One-On-One With Bob Cousy
Dec. 19, 2008
By Clark Booth
Holy Cross Magazine
Clark Booth: Bob, I want to start by referencing the great sportswriter Red Smith, who, referring to you, once said, "the portrait of the artist as a point guard is a complex tale." In fact, people tend to forget that you did not come out of the traditional All-American Boy background. Isn't that correct?
Bob Cousy: It is. Every jock gets up and tells the world how lucky he is. But I feel that I may be the luckiest one of all in terms of timing and being at the right place at the right moment--even though, for the last 30 years, I was told I was born 20 years too soon, for obvious reasons.
I was literally fabricated over in France and born about six months after the boat landed at Ellis Island. This was the heart of the Depression. For the first 12 years of my life we lived in a terrible ghetto on the East River. But I was unaware of our poverty. I played in the streets and had a ball. We had a dysfunctional family situation. I didn't have much of a relationship with my father, unfortunately. He was a nice man, but he worked constantly--two jobs, night and day. But he managed to move us to Long Island, where there was some fresh air, and I started playing hoops. And, by the age of 17, almost 18, I wind up here at Holy Cross through a series of events that, in retrospect, seem miraculous to me.
I only played a year and a half of basketball in high school. I went out for my high school team twice and got turned down twice. But throughout that period I was playing on every team I could find at the local community center. Eventually one night, the high school coach saw me play and called me over and actually asked, "Hey, son, you go to school here?" Of course, if I'd been a wise guy I would have said, "I really made an impression on you, didn't I, coach? I've tried out twice for your team!" Instead, I said, "Yes, sir." And he said, "Well, you want to come out for the JV? I need a lefty on the team." I said, "But I'm a righty." He said, "No, you're a lefty." You see, I had fallen out of a tree when I was 11 or 12 and had broken my right arm. And while I had a cast on it, I continued to play basketball. And this led to me being ambidextrous.
So I began playing high school ball and made All-City. Now these days, if you make All-City in New York, 500 coaches will be sitting on your doorstep the next morning. But I was deluged by two college offers. I had a letter from the Boston College coach, "The General" McLellan. A real character. A huge man. He invited me to visit BC. And I had a letter from Coach Alvin "Doggie" Julian here at Holy Cross. Now 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, "Hey, Dog, you know, there's some hot-shot at my old high school. Send him a letter and offer him a scholarship."
I received a very brief note: "Hey, kid, I hear you're pretty good. If you want to come to Holy Cross on a scholarship fill out this application and send it in." Needless to say, Doggie didn't overwhelm me with his interest, so I kind of filed his letter away. But then I made my visit to Boston College and McLellan was showing me around and I asked, "Coach, where's the gym?" He answered, "Oh, it's on the drawing boards. We're going to have it soon." After a few more steps, I asked, "Coach, where are the dorms?" He answered, "Well, this is a day-hop school. You don't live on campus. You'll live with a family, off the grounds." Well, I was the original socially awkward, tentative, insecure kid. And the thought of living with a family of strangers for four years, that was just a deal-breaker. I shook his hand, got back on the train, went home and ferreted out Doggie's letter. And I looked at it closely, because he had sent me a brochure. And on the brochure, I saw dorms. I said to myself, "That's it," filled out the application and sent it back to Worcester.
Booth: To think you came that close to going to Boston College! Rather unthinkable, in retrospect.
Cousy: Oh, exactly. And then to think that I eventually returned to Boston College for six years as a coach. But in actuality, there was a little more to the story. I wanted a Catholic school and I wanted to get away from home. The local coaches, the biggies in New York--Lapchick, Coleman, Bee--they all knew the good local kids. I could have gone to one of those schools--St. John's, LIU or City. But, as I say, I wanted to get away from home. So Holy Cross worked out beautifully.
But you have to recall that the College had eliminated basketball during the war years. They brought it back in '45. Knowing he had a basketball background, they said to Doggie, "We're going to start up the basketball program. Do you want to be coach? We'll give you 500 bucks." And Doggie took it. So when I arrived, this was his second year. And they had done quite well that first year with Haggerty and Kaftan and O'Connell. But the next year, 10 of us gravitated to the Hill, almost by mistake. Many of them were GIs, getting a college education on the GI Bill. We wander in relatively unknown and we win the NCAA championship! I mean, the program is just restarting, and we've been practicing in a barn, and we win the NCAA! I recall riding down Main Street in a victory parade, wondering, "What did we just do? How did this happen?" But it's something that we're very proud of, those of us left from that era.
And that championship, I would argue, ignited the spark of basketball activity not only in Worcester, I think, but in New England. Basketball wasn't even played in some high schools at the time. There was no interest whatsoever. And from those humble beginnings, basketball became terrifically popular in New England.
