arguments and petty sniping had a lasting impact on Cousy, as did the unrelenting poverty that dominated the hardscrabble years following Wall Street’s collapse. Outwardly, he was stoic like his father. Inwardly, his emotions churned and swayed much like his mother’s. The constant specter of conflict, combined with life in the grimy apartment in the Yorkville ghetto, fueled Cousy’s dreams of escape – to a better life, a more tolerant life, a life free from the tension that permeated much of his childhood.
“I grew up in the heart of the Depression. We lived in Yorkville, which is located on the East End of Manhattan,” Cousy reflects. “It’s farther east than Hell’s Kitchen, and back then it was the kind of place where the roaches and cockroaches were big enough to carry away small children. My family was poor. My father drove a cab for a living, but we felt normal because everybody else was in the same boat. We just didn’t realize how difficult our situation actually was, and I think that was the case with most of the children growing up on the East End during that era. We were all the same. We were happy. We hung out on the streets, played stickball, and did all of the same things as other kids of the day. Race wasn’t an issue. My family was French, but Yorkville was a melting pot of races and cultures. There were African American families, Jewish families, you name it. And for the most part we all got along.
“My parents were always arguing – their personalities were very different. My father would hardly say two words, while my mother was very strong-willed, very demonstrative. She wore her emotions on her sleeve, so sometimes things escalated to the point that arguments would break out. I can’t say that it was normal, but at the same time I guess normal is all relative. To them, that was just how they interacted. It was accepted behavior.”
“My parents were always arguing – their personalities were very different. My father would hardly say two words, while my mother was very strong-willed, very demonstrative. She wore her emotions on her sleeve, so sometimes things escalated to the point that arguments would break out. I can’t say that it was normal, but at the same time I guess normal is all relative. To them, that was just how they interacted. It was accepted behavior.” – Bob Cousy
The Cousys only spoke French at home, and young Robert was five before he started learning English. The apartment, which had no running water, was a sauna during those broiling New York summers and an icebox in the dead of winter, when the gray skies mirrored the hopelessness of the day. He was 12 when the family moved to Queens, renting a small house on 112th Avenue that seemed a world away from the gritty East End. Until then, basketball had barely been a blip on the radar. Like most New York kids, Cousy had been consumed with the national pastime, and those stickball games were what fueled his imagination and consumed much of his free time. Never mind that basketball was beginning to take over as the city’s favorite rec sport, or that college hoops was the hot new thing at Madison Square Garden. With Babe Ruth and three Major League teams calling New York home, baseball was the undisputed king of Gotham.
Cousy’s interests changed with the move to Queens, as he found himself hanging around nearby O’Connell Park, which was his first introduction to the dog-eat-dog world of inner city hoops. The rules of the concrete jungle were simple: Win and stay in, lose and sit out – a Darwinian lesson that played itself out over and over again on those long, hot summer days of his youth. Back then, like today, New York playground basketball was a proving ground, a feral zone where players built their reputations – street cred, as it would later come to be called in places like Harlem’s legendary Rucker Park. Except that back then you built your reputation on selflessness – passing, cutting, and finding the open man. Cousy liked watching the older kids play, how they worked together to find a good shot for an open teammate.
Funny thing is, Cousy’s immersion into the game that changed his life almost never happened.
“From the minute he got to the United States in 1928, my father had two jobs, worked eighteen hours a day, and died penniless,” Cousy says. “It took him twelve years to save five hundred bucks to get us out of that terrible ghetto on the East River. It was a great move for our family in general and for me in particular, because it led me to the game that changed my life. I was thirteen when I really started to play basketball, which was kind of old even way back then. But once I started playing, I was hooked. I gave up baseball, except for the occasional stickball games in the neighborhood, and I found myself spending more and more time at O’Connell Playground, or over at P.S. 36’s schoolyard.”
It was at O’Connell that Cousy met Morty Arkin, the playground director who would show him the fundamentals. Cousy was twelve at the time, introverted, skinny, and smallish for his age. He soaked up Arkin’s advice, working hard to execute the various drills that he was shown.
“Morty showed me the basics,” Cousy says. “He worked with the kids who came around the playground and who showed an interest in the game of basketball. I was just another skinny kid hanging around the courts. He couldn’t have seen the potential in me then, but I think he could tell how much I liked basketball, and how determined I was to improve my skills.”
Cousy continued to develop. He tried out for the team as a ninth grader at Andrew Jackson, the gleaming new high school on Francis Lewis Boulevard, but he was cut on the first day without hardly a look. Not surprising, considering the odds: The basketball powerhouse boasted 5,000 students, with a whopping 250 boys competing for a spot on Lew Grummond’s roster. Grummond had coached Andrew Jackson to the coveted city championship a season earlier, and that team had been loaded with an embarrassment of riches – size, speed, and depth. Grummond could afford to be picky. He was old school to the bone, and if you played for Grummond you did things his way, no questions asked. Cousy dreamed about earning a roster spot and getting a chance to show Grummond he could handle the coach’s demanding ways. Instead, he was devastated when he didn’t make the team.
“Maybe it was a case of youthful overconfidence, or just plain ignorance” he says, “but I was getting better, and I knew what kind of player I was becoming. I just wanted a chance to show what I could do. But there were so many other kids trying out – bigger, stronger, older, and more experienced. Looking back now I didn’t have a realistic chance of making the team, but you couldn’t have convinced me of that at the time.”
“Maybe it was a case of youthful overconfidence, or just plain ignorance, but I was getting better, and I knew what kind of player I was becoming. I just wanted a chance to show what I could do. But there were so many other kids trying out – bigger, stronger, older, and more experienced. Looking back now I didn’t have a realistic chance of making the team, but you couldn’t have convinced me of that at the time.” – Bob Cousy
What seemed like the end of the world would turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as someone introduced Cousy to a local league sponsored by the Long Island Press. It wasn’t high school hoops, but it was competitive basketball in a structured environment, and it allowed him to test his skills against better players in actual game situations.
