Defining

Dec. 25, 2008

By Dave Anderson
Holy Cross Magazine

The barn was demolished decades ago, but when Holy Cross won the 1947 NCAA Basketball Tournament, this scruffy, little wooden structure on the grassy slope beyond the chapel was the site of the team practices. The varnished court barely fit in it. At each end, there was about 10 feet of floor behind the basket. The sidelines were inches from the wall. The barn wasn't much to look at or talk about, but it produced a national championship team, and when I was a freshman in the fall of 1947, the barn was where I first watched Bob Cousy play basketball.

In the afternoons before the formal practices began that November, the varsity players and the better intramural players split up into three-on-three games at each end. Make a basket and you kept the ball. Ten baskets won, and your threesome kept the court. If Cousy's team fell behind, he would make five, six or seven consecutive baskets---whatever it took for his threesome to win and keep the court. His two teammates might change, but he often kept playing all afternoon until it was time to go to Kimball Hall for dinner.

As a freshman the season before, Cousy had been on Coach Doggie Julian's second platoon when George Kaftan earned the most valuable player award in the eight-team NCAA tournament at Madison Square Garden to complete a 27-3 record, but now he would be a starter and a shooter. When the varsity had to prepare for an opposing zone defense, Julian had Joe Mullaney whip passes to Kaftan, Bob Curran and Dermie O'Connell on the overloaded left side, as Cousy leaned against the wall on the right side. Suddenly, as the ball was passed to him, he would straighten up, catch it and shoot. Swish.

Growing up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and having gone to Xavier High School in Manhattan (two years behind George Kaftan, by the way), I often had sat in the balcony at Madison Square Garden to see the best college players, George Mikan and Bob Kurland, but they were big, lumbering centers. They couldn't do what Bob Cousy, out of Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, could do. Neither could any other player in college or in the National Basketball Association. I would major in English literature with an emphasis on Shakespeare, but looking back over my four years on Mount St. James, I confess that I mostly majored in Bob Cousy.

As the sports editor of the student newspaper, The Tomahawk, I think I was the first to call him "Cooz" in print. Some of the Boston sportswriters referred to him as "Cous," but that didn't have the same ring as the phonetic "Cooz" or "The Cooz," a nickname as silky as his gifts: long arms, big hands and darting eyes that often seemed to be in the back of his head. "The things I do," he would say years later, "are easy for a freak like me."

As the Cross went 26-4 in his sophomore year--losing to Kentucky, the eventual national champions, 60-52, in the NCAA tournament at the Garden--he was "Cooz" to everybody on campus. His junior year, when the team practices moved from the barn to the new Quonset hut fieldhouse on College Street, the record was a spotty 19-8, but it featured an electrifying moment on Jan. 11, 1949, in a game with Loyola of Chicago at Boston Garden--a moment that would brand him a basketball magician.

During a timeout with about one minute remaining and the score 57-57, as I would write years later in Sports Illustrated magazine, Coach Buster Sheary ordered a play set up for Cooz off the high post. At a time before even the NBA had a shot clock, the Crusaders went into their outside weave as the seconds ticked off ... 50 ... 40 ... 30 ... 20 ... 15 ... he had the ball at midcourt ... 14 ... 13 ... he looked for Kaftan near the foul line, but Kaftan was tightly covered ... 12 ... he dribbled toward the foul line ... 11 ... but with Loyola guard Gerry Nagel jamming him to his right, he twisted the ball behind his back, bounced it into his left hand, then cut to his left ... 10 ... another one-bounce dribble ... 9 ... he flipped a left-handed hook shot off his left ear from 20 feet that banked off the glass backboard through the net.

In the final seconds, Loyola added a foul shot, but Cooz's left-handed hook shot off his behind-the-back dribble had won the game, 59-58.

"When I saw Nagel all over me on the right side, it was the only thing I could do," he told reporters after the game. "I didn't think about doing it. I just did it." He had never practiced it? "No. I've practiced the hook shot many times, of course, but not the behind-the-back dribble." Several teammates claimed he had practiced the behind-the-back dribble, but Frank Oftring, who would be his co-captain their senior year, said, "He's done something like it in practice, but I've never seen him make this precise play in practice."