Booth: You were once called "a jazz musician of a point guard." That's a beautiful and apt description, I think. There was something so distinct and unique about your playing style. How did that develop? Was this something that you thought about?
Cousy: Obviously, I was born with certain God-given skills to play this child's game. But I also was given the imagination and creativity to play that particular position. Then I played for coaches--both Buster Sheary, who took over for Doggie in 1948, and Celtics legend Arnold "Red" Auerbach--who gave me full rein to develop this talent.
So my playing style was a combination of creativity and imagination and certain physical characteristics--long arms and extraordinary peripheral vision. I mean, I can see a color far on the periphery. Opponents would say to me, "You have eyes in back of your head." I couldn't tell who was over there, but I could see movement, I could see color. As opposed to the guy who has tunnel vision, who is always getting caught by surprise. They often used to say about me, "He sees the floor well."
Again, these are all God-given assets. And then I was put down at the right place at the right time to play this particular game. So I was fortunate to have these talents and to encounter these particular coaches who allowed me free rein. Because in those days, Clark, most coaches were rigid, very strict about playing by-the-numbers. They wouldn't let somebody take a hook shot, you know? So to play for two enlightened coaches like Buster and Arnold, I was able to utilize those talents to their utmost. I think that if I'd had more conservative, traditional coaches, we wouldn't be sitting here today. You would never have heard of me.
Booth: Isn't it correct that Red didn't want you in the beginning of your professional career? Did that bother you?
Cousy: Frankly, I don't remember giving it that much thought. As I say, I was an insecure kid. But not when it came to basketball. In my mind I always thought that the minute I was able to do my thing, Arnold and I would co-exist very effectively. And it pretty much worked out that way. But it was complicated.
You remember the original Celtics owner, Walter Brown? He was a wonderful man with a big heart. Completely candid in everything he said. Now, Arnold's ego was bigger than the Hogan Campus Center. And the three of us would constantly have to go to these press conference luncheons. And Walter continued to be embarrassed about the fact that he hadn't chosen me in the draft. So he would stand up at these affairs and say, "I'll tell you how smart this guy," pointing to Auerbach, "and I was: We didn't want that guy." And I'd have my head down because I'd say, "Oh, God, this is going to start things up again with Arnold."
But Arnold, if anything, was pragmatic. You know, the minute he knew he had a pretty good point guard nothing else really mattered. The minute that I demonstrated that to him, not drafting me from Holy Cross went by the boards.
Booth: While you were waiting for your professional career to get started, how did you pass the time--and pay the bills?
Cousy: By this time, I had gotten married. My classmate and teammate Frank Oftring and I decided to open up a gas station in Worcester, "Cousy & Oftring." But we didn't know much about fixing cars and pretty soon word got out--"Don't go to these guys for anything but a fill-it-up." So out of the station we also ran a driving school. Within the first summer we had three cars going around the clock. Jimmy O'Connell, another classmate, came in with us on that. My thought was that, eventually, we would open up a string of Cousy & Oftring Driving Schools.
So here I am teaching ladies to drive while I'm waiting to see what's going to happen with the NBA. Honestly not really giving it a lot of thought. And then somebody called me and said, "Hey, you're the number one pick of the Tri-Cities Blackhawks." And I said, "I was a pretty good student, but I must have been asleep in geography. What the hell is a Tri-Cities Blackhawk?" Now I'm told they used that as the headline in the Tri-Cities Bugle: "Cousy says, `What the hell is a Tri-City Blackhawk?'"
Anyway, I met with the team owner, Mr. Kerner, but he wasn't able to give me the $10,000 salary I needed. You know, the average salary at that time was $2,500. So I flew home and continued to teach ladies to drive. But pretty soon, they called me again and said, "You've been traded to the Chicago Stags." I said, "Beautiful, I'm not going to play in Chicago either."
And then comes the hat story. You know the hat story, Clark? 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. Arnold sent Walter down and said, "Just bring home anyone but Cousy."
When it came Walter's turn, mine was the only name left in the hat after the other two picks. So I met with him--we sat in the men's room, I remember, because there were people in his office. He said, "What do you need, Cooz?" I said, "Mr. Brown, I need $10,000." He said, "Well, I can't do that. How about nine?" And I said, "Fine."
So, yes, again, my career was the result of this whole series of unlikely events. I mean, if Kerner didn't trade me, if Chicago didn't go down the drain, if Walter Brown hadn't been left with my name in a hat, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today.
Booth: It's extraordinary.
Cousy: It's fairy-tale stuff, you know?