“I remember the first ‘organized’ game I ever played in,” Cousy says. “It was in the Long Island Press League. I played for a team called the St. Albans Lindens. We won the game going away, and I was the high scorer with fourteen points. I wasn’t expected to do much – I wasn’t a very good shooter, and most of my points came on fast break drives to the basket – but in terms of a competitive nature, most good athletes will respond to the moment, even if you are only fourteen and playing in your first real game. I had that working in my favor.”
The league helped showcase young Cousy’s gifts. It also helped build his confidence, which softened the blow of being cut again when he tried out as a sophomore – again without much more than a cursory look from Grummond. That was the beauty of finding the Press League; not making the high school team hurt less because he knew he had an outlet, a place where he could grow his game even without being a part of the Andrew Jackson program.
“It gave me an identity” he says. “I was shy and backward, but I didn’t feel any of that when I was playing basketball. I felt comfortable in my own skin.”
As chance would have it, the Andrew Jackson gym doubled as a rec league at night, and some of Cousy’s games were played there. Grummond, who also ran the rec league program at the school, happened to be working the same night Cousy was on the floor, and he was immediately struck by the skinny kid’s ball handling.
“He was impressed with the way I could dribble with both hands,” Cousy says now. “When I was thirteen, I feel from a tree and broke my right arm. It forced me to become ambidextrous. Grummond couldn’t tell if I were right or left handed, and after the game he asked me if I wanted a shot at playing junior varsity – that was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned, so he didn’t have to ask twice. I made the team but I didn’t set the world on fire. Still, being noticed was a great source of motivation. I took the opportunity very seriously and looked at it as my big break.”
Cousy played the rest of the season with the jayvee. He was still raw, but it was hard to ignore his gifts – the long arms, large hands, and preternatural peripheral vision allowed him to see more of the court than most anyone else. He also played loose, and he wasn’t shy about his penchant for making the difficult pass look easy. Cousy was slowly shedding the cocoon, and well on his way to becoming a baller of the highest order.
“I was improving daily,” he says. “I was holding my own against players who were bigger and who had been playing the game longer than me. There was validation in that.”
Cousy finished the season oozing confidence, convinced that he’d be a starter when he returned for his junior year, but a failing grade in one of his classes kept him off the court. Forced to sit out the first semester, Cousy accepted his punishment and then quickly made up for lost time, producing a 28-point opus in his first game with the varsity that not only put Grummond’s earlier snubs in stark relief, but also served as a harbinger of things to come. The performance even made a splash in the Long Island Press sports section.
“I don’t know if the papers made a big deal out of it or not,” he says, “because the coverage really didn’t mean anything to me. It was a different place and time. There was no Internet. I was just happy to be on the team. I got up the next day and went to school like everyone else. Being written up wasn’t anything that I dwelled on.”
“I don’t know if the papers made a big deal out of it or not, because the coverage really didn’t mean anything to me. It was a different place and time. There was no Internet. I was just happy to be on the team. I got up the next day and went to school like everyone else. Being written up wasn’t anything that I dwelled on.” – Bob Cousy
Andrew Jackson went on to win the highly competitive Queens division, a feat it duplicated during Cousy’s senior year. Suddenly, the slick ball handler with the running one-hander found that the attention came whether he wanted it or not; in just a year and a half, Cousy had gone from relative obscurity to the most talked-about basketball phenom in New York, finishing his high school career with 28 points in his final game, and with it, securing the city’s coveted scoring championship.
“I was coming into my own by that point,” he says. “I was playing the game confidently, and for the first time it really sank in – basketball was going to be my path to a college education. There were moments when I thought college was out of reach – we weren’t rich – but at the same time I knew I had to have a goal. So, early on I approached the game with an eye on something bigger than just getting to go to the park and play basketball. By my senior season I knew the dream was going to come true.”
~ ~ ~
As you might expect, Bob Cousy had options.
Turns out he just didn’t have as many as one might think.
A generation of aspiring basketball players laced up their Chuck Taylors and pretended to be the Celtics’ incomparable All-Star, whose pedal-to-the-metal style fueled Boston’s vaunted fast-break, and whose no-look, behind-the-back passes rescued the NBA from life support. Ferraris should corner like Cousy. And yet, coming out of high school, Cousy didn’t find himself buried under an avalanche of recruiting letters. He was just another averaged-sized point guard trying to make a name for himself. He lacked the Bunyonesque size of the Minneapolis Lakers’ George Mikan, and he didn’t go on scoring binges like the NBA’s other star of the day, Dolph Schayes. He was good, but good point guards were a dime a dozen back then, just like today.
Al McClellan was one of the few who wanted Cousy. The Boston College coached tried hard to sell his school to the Andrew Jackson graduate, offering a full scholarship, but Cousy balked at the thought of commuting to a college with no dorms. Holy Cross, on the other hand, had student housing. It was also Catholic school, which pleased his family, and Doggie Julian promised Cousy a chance to contribute right away. That was enough to make up his mind.
“I had two college offers,” Cousy says, smiling. “I visited Boston College first, because Al McClellan had shown the most interest. When I got there we walked around the campus and I said, ‘Coach, where’s the gym?’, and he basically said that it was still on the drawing board. It was the same story with the dorms – BC was a day-hop school at the time, and he explained that I would have to live with a family off the grounds. I was very shy and socially awkward at that point in my life, and I wasn’t thrilled at the thought of living with another family. So I crossed BC off the list – I shook his hand, got back on the train, and moved on to Plan B.
“Holy Cross recruited me lightly. Doggie didn’t know anything about me, but Ken Haggerty, the captain of the 1945 team, had played at my high school. Haggerty said to Julian, ‘Dog, there’s a hot-shot guard at my old high school, and I think he’d be a great fit on the team. You should send him a letter and offer him a scholarship.’ You have to remember, it was a much different time in the 1940s. There was no ESPN, and sports weren’t what they are today. A lot of times players were recruited word-of-mouth. There was no film to study. It was very nepotistic in that respect. That’s how I ended up getting the letter from Doggie.”
Cousy was a known commodity in New York, and he could have gone to St. Johns or any of the other local schools, but he wanted to get away from home. Holy Cross had shuttered its basketball program during World War II, and the school had hired Julian to bring it back to life. He needed players. So Cousy embraced Plan B, signed his letter of intent, and headed off to Worcester.