That's my favorite Cousy moment on a basketball court at Holy Cross, but not my all-time favorite Cousy moment. That occurred his senior year in Beaven Hall in the hours after a 57-53 victory over mighty Kansas (and its legendary coach, Phog Allen) at the Boston Garden. When the team returned to the campus closed for Christmas vacation in an era when alcohol was forbidden in the dorms under penalty of expulsion, somebody smuggled a case or two or three of beer into Beaven to celebrate the triumph that sparked a 26-game winning streak and the No. 1 ranking in the weekly Associated Press poll. After all, with the campus closed, Jesuit logic decreed that the no-beer rule surely would not be enforced.

Can by can, the beer disappeared. Having been invited along with our Tomahawk photographer Jim Kehoe to join the party, we wandered into a dorm room where Cooz was sprawled on his back in the top bunk, holding an empty can and wondering what to do with it. Not finding a wastebasket nearby, he glanced toward the far end of the room where the window was open about 12 inches from the top. As smoothly as if he were shooting a free throw, he tossed the can end over end the length of the room and through the opening into the cold night air and the snow below.

"Hey, Cooz, throw mine," somebody said. "Yeah, throw mine," another said.

One by one, without moving anything except his right arm, he tossed four or five other empty cans into the snow below. Ever since, I've always wondered what the Rev. Eugene D. McCarthy, S.J., the assistant dean of men--better known as Midnight Mac--thought when the snow eventually melted from those empty beer cans. But watching those cans sail, one by one, through a narrow open window at the far end of a dorm room into the cold night air is my all-time favorite Bob Cousy moment--even better than any of his best moments with the Celtics that only he could create, beginning in his rookie season when he was named to the East squad for the first NBA All-Star Game, held at Boston Garden.

Having wangled a Tomahawk press credential for that All-Star Game, I was sitting at the press table at courtside when Cooz suddenly raced for a loose ball along the sideline. From the other direction, Ralph Beard, who had been an All-America guard at the University of Kentucky, raced for it too, but Cooz snatched the ball, dribbled behind his back and hurried upcourt on a fast break as Beard, to avert crashing into the press table, leaped over it. In that split second, the message was clear: If Cooz could fake out Ralph Beard, the fastest player of that era, he could fake out anybody else in the NBA who dared to challenge him for the basketball that he always considered his.

Over his 13 seasons, Cooz guided the Celtics to their first seven NBA championships as a 10-time first-team NBA All-Star who would glide into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., while defining the position of point guard. Some people wonder if, at 6 feet 11/2 inches, he could play in today's NBA populated by so many taller players. Of course he could. He would play as well as he did half a century ago. His stature endures. Nearly three decades after Cooz retired, Red Auerbach, his legendary Celtics coach, was asked to assess the best fast-break point guards in basketball history.

"Cooz and Magic Johnson," he said. "They're the best ever. No one else is even close."

Off the court, Bob Cousy's stature also endures because he's always had a sense of who he is and where he is. Late in his Celtics career I remember visiting him in the old Paramount Hotel in midtown Manhattan before a game against the Knicks. He had a sore leg that was limiting his playing time, and as we walked to the Garden that evening, several men huddled in Eighth Avenue doorways recognized him and asked, "How you feeling, Cooz?" or "You gonna play, Cooz?" He never even looked at them, much less answered them.

"Don't you say hello to your fans?" I asked.

"They're not fans," he said. "They're bettors."

The Cooz wasn't about to tip street-corner bettors to how his leg felt, good or bad. His ethics professors at Holy Cross would have been proud. Another reason why there's a glorious statue of him outside the Hart Center.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

Dave Anderson `51, a longtime sports columnist at The New York Times, is a recipient of the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary and the 1994 Associated Press Sports Editors Red Smith Award for his contributions to sports journalism. The author of 22 books and numerous magazine articles, Anderson was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame in 1990. He resides in Tenafly, N.J.