Booth: Let me focus for a second, Bob, on two issues regarding your professional career. First, I don't think people fully appreciate your role as the Pee Wee Reese, so to speak, of basketball. Reese was famous for having paved the way for Jackie Robinson's acceptance by the Dodgers and for having played a very important role in the very sensitive desegregation of the game of baseball. You played a comparable role, as I see it, in basketball with the way you came to support Chuck Cooper, the first black player drafted by a national basketball team, the Celtics, in 1951.
Cousy: I lived with Chuck that first year, and he and I were close friends until he died in 1984. I'd love to take credit for that--and I was sensitive to it at the time--but, in fairness, the truth is that the baseball situation was ugly and got worldwide attention. And Jackie, as I'm sure you know, suffered through all of this greatly. Chuck did not. Nobody really noticed it, and I think one of the reasons for that was that the game itself was so Mickey Mouse that no one was paying attention to us. So Arnold drafting the first black player was significant, but, honestly, Clark, I don't even remember reading anything in the paper about it. I really don't. The only negative thing I remember was going to places like St. Louis, where they'd scream a few things from the stands. There were a few isolated ugly things. We couldn't eat in St. Louis in the dirty spoon across from the hotel when we got back after the game. They wouldn't serve us because we were with black players. That type of thing. We couldn't stay in the same hotel--you know that story about North Carolina, when Chuck and I got on the train--
Booth: A very important story.
Cousy: Yes, it is. Chuck wasn't allowed to stay at the hotel with us, so he decided to take the sleeper train out of town. And I decided that I had to go with him. I'll be honest with you, I just didn't understand that kind of mass hatred. I understood specific hatred quite well. But I just have never understood mass hatred. I didn't understand it 50 years ago, and I still can't explain it today. And yet we're killing each other all around the globe for some nonsensical reason of color, or culture, or religion. At 80 years old, the only explanation I find is the basic insecurity of the beast, you know? Someone is a little different and, therefore, they're going to take something we've got. That type of primal fear. I understand prejudice in the ignorant, in the person who doesn't know any better. But for an educated person, it's incomprehensible.
Booth: I want to read something that Chuck Cooper said about you: "Bob Cousy is the highest kind of individual. Bob is as free of racism as any white person that I've ever known. He is just a beautiful person." So the first black player drafted into the NBA obviously felt that Bob Cousy helped him to survive.
Cousy: But, honestly, Clark, all we did was treat Chuck normally. That's it. And I give Arnold the credit for handling that integration over those years so smoothly and so effectively. But all he did was treat everyone the same.
Booth: Wasn't your senior thesis at Holy Cross on the persecution of minorities?
Cousy: Yes. In my mind it's the most basic principle, and yet we see it violated every day all over the place. I mean, we just can't get along in this country. I know we've made strides but I don't know that we're anywhere near where we should be for an educated, civilized nation. As I say, I think it's just the insecurity of the beast. People who study this, I suppose, have more profound explanations for racism. But to look at Darfur, you know, that's incredible. All the things that have gone on. I don't think we've scratched the intellectual surface of knowing simply how to get along with each other.
Booth: The second issue, Bob, that I'd like to discuss is your role as the dominant force in the creation of the NBA Players Union. You were a star at that time. I believe you were the highest-paid player in the league. You were on top of the game, a matinee idol. You had everything to lose and nothing to gain, and you stuck your neck out and spent three years working to create the NBA Players Association. At the time, you said something to the effect of, "You know, I'm not a radical, I don't like to toss bombs, but I simply want something to be fair for these guys."
Cousy: Well, we needed representation. It was that simple. I was the only one that had the profile to do it without fear of retaliation. Every year, attorney and fellow Crusader Connie Hurley and I would go down to New York and sit in the office of NBA President Maurice Podoloff. He'd keep us waiting for 45 minutes. We'd go in with our little laundry list, and he'd say, "Fine, I'll bring it to the attention of the owners at the next meeting." And, of course, he never would. The owners knew we didn't have much leverage and they would basically stall us.
I laugh now when I think about trying to get 10 bucks out of these guys for dues just to pay for the stationery and stuff--it was like pulling teeth. Now they pay $10,000 apiece for dues--and I'm sure they're happy to do so.
But our only major concession over those years was when we got the meal money raised from five dollars a day to seven dollars a day. It was literally an extra 200 bucks in the players' pockets. Man, I became a hero.
Booth: And 50 years later you remain active, I believe, trying to get adequate pensions and adequate services for the NBA players who played in your era and after who didn't make 15 million dollars a year. Here you are 80 years old and you're still tossing bombs, so maybe you are a Bolshevik at heart.
Cousy: (Laughing) Maybe I am. I suppose that the way I grew up, in a place where I had to fight for everything, just created certain values, fostered certain principles that have played out throughout the rest of my life.
Booth: You and your wife, Missie, have certainly maintained a very stable life. Unlike most athletes, you were not drawn to the fast lane. You camped out here in Worcester.