“Doggie had a basketball background,” Cousy says, “so they offered him $500 bucks to be the head coach and jumpstart the program. He was in his second year there when I arrived. It was a surreal experience because it all came together so quickly – we held practices in a barn, of all places, and yet we were able to go on a roll and win the NCAA championship. It was a fairytale story in many respects. I still remember the thrill of riding down Main Street in the victory parade.”
That 1946-47 Holy Cross team was a true Cinderella story, but let’s pump the brakes long enough to interject a little perspective: The NIT was the premiere college tournament back then, not the NCAAs. There was no March Madness, and the champion didn’t have to win six games over three weeks to claim the title. Eight teams were invited, and the event was held over one long weekend at Madison Square Garden. However, Cousy is right about the other thing: Holy Cross winning the NCAAs was a seminal moment in terms of generating basketball interest in New England. The Crusaders played a number of its ‘home’ games at the Boston Garden, which helped generate buzz, and sellouts became the norm by Cousy’s senior season.
“Worcester isn’t far from Boston,” he says. “Forty miles. Before we arrived on the scene, sports fans in New England only followed the Red Sox and the Bruins. Holy Cross winning the championship changed that. I mean, basketball wasn’t even played in some high schools at the time. There was no interest whatsoever. Zero. That all changed after we won, because basketball became extremely popular in New England from that point forward.”
That first year at Holy Cross was a mixed bag for Cousy, who, while socially awkward, wasn’t lacking confidence on the basketball court. Freshmen were allowed to play varsity ball during the war years, and Cousy fully expected to be a major part of the rotation from the get-go. Instead, he and his freshmen teammates were part of the second unit, entering the games to give the starters a rest and then heading back to the bench after a few minutes of court time. Still, it was hard to argue with Julian’s methods: The Crusaders started slowly, going 4-3 over its first seven games, before winning twenty games in a row and entering the NCAA tournament on a roll. Julian let his team play with creativity, favoring improv and spontaneity over structure and set plays.
“We were very structured in terms of when the platoon would come into the game,” Cousy says. “With nine and a half minutes gone in the first half, Bobby Curran would get up and start taking off his sweats. He was the captain, 6’5”, an ex-Marine, as tough as they come. When he stood up, that would be the signal to the other four of us. We’d go into the scorer’s table together and check in as a unit. We were that close to the starters in talent. Doggie found the platoon system simpler than dealing with 11 egos for playing time.”
Peaking at the right time, the Crusaders were one of eight teams invited to the 1947 NCAA Tournament. And just like that, Cousy was playing for a championship in his own backyard.
“We had a bunch of New York and New Jersey kids,” he says quickly. “So it was a really big deal for us to be playing in the Garden. In those days, playing there was the epitome of every high school and college kid’s dream – it didn’t matter if you were from the city, or you played in the country, everyone who played basketball wanted to play basketball at Madison Square Garden. So, when we heard that we were in the tournament, and that it was going to be played entirely at the Garden, that’s all we could think about. It was a very exciting time for us.”
“We had a bunch of New York and New Jersey kids. So it was a really big deal for us to be playing in the Garden. In those days, playing there was the epitome of every high school and college kid’s dream – it didn’t matter if you were from the city, or you played in the country, everyone who played basketball wanted to play basketball at Madison Square Garden. So, when we heard that we were in the tournament, and that it was going to be played entirely at the Garden, that’s all we could think about. It was a very exciting time for us.” – Bob Cousy
Holy Cross beat Navy, CCNY, and Oklahoma to win the championship – the title game played in front of 18,445 fans in the smoky haze. The Crusaders were the toast of New England. However, all wasn’t as it should have been in Camelot; a fissure had developed between Julian and Cousy during the season, to the point that the two men barely spoke, and, by the time the tournament rolled around, Cousy’s playing time had been dramatically reduced. Rumors spread from bars to barbershops that Julian was annoyed with Cousy’s streetball game and his propensity to showboat.
“The issue really wasn’t about showboating,” he says quickly. “There was tension, and there were differences of opinion. I came late to a practice before a game against Loyola during my sophomore year, and there was an emotional exchange between player and coach. It wasn’t that big a deal. It was more newspaper talk than anything else.”
Regardless, Cousy considered transferring to St. John’s, but the coach at the time, Joe Lapchick, convinced him to stick it out. Cousy opted to accept Lapchick’s advice, even though he felt he hadn’t played enough as a freshman – especially during the tournament, which had annoyed him greatly. The uneasy truce lasted until the aforementioned emotional exchange, the result of Cousy arriving late to practice two days before that big game against Loyola in the Boston Arena. Julian refused to start Cousy, planting him on the pine until there were only 30 seconds left in the first half, and then ignoring him completely in the second half.
With five minutes left in the game and Loyola up by seven, the chants started.
WE WANT COUSY! WE WANT COUSY!
Julian didn’t budge at first, but finally relented, inserting Cousy into the game without looking in his direction. He responded by hitting six of seven shots, as the Crusaders rallied for the win.
And just like that, the Wizard of Worcester was born.
The rest, as they say is history.
“Transferring to St. John’s was the best decision I never made,” Cousy says with a laugh. “There were times when I questioned my decision, and there were times when I wanted to be somewhere else. But I’m glad I stayed at Holy Cross and was able to be a part of something truly special. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
~ ~ ~
Now, about that hat.
How does a consensus first-team All-American go from being a potential number one selection in the 1950 NBA Draft to being the short straw drawn by a team whose coach didn’t want him in the first place? Cousy should never had landed in Boston, not with team’s new head coach, Arnold ‘Red’ Auerbach, refusing to select the Holy Cross star first overall. Hired to fix the woeful Celtics – owners of the worst record in the league the year before – Auerbach made it clear he was on the prowl for size, not sleight of hand. Never mind that Cousy was local and dripping with star power, or that his presence on the roster would be sure to sell tickets.
“We need a big man,” Auerbach growled at the time, famously dismissing a reporter’s question about the prospect of seeing Cousy in Celtic green. “Little men are a dime a dozen. I’m supposed to win, not go after local yokels.”
“We need a big man,” Auerbach growled at the time, famously dismissing a reporter’s question about the prospect of seeing Cousy in Celtic green. “Little men are a dime a dozen. I’m supposed to win, not go after local yokels.”
And just like that, the phrase ‘local yokels’ became part of the New England lexicon, while Auerbach, a Washington, D.C. native, found himself immediately at odds with the Boston press, who painted him as a brash outsider with an ego as big as Boston itself. Auerbach, true to his word, drafted 6’11” Chuck Share of Bowling Green. Cousy was selected by the Tri-Cities Blackhawks two picks later, but this is where the story takes a turn. Blackhawks owner Bob Kerner wanted Cousy, but Cousy had no interest in playing for Tri-Cities. Instead, he felt he could make more money starting a driving school in Worcester, where his hero status would make just about any business venture a success. Kerner, frustrated at his inability to sign Cousy to a contract, traded his rights to the Chicago Stags, but the team promptly folded.
“It’s a story I get asked about all the time,” Cousy says with a laugh. “I had just gotten married. Frank Oftring, a good friend and teammate at Holy Cross, went together with me to open up a gas station in Worcester. The problem was, we didn’t know much about fixing cars, so it ended up only being a place to fill up [laughs]. So that’s when we decided to start a driving school. That summer we had three cars going around the clock. We had visions of franchising, that’s how good the business was at the time.
“So here I am teaching ladies to drive while I’m waiting to see what’s going to happen with the NBA, and I really wasn’t giving a pro basketball career much thought. And then somebody calls me and says, ‘Congratulations, you’re the number one pick of the Tri-Cities Blackhawks.’ And my response was something like, ‘I was a pretty good student, but I must have been sound asleep in geography class. What the hell is a Tri-Cities Blackhawk?’
“So here I am teaching ladies to drive while I’m waiting to see what’s going to happen with the NBA, and I really wasn’t giving a pro basketball career much thought. And then somebody calls me and says, ‘Congratulations, you’re the number one pick of the Tri-Cities Blackhawks.’ And my response was something like, ‘I was a pretty good student, but I must have been sound asleep in geography class. What the hell is a Tri-Cities Blackhawk?’” – Bob Cousy
“I met with the team owner, Mr. Kerner, but he wasn’t able to give me the $10,000 salary I needed. So I flew home and continued to teach ladies to drive. It wasn’t long before I learned that I’d been traded to the Chicago Stags. I said, ‘Beautiful, that sounds better than Tri-Cities, but I’m not going to play in Chicago either.’
“And that’s where the hat story comes in. When they disbursed the Chicago Stags, there were three guys left to be traded, and they put the three names in a hat: Andy Phillip, Max Zaslofsky and myself. There were three teams that hadn’t picked – Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Walter went to New York where they were drawing the names, and Arnold said to him, ‘I don’t care what you do, just bring home anyone but Cousy.’”
Arnold, of course, was Red Auerbach. Walter was Walter Brown, the beloved owner of the Celtics. Cousy didn’t know it then, but fate was about to change their lives – and the fortunes of struggling franchise – forever.
“When it came Walter’s turn, mine was the only name left in the hat after the other two picks. So I went to Boston and met with Walter. I remember sitting in the men’s room because there were people in his office. He said, ‘What do you need, Cooz?’ I said, ‘Mr. Brown, I need $10,000.’ And he said, ‘Well, I can’t do that. How about nine?’ And I said, ‘Fine.’ That was the negotiation – no agent, no holdout, just a short conversation between player and owner. And just like that, I was a member of the Boston Celtics.”
~ ~ ~
The franchise is worth north of a billion dollars today, but the Boston Celtics in the early days were barely relevant, emerging from the NBA’s primordial ooze only after the arrival of Bob Cousy. The team, founded in 1946, couldn’t win games, couldn’t draw fans, and couldn’t get a foothold in the hearts of New Englanders, even with Holy Cross’s national championship taking basketball to a fever pitch. Desperate to gain traction, Walter Brown lured Doggie Julian to Boston to become its head coach in 1948, hoping to recreate the magic he had manufactured in Worcester, but Julian would only last two seasons on the bench.
Brown had plenty of reasons to be concerned. On the court, the Celtics sucked. The team didn’t have a marquee player who could help sell tickets, so Brown took a financial bath in those early days. Respect? The Celtics were the Rodney Dangerfield of the Boston sports scene – hell, they had to play their first ever home opener in the Boston Arena because Gene Autry’s rodeo had set up shop in the Boston Garden – and about the only thing going for it was the signature parquet floor, which was made from leftover scraps of wood, this due to the shortage of wood caused by World War II.
The Celtics weren’t the only teams hurting. The league was populated with franchises in weak markets – Rochester, Fort Wayne, and Syracuse to name a few – and more than a handful of teams lasted only a season. The Cleveland Rebels? The Anderson Packers? The Indianapolis Jets? The Waterloo Hawks? All of them one and done. The NBA needed a star to legitimize itself. Mikan and Schayes were close approximations, but neither had the cult of personality to lift the league to higher ground.
It needed a player with charisma.
It needed a Bob Cousy.
Cousy’s arrival in Boston generated buzz, and many wondered how he would coalesce with the fiery new head coach. It may have been a shotgun marriage arranged by the luck of the draw, yet the two men quickly warmed to each other, this despite Auerbach’s much-ballyhooed public diss of the Holy Cross star.
“I read the papers like everyone else,” Cousy says, “but there were no hard feelings. The ‘local yokel’ comment didn’t affect me one way or another. Arnold did what anyone in that position would do – he drafted Charlie Share, who had the height and the size that the Celtics needed underneath the basket.”
With Cousy onboard and Auerbach calling the shots, the Celtics posted its first winning season in franchise history. It was a huge step for the franchise, who finally had the engine to spark the offense. With Cousy at the controls, the Celtics scored six more points per game than the season before; more importantly, attendance at the Boston Garden increased from 110,552 to 197,888.