Cousy: The stage coach still only comes through twice a week. (Laughing) Over the years, people have said to me, "Why didn't you leave?" But I see the Michael Jordans of the world living behind walls with barbed wire and monitors. Every time they go out, they need the chauffeured limo to take them here and there. But if it prevents your children from having a normal life ...
I don't know what I would have done with a hundred million and that kind of fame. I wouldn't have enjoyed it. For me, for my sensibility, Worcester fit the bill. It has been a good home. I've been part of a community.
Booth: You coached college ball. And you walked away from it. Recently, you've called big-time college athletics a "cesspool." Can we talk about your feelings regarding college athletics in this country?
Cousy: I was fortunate. I had other options that allowed me to walk away from coaching. At some point it became a dehumanizing process. Now, I must say, I enjoyed my six years at Boston College, truly. And I maintain relationships with my players. We had good kids at BC, and we won. I'd like to think we established the basketball program at that school--because we were near the bottom when I came in. More importantly, every young man that we recruited in that six-year period got his diploma. And if you say that to a sophisticated audience, "What's the big deal? Don't all kids graduate?" Well, I'm sorry, in fact, they do not. So we have nothing but warm memories about that association.
But anything goes in recruiting today. I researched this for one of the books I wrote. We interviewed a well-known guy in Pittsburgh, and he said, "You know, I've been doing this game for 20 years and I can tell you unequivocally--and I'll say it on tape--that every young man that has played in this game has been on the take. Every single one."
Listen, I can tell you, by 1969, 40 years ago, these kids were already getting agent-types to represent them, because even then they knew the score. The pot has only grown since then. It's anything goes at that level. As I say, I was fortunate that I was able to step away from it, because I don't see how you can maintain a relationship with these kids once you get them in if you've prostituted yourself on the other end.
Booth: Well, let's bring this discussion back to Holy Cross, because you have had strong feelings about the direction that Holy Cross athletics has taken during this period of time, the last 40 years, and you've been generally pleased with that. What are your views on today's Holy Cross, Bob? Are you happy with where it's at?
Cousy: Look, this is absolutely a gem of a school. There is a level of teacher-student interaction here that is extraordinary. Our students are taught by professors in an intimate setting. They're not dealing with graduate students and teaching assistants.
Now, obviously, when I was here, we had almost all Jesuit professors. And, in addition, there was the discipline of daily Mass. I think back on those things and I appreciate them. As a college student, you're at a time in your life when--whether you realize it or not--you need to establish a sense of self-discipline, which will serve you very well, I think, throughout the rest of your life. And academically, you can go as far as your own will and your skills will allow you to go at a school like this. In any event, Holy Cross was absolutely perfect for me.
Booth: When you look back on your career as player, coach, commentator, author--indeed, as "Mr. Basketball"--from the vantage of your 80th year, what is your perspective?
Cousy: Well, Clark, it's interesting. A few years ago, we sold a lot of my career memorabilia. And some people felt that I shouldn't have done that. But it actually worked out quite well. Both of our daughters are school teachers, and our granddaughter was just getting into college. We gave them all the proceeds from that sale. But, you know, over the years, I never was one to go down into the cellar and mull over the artifacts--the photos and plaques and trophies and such. I'm a today and tomorrow person. And, so, when I review my athletic career, it's all fine. I've been fortunate and I'm grateful for my life in sports.
But honestly, when I'm in the privacy of my own thoughts, here at the age of 80, it isn't really the athletic background that I cherish, per se, but it's a series of opportunities, moments in my life that were created by my athletic career. I've been invited to the White House by six sitting presidents. I've had a private audience with the Pope. When I worked on the movie Blue Chips, I was able to create the largest fundraiser in the history of my city of Worcester. I've been able to be of service. We built a playground at Great Brook Valley. And we established scholarships at Becker College to be focused entirely on kids from Great Brook Valley. I think about my experiences with the Big Brother organization. Those are the things I find most meaningful. I mean, at some point you grow up and you put your toys away to a degree. Having played a child's game very effectively and having been part of NCAA history here at Holy Cross and at Boston College as well as six championships with the Celtics was wonderful. But at this point in my life, it's the other things--the chance to offer service, to appreciate my family and friends and my community--that provide the greatest meaning and joy.
Booth: Bob, as always, this has been a delight. Thank you, sir, for your thoughts.
Cousy: Thank you, Clark.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
Clark V. Booth '61 has been an iconic presence in the world of sports journalism for decades. For 34 years, he was a sports columnist for The Pilot. He has regularly written for such publications as The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and New England Magazine. He has been a reporter and writer on 30 sports documentaries. For 35 years, he has been associated with WCVB-TV in Boston as a correspondent specializing in sports, religion, politics and international affairs.