“Attendance was up, but there were a lot of lean years even after I became a Celtic,” Cousy says. “There were times when Walter didn’t have the money to pay the players, but he always made things right. There was a time when Celtic players accepted IOUs from Walter Brown instead of the agreed upon playoff shares.”
Rather than a distraction, Brown’s struggles helped to galvanize the team.
“We had a strong relationship with Walter Brown, and felt that he was the best owner in the league. He had invested his life savings into the Boston Celtics, so a little sacrifice on our part was no big deal. Hell, we all felt we were getting overpaid anyway.
“We had a strong relationship with Walter Brown, and felt that he was the best owner in the league. He had invested his life savings into the Boston Celtics, so a little sacrifice on our part was no big deal. Hell, we all felt we were getting overpaid anyway.” – Bob Cousy
“There was a time when Walter approached Ed Macauley and myself about the team’s financial situation. He said that he was going to take out another mortgage out on his house, just to get the Celtics through a rough patch, and that he thought things were going to ease up in the fall. It said a lot about his commitment to the team. Guys were getting good wages, so there wasn’t a lot of negative discussion about the IOUs. It was more of a hardship on Walter than it was on us. We decided to give him a break and it worked out well for everyone.”
Cousy and the lithe, 6’8” Macauley – who was nicknamed ‘Easy Ed’ for his playing style, and who was one of Brown’s favorites – gave the Celtics an instant boost on the offensive end, where the team ranked third in the league. Defensively, however, the Celtics ranked next to last. It would be a recurring theme over the next several seasons, as Boston’s undersized frontline found itself unable to compete with the bigger teams in the league. Still, the Celtics had turned an important corner – they now had a future hall-of-fame coach on the sidelines, and a future all-time great directing the offense. Cousy made the NBA All-Star Game as a rookie, as much a tribute to his star power as his playmaking ability, and, for the first time, the league had the handsome, charismatic face it had been sorely lacking – a Tom Brady in high-tops.
“Not even close,” Cousy says, laughing. “Tom Brady is a from another planet, I think. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and the league was ready for someone who brought a little showmanship to the game.”
Over the next several seasons Auerbach complemented Cousy with players like Bill Sharman (1951) and Frank Ramsey (1954), and the team continued to improve. The Celtics also ranked first in attendance. And even though the Celtics started to turn a small profit, the ever-loyal Auerbach kept a close watch on Walter Brown’s balance sheet.
“As I’m sure you heard, Arnold could be a bit of a pain in the ass,” Cousy says with a laugh. “There were times when four of us would jump in a cab together – you had to go three or four to a cab back then – and if you had a rookie in the group, you’d try to get him to ride with you. Then, when the cab got to the hotel, the minute the cab driver stopped, all of us would pile out. We’d pop the trunk, grab our bags, and sprint away. We’d leave the rookie to pay for the taxi because Arnold was such a pain in the tail when it came to expenses. He’d always give you a hard time about it. Those cab drivers must have thought we were out of our minds – four adults in a cab, he gets us to our destination and we all run away like banshees, leaving one poor guy there left to pay. It was better to stick the rookie with the expense because Arnold was so difficult to get reimbursements back.”
Eventually, the Celtics started flying to away games. It wasn’t the luxurious, private jet transport that players enjoy today, complete amble leg room, but it was an improvement over those grueling bus rides the team took during the early years.
“We didn’t have any near-death experiences,” Cousy says, recalling those first team flights. “The Douglas DC-3s were the safest planes made at the time. Our trainer had a weak stomach – he’d fill up one of those burp bags just walking up the steps to the damn plane [laughs]. The turbulence getting to altitude would make him sick. The choppy air in the winter would make him sick. We used to strap him in a seat and play gin rummy. While he threw up, we’d win his money playing cards.”
“We didn’t have any near-death experiences. The Douglas DC-3s were the safest planes made at the time. Our trainer had a weak stomach – he’d fill up one of those burp bags just walking up the steps to the damn plane [laughs]. The turbulence getting to altitude would make him sick. The choppy air in the winter would make him sick. We used to strap him in a seat and play gin rummy. While he threw up, we’d win his money playing cards.” – Bob Cousy
Another big difference between then and now: Teams today play a small number of exhibition games in state-of-the-art facilities, while teams in the 1950s often went on preseason barnstorming tours, playing the same team night after night.
“It was barnstorming in the purest sense of the word,” Cousy says. “We played every night. Sometimes we’d stay overnight after a game, but we’d usually drive on to our next destination. We spent a lot of time in Maine. Indiana gets credit for having the most rabid basketball fans in the union, but Maine is a very, very active basketball state. Back then every small town had a gym, and if it seated more than 2,000, then we’d be interested in playing in it. We’d travel with the same team and play them every night – it might be the Minneapolis Lakers one year, and the Rochester Royals the next. When you play 17 games against the same team, by the end of the trip you could always count on short tempers and fights breaking out. It was a lot of fun as a young man, but I can’t imagine going through something like that today. It was a requirement of the times.”
Red Auerbach was a notoriously bad driver, and players did their best to avoid riding with him during those barnstorming tours. He had a lead foot, and he drove angry. But Cousy and Auerbach had quickly warmed to one another during that first season. They were both from New York – Auerbach the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Cousy bubbling up from that East End ghetto – and, in many ways, they were kindred spirits. Cousy was one of the few who could get away with calling him ‘Arnold’, and he was one of the few who ever dared to have a little fun at his coach’s expense.
“I think I played one of the best practical jokes anyone has ever played on Arnold,” Cousy says. “We used to call him ‘Mario Andretti’ because he drove so damned fast – the stories of Arnold speeding all over New England to get to exhibition games are legendary. I learned about it firsthand because I drove with him that first year and he scared the hell out of me. No one wanted to ride with Arnold. He’d drive 75-to-80 miles per hour on those narrow back roads of Maine, barely missing guardrails, scaring the devil out of whoever was in the car with him. It got to the point where I was the only one brave enough – or foolish enough, take your pick – to ride shotgun on those trips.
“On one occasion the team was on its way to Bangor for an exhibition. As usual, Arnold was behind the wheel and determined to get there first. A bunch of us piled into another car and left early. We were on the road a while when nature called, so we pulled over on the side of the road and headed for one of those Maine potato fields. In the distance we could see a car approaching – it was cloud of dust, really – and we knew that it could only be Arnold. He pulled over and screamed, ‘What the hell are you guys doing?’ I told him that we’d ran out of gas, and everyone played along. Arnold cursed some more before jumping back in his car and racing off in a cloud of dust. We gave him a few minutes and then followed him to a one-pump station where he was getting gas. We went by that station blowing our horn and screaming, the car going full throttle. The expression on his face said it all; Arnold knew he’d been taken, and he had a pretty good idea who was behind it [laughs].”
Even today, Cousy still refers to his late, great coach as Arnold. Not many could get away with being so personal.
“His wife Dorothy called him ‘Arnold’ – who, by the way, was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Cousy says. “I can’t remember exactly when I started calling him that, but I always felt comfortable doing so. We went overseas together on a number of occasions so maybe that helped. We socialized on those trips, ate a lot of greasy food, got to know each other better. The first trip was in 1955, when we went to Landsberg, Germany and conducted a basketball clinic for the U.S. servicemen stationed there. There were always trips like that. A few years later we toured Turkey, Denmark, Belgium, France, Austria. We went to Yugoslavia as part of an NBA All-Star team the year after I retired. At some point I must have grown comfortable enough to call him ‘Arnold’. But you’re right; I was definitely in the minority when it came to addressing him that way.”
It’s worth mentioning that, in 1954, Cousy began to organize something called the NBPA, which would later morph into the first player’s union in any professional sport. What was it that spurred his interest in taking this landmark step?
“Twenty-one straight exhibition games,” he says, laughing. “Another reason was our desire to have adequate player representation. There were a lot of changes taking place during that time, and we wanted to have a seat at the table. We also wanted to form the player’s association without fear of reprisal, so I met with Walter and expressed our motives to him. I didn’t want Walter to look at this as a negative reflection on the way he ran his franchise, because he was far and away the best owner in the league. It was the league as a whole that we were concerned about. I was president of the NBPA until 1958, at which point Tommy [Heinsohn] took over as player rep. He hired Lawrence Fleisher as the union’s General Counsel, which was a major step.
“After getting Walter’s blessing, I began by contacting an established player from each team. Letters were sent out to Andy Phillip of Fort Wayne, Dolph Schayes of Syracuse, Don Sunderlage of Milwaukee, Paul Arzin of Philadelphia, Carl Braun of New York, Bob Davies of Rochester, Paul Hoffman Baltimore, and Jim Pollard of Minneapolis. Everyone but Phillip responded positively, but Fort Wayne’s owner also owned a machine works plant and was staunch anti-union. So I understood. From there I went to Commissioner Podoloff with a list of concerns, which I presented to him at the 1955 NBA All-Star Game.”
One of the items on Cousy’s initial list of concerns was the abolition of something called the ‘whispering fine’.
“The whispering fine was a $15 fine that referees could impose on players during games,” he says. “It was a ridiculous fine. But my biggest win was getting the meal money bumped from $5 to $7. Getting that concession made me a hero [laughs].”
~ ~ ~
Cousy’s game – and his popularity – continued to grow throughout the 1950s. By the 1952-53 season he was a First-Team All-NBA selection and firmly in control of the Celtics’ fastbreak attack, flipping passes from almost every angle imaginable, this on his way to the first of eight consecutive assist titles, a remarkable feat in the pre-shot clock era. Cooz was the biggest star in the league. Elvis, as it turned out, hadn’t left the building. Elvis had arrived.
While Cousy’s game was clearly transforming the NBA, change didn’t happen overnight. There were still plenty of hatchet men in the league, and fights were still commonplace, especially between rivals. Today most people think of the Los Angeles Lakers as the Celtics’ bitter rival. Back then, it wasn’t the Lakers that got the Celtics’ dander up. It was the Syracuse Nationals.
“There were riots in just about every game we played with Syracuse,” Cousy says. “That seemed to be the case with most of the teams based in the smaller towns – the fans were more rabid, and they literally wanted to kill the opposition. The state police had to be called because there were problems in every damned game that we played. You don’t see those kinds of things today. There aren’t any broken noses or black eyes, which happened quite often when I played. Back then there were fights from the start of those exhibitions right through to the championship. Today a couple of guys shove each other, they get tossed and fined.”
The Celtics were improving season-by-season, but they were still a team with flaws. Their wide-open play scored points and won games during the regular season, but the team continued to struggle on the defensive end, a weakness that routinely led to playoff disappointment.
All of that changed prior to the 1956-57 season, when Auerbach traded Macauley and the rights Cliff Hagan for the right to draft Bill Russell.
“Bill Russell was the one who came along and revolutionized basketball,” Cousy says. “He changed the patterns of play both for individuals and for teams. First and foremost, Bill Russell was a team man. The one who made us go. Without him we wouldn’t have won a single championship.”
“Bill Russell was the one who came along and revolutionized basketball. He changed the patterns of play both for individuals and for teams. First and foremost, Bill Russell was a team man. The one who made us go. Without him we wouldn’t have won a single championship.” – Bob Cousy
Russell, who arrived with hall-of-fame forward Tom Heinsohn, gave the Celtics a rim protector never before seen in the NBA. It was the perfect one-two punch. Russell’s shot blocking changed everything. The Celtics won the 1957 NBA championship, and a dynasty was born.
“Cooz was the absolute offensive master,” Heinsohn told the Boston Herald in 1983. “What Russell was on defense, that’s what Cousy was on offense – a magician. Once that ball reached his hands, the rest of us just took off, never bothering to look back. We didn’t have to. He’d find us. When you got into a position to score, the ball would be there.”
The Celtics’ first championship season was also one of Cousy’s finest as a player. He again led the league in assists, and finished in the top ten in scoring – all while capturing both the NBA MVP and NBA All-Star Game MVP awards.
“It was a dream season,” Cousy says proudly. “It was the culmination of everything I’d ever worked for as a professional basketball player. The MVP award was very satisfying in terms of personal accomplishments, but the championship was the most important thing of all. I had endured six years of frustration so I think winning it all meant more to me than most of the others on the team.”
With Russell triggering the fastbreak and Cousy punching the throttle, the Celtics rolled through the regular season. The playoffs presented the team with its first real challenge; Boston, in its first trip to the NBA Finals, defeated the St. Louis Hawks in seven games to win that first crown, needing double-overtime in the final game to walk away victorious. Cousy, perhaps more than anyone, credits the Russell trade for making it all possible.
“As much as we liked Ed we weren’t going to lose a lot of sleep over that trade,” he says. “Before the trade we were a decent offensive team – we could shoot, we could dribble, and we could score – but we couldn’t play championship defense or rebound the basketball. Those were the major problems that plagued us in the years before Russell joined the Boston Celtics, and the main reasons we couldn’t win a title. Players like Loscy [Jim Loscutoff] and Heinsohn added a hell of a lot of power to the team, but we would have been lucky to win one championship without Russell. He was the most dominant defensive player in the history of the game, although we didn’t know that at the time. We just didn’t realize that we were getting a player of that stature, but it didn’t take us long to figure out what we had.”
The Hawks got even the following season, taking advantage of a Russell ankle injury – an ironic twist, if ever there was one – to give Macauley his only NBA title. Boston then reeled off an unprecedented eight consecutive championships, finishing its dynastic run with eleven titles in a thirteen year span. Along the way Auerbach continued to add to its cache of hall-of-fame talent, drafting players such as Satch Sanders, KC Jones, Sam Jones and John Havlicek to keep hanging banners from the Boston Garden rafters.
“It was a truly unique situation for all of us,” Cousy says. “I retired following the 1963 season, which was our fifth consecutive championship, and sixth overall at the time. Winning was even more special because Walter and Arnold cultivated a family atmosphere. We all looked out for one another.”
Having each other’s back started on the basketball court; Jim Loscutoff is widely regarded as the team’s first great enforcer, and today ‘LOSCY’ hangs from the rafters in his honor. Serving as on court bodyguard was a role he inherited from raw-boned Bob Brannum, who arrived during the 1951-52 season, Cousy’s second in Boston.
“Bob Brannum was my bodyguard on the court,” he says. “Bob was 6’6” and built like a bulldog. Teams learned quickly not to pick on the skinny, 5’11” kid from Holy Cross [laughs]. It was a great luxury to have Bob on the team, and to have him playing the role of protector. It definitely made my job a lot easier. Bob retired, and Loscy took over from there.”
“Bob Brannum was my bodyguard on the court. “Bob was 6’6” and built like a bulldog. Teams learned quickly not to pick on the skinny, 5’11” kid from Holy Cross [laughs]. It was a great luxury to have Bob on the team, and to have him playing the role of protector. It definitely made my job a lot easier. Bob retired, and Loscy took over from there.” – Bob Cousy
But having each other’s back extended far beyond the geometric confines of the famed parquet floor. The Celtics were the first team to draft an African-American player, the first to start five black players in an NBA game, and the first to have an African-American head coach. Auerbach didn’t care if his players were black, white, or yellow, he only cared about coaching players who could help him win championships.
Drafting Chuck Cooper raised eyebrows when Auerbach drafted him in 1950, but Cousy and the rest of his white teammates accepted the Duquesne star as one of their own. Cousy vividly remembers the time when, early in his career, the Celtics were scheduled to play a game in Charlotte, North Carolina. Cooper, as it turned out, was denied a hotel room on the basis of his color. There was no question what Cousy would do next, and Auerbach fully supported it.
“We got out of town,” Cousy says emphatically. “Cooper was my road roommate, and also happened to be the first African American player drafted by an NBA team. He was an All-American at Duquesne University.
“Chuck was bright and sensitive. I’m sure the racial stuff bothered him much more than he ever let on, and on this trip I couldn’t believe that he was going to be forced to sleep in another hotel, apart from his teammates, just because of his color. So I said, ‘Hey Arnold, there’s an overnight train going out of town to Syracuse. We can catch that and then make a connection back to Boston.’ Arnold didn’t have a problem with that. He understood the situation, and he let us take the train back home.
“We were standing together at the station, waiting on our train to arrive, and we both decided to hit the bathroom. We were confronted by two signs: One said, ‘colored’ and the other said ‘white’. It was a traumatic moment for me. I didn’t know what to say to Chuck, because there were no words that could make racism go away. Tears came to my eyes. At that moment I was ashamed to be white.”
Sadly, racism and Boston went hand-in-hand back then, so the treatment of blacks was hardly better back there. How bad was it? Bill Russell was racially blackballed by Boston sportswriters, and once had has house broken into and his bed shat on. Tommy Heinsohn would later remark: “All I know is the guy won two NCAA championships, 50-some college games in a row, the Olympics, then he came to Boston and won 11 championships in 13 years, and they named a fucking tunnel after Ted Williams.”
Tommy Heinsohn would later remark: “All I know is the guy won two NCAA championships, 50-some college games in a row, the Olympics, then he came to Boston and won 11 championships in 13 years, and they named a fucking tunnel after Ted Williams.”
“Bill is a very complex person,” Cousy says. “If you’ve done your homework you know that the racial situation of the times played a very big part in shaping Bill into who he is. He suffered from racism and discrimination in ways that so many people will never understand. It was very difficult to be an African American at that time, and being a famous athlete only complicated the situation. On the one hand you were adored for all of your athletic achievements, and on the other you weren’t allowed to play golf at the local country club.
“Bill suffered racial hatred that was almost unimaginable. There was an episode where someone defecated in his bed. He was denied a hotel room in St. Louis during his college days at USF and had to sleep in his car. I shared his pain as much as possible, but there was only so much I could understand and identify with. You never truly grasp it unless you actually experience that type of hatred firsthand.
“People have been killing because of racial differences since the time of Adam and Eve, but in this country racism has been primarily aimed at African Americans. Bill was a hero in Boston, but that sentiment wasn’t necessarily shared by everyone. But for us, the Celtics were a cocoon. We were insulated from all that. Bill felt one way about his Celtics family, but that didn’t translate to the rest of the city. White people in Boston didn’t get that, and there was a lot of suspicion and mistrust. But then, these same people didn’t endure the same experiences that shaped Bill Russell.”
~ ~ ~
Bob Cousy wasn’t known for his stats, although he could certainly put them up. On February 27, 1959, Cousy set an NBA record by dishing out 28 assists against the Minneapolis Lakers. Two months later he recorded 19 assists against the same Lakers during the NBA Finals. Big numbers, given the era.
“The first game was a meaningless Sunday afternoon contest,” he says. “We ran up and down the court and set records. It was a lot different in the playoffs because the intensity level was so much higher. The championship was at stake, so both teams were playing their best basketball on both ends of the court. So staying out there and accumulating 19 assists meant a whole lot more to me than the 28 that I had a couple of months earlier.”
Cousy retired following the 1963 season, walking away with six titles, 13 All-Star Game appearances, ten consecutive All-NBA First Team selections, two NBA All-Star Game MVP awards, and one NBA MVP award. Quite a portfolio for a shy, skinny kid from New York’s East End ghetto.
“I was very fortunate,” he says quietly. “I had a lot of help along the way, a lot of lucky breaks. I got to play with some of the greatest players of my era, and one of the greatest of all-time, in Bill Russell. I played for Arnold. I played for the best owner in the world. And I think I retired at the right time. Physically, I could still play at a high level. But psychologically, I was spent. The toll of playing at such a high level all of the time, of trying to be the best and stay at the top, eventually wore me down. I was ready to retire. I was ready to spend time with my family and make up for a lot of time that I missed because I was traveling with the team.”
On March 17, 1963, Cousy stood in front of a microphone on the Boston Garden parquet and said goodbye. The sellout crowd, which had cheered so loudly for him over his thirteen year career, watched in pin-drop silence as their hero read from a handwritten note, weeping softly in between the sentences, the words barely audible but their sentiment felt by everyone jammed into the Garden on this day.
And then, when nothing would come, four words rang out…
“We love ya, Cooz!”
We would later learn that the words came from Joe Dillon, a city water worker and rabid Celtics fan. The sellout crowd exploded with heartfelt energy, and “The Boston Tear Party”, as it would come to be known, reminded us all that Bob Cousy was about more than stats, more than awards, and more than championships. He was the reason we even cared about NBA basketball in the first place – the splash of color on an otherwise drab canvas, the first in a line of sensational playmakers who gave us a reason to plunk down our hard-earned money and go to the game. Cousy transformed the NBA into what it wanted to be about all along – individual expression, soaring artistry, and showmanship nonpareil – and, perhaps as importantly, saving it from itself, freeing it from the rigor mortis that claimed no less than a dozen franchises and threatened to take down the rest of an unsteady league.
The game, far different before the arrival of Bob Cousy, would never be the same again.
~ ~ ~
All great stories are love stories, and she was the love of his life.
Cousy met Marie Ritterbusch in high school, and married her six months after graduating from Holy Cross. He spent his wedding night playing point guard for the Boston Celtics. A few days later he was gone, having left for a two-week road trip. It was just how things were back then. Missie, as she was known, was there at Cousy’s basketball beginnings and there through 63 years of marriage. Together they raised two beautiful girls, Maria and Ticia. It wasn’t until he retired that he was able to connect with his wife the way had wanted all along.
“I was young, and my priorities were way off kilter,” Cousy says, without hesitation. “I couldn’t see the forest for the trees – I thought that putting a ball in a hole was the most important thing in the world. But looking back, I realize I missed out on a lot. Moments you can’t recover. I should have participated more in the lives of my family. But my girls were in loving hands, and I had the most beautiful wife in the world.”
While Cousy may not have been around Missie as much as he would have liked, the second act of their marriage brought them close and kept them there, the years filled with holding hands, laughing, and doing the little things that make such a big difference in a relationship.
“Most couples meet and experience a flash of intensity right at the very start,” he says. “But I was on the road so much, and there were so many demands for my time. Our romantic period really began years later. But from that point on, we did everything together and we were rarely ever apart. We were as in love as a couple could be. I can honestly say that we held hands for the last twenty years.”
“Most couples meet and experience a flash of intensity right at the very start. But I was on the road so much, and there were so many demands for my time. Our romantic period really began years later. But from that point on, we did everything together and we were rarely ever apart. We were as in love as a couple could be. I can honestly say that we held hands for the last twenty years.” – Bob Cousy
Later, years after the six championships, after being named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, Cousy delivered his greatest assist. With Missie slipping into the cruel grip of dementia, he created a world in which she could live with dignity, and provided her with the comforting sense that nothing was changing, even as the disease slowly swallowed her whole.
“It was never work, never a bother,” he says, pausing to gather himself. “I know that she would have done the very same for me. Every day I told her that I loved her. And later, when she couldn’t say it, I still knew that she still loved me.”
Gardening was one of Missie’s favorite activities. Cousy planted artificial red flowers in her garden, and the sight of them delighted her. Their winter home in Florida became both a refuge and a prison, especially as the disease advanced and the Cousys were unable to go out socially, but he made sure that her station wagon was always in the driveway when they arrived, and that Missie believed that she had driven it there herself. He would clean the house and cook the meals, and then he would let her think it was her who was keeping up with the housework. His days and nights were filled with taking care of the love in his life – giving her medicine, helping her from room to room, and doing whatever he could to make her world feel normal.
Funny thing, perspective. The fame, the adulation, and the records are all insignificant when it comes to the game of life, and Bob Cousy gets this as much as anybody who has ever achieved greatness. He knows he’s a very lucky man, and blessed to have been a part of some very special teams. He has his own statue on the Holy Cross campus. Presidents have paid him homage. But none of it would have mattered without Missie.
“Do your best when no one is looking,” Cousy says, when asked if he has a favorite piece of life advice for others. “That was always Missie’s motto. If you do that one thing, then you can be successful in anything that you put your mind to.”