You could buy a wool suit with two trousers for $49, and pork chops for 65 cents a pound. At the movies you could see Lawrence of Arabia and To Kill a Mockingbird. On television you could watch Gunsmoke, Mission Impossible, and Peyton Place. President John F. Kennedy was in Costa Rica to meet with leaders of Central American countries, and Willy Brandt, the mayor of West Berlin, was calling for the United States and the Soviet Union to meet in an attempt to lessen growing East-West tensions. A young singer named Barbra Streisand would end up with the album of the year.
It was March 17, 1963. St. Patrick's Day, in Boston, a city rich in history, but for all practical purposes a city as segregated as any in the country. It was a city where the travel brochures talked about Harvard, MIT, and the groves of academe, but the reality was strong ethnic neighborhoods that were almost like individual duchies, places where the values were all about turf and family, places where the Old World loomed heavy.
The fifties were over, the decade that ultimately would be remembered for its conformity and its repression, but in all the important ways the sixties hadn't started yet. No one had heard of the Beatles. Vietnam was off in the distance somewhere, some little place on the map few could locate. The Civil Rights Movement was still in its infancy, even though it had been nine years since Rosa Parks had refused to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington was still five months away. The counterculture that would come to define the sixties was still a few years away. By its values, by its look, by its very texture, and in all the important ways, it was as if the fifties had never left.
It also was Bob Cousy's last home game in the Boston Garden.
Cousy had announced earlier in the year that this would be his last season. He was 34, and felt he had to position himself for the future, that it was time to get on with his life and make a living that had nothing to do with playing basketball. So even though he knew he was physically able to keep playing, he sensed it was better to leave while he was still near the top of his game, a time when fans would remember him as a great player, not someone on the downward slide, the rust all over his game, all about memories and yesterday's cheers. Maybe more important, he felt he could make money off his name if people remembered him fondly.
It was his 13th year in the National Basketball Association, and in the view of many, he was the reason there was still an NBA. He had been the most charismatic player in those early years, the first player to pass behind his back, throw no-look passes, the first to play with much of the flair that later would become so much a part of basketball. Through the first half of the fifties, particularly, he'd been almost universally hailed as professional basketball's greatest figure, a first-team All-NBA player 10 years in a row, the MVP of the 1957 season. He had led the NBA in assists for eight straight years, and played on six championship teams.
But it was more than just the stats.
Cousy was often called the Babe Ruth of basketball. In a sense, he was the first modern player, the flashy playmaker, the first improviser, the first player to look inside the boundaries of a basketball court and see endless possibilities, jazz musician as point guard. Watching him play was like watching a sneak preview of the game's future. During the fifties, before Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain came into the league, Cousy had been the biggest name in the NBA. Certainly, as the most charismatic player, and one of the few names that transcended basketball, he was known to the general public.
He was one of the first basketball players to do endorsements, one of the first to have his own basketball camp. He enjoyed the kind of celebrity that was unheard of for a basketball player in his era, often being called "Mr. Basketball."
But he had paid a price for that.
For years he had nightmares. Bill Sharman, who had roomed with him on the road for 10 years, used to say that it was not uncommon to wake up in the middle of the night and see Cousy walking around the hotel room speaking in French, although he hadn't spoken French since early childhood. As his career progressed these episodes had become more common. These nightmares eventually became so upsetting, so bizarre, complete with running out of his house one night and going down a road, that he'd gone to a psychiatrist, who told him he was having anxiety attacks and gave him medication for them. By the end of his career he had developed a nervous tic under his right eye, a physical manifestation of the pressure he felt.
His great fear was that he would somehow tarnish his reputation. He had worked a long time to establish it, 17 years if you counted his college career as well as his professional career, and he treated it as if it were a family heirloom.
"I always have been afraid that I would not be good enough," he would later say. "There was always the fear, before every game, that this would be the night it would all desert me, that this would be the game that everything would go bad and I would be out there, exposed and helpless."
For years he tried to analyze the apparent contradiction in his nature -- fear, combined with confidence on the court. The trouble was he knew this only intellectually. Emotionally, the fear would grip him before every game, "The taste of fear comes back into my mouth and I have to suffer through it all over again."
Still, it's a contradiction that never left him.
"I'm 34 years old and I'm still a boy having to prove myself over again every time out," he said. "But if I've spent my life playing a boy's game, it's still what I do. And because it's what I do, I want to be the best. It's not enough to be good enough. It's not enough to be very good. I have to be the best because that's what it's all about."
This feeling had only intensified as his career wound down. He never had felt pressure when he'd been younger. He had had such confidence in his skills, was so sure of himself with the ball in his hands and the game on the line. But he had come to feel the pressure of trying to stay on top as new players, younger, kept coming at him, so now he felt like some old gunfighter standing in the middle of a dusty street in some Old West town taking on all the young guns. It had kept getting harder, and with that the pressure would envelop him, draining all the joy out of everything, for he knew he couldn't control his own destiny anymore, not the way he did when he was younger. His great, unspoken fear was that some father would be sitting in the Garden with his son saying, "There goes the best basketball player in the world," while he knew he no longer could perform at that level.
As he had grown older as a player, he also had come to resent the time he spent on the road. He hated the travel. He hated hotel rooms. He hated the endless waiting for the game to start. He hated his opponents. He hated the way he had to psych himself up for games, secluding himself, turning inward, eventually finding some dark place where he hated everything, including himself. He hated how depleted he felt when they were over, how completely drained. He hated the lifestyle of professional basketball. Most of all, he hated the time he spent away from his wife and their two young daughters. He had come to know that anything he missed could never be recaptured, that things you fail to do can never be made up.
He had come to realize that his daughters, now 11 and 12, were growing up and they were almost strangers to him, felt the guilt of knowing that his family's entire life always had revolved around his schedule, his games, his dreams, his life. He had come to know that life was all about priorities, and he was questioning his.
"My daughters would grow up and get married and what would I remember?" he once said. "A thousand hotel rooms?"
That month there had been an article in Sport magazine, called "Farewell to Bob Cousy," written by Al Hirshberg, who had written Cousy's autobiography, Basketball Is My Life, six years earlier. Cousy's picture had been on the cover of the magazine. It showed him peering off into the distance, his right hand on his chin, looking pensive. A green Celtics warmup jacket was over his left shoulder. There is a brooding quality to Cousy in the picture, with his dark hair, dark eyes, Gallic features, portrait of the artist as point guard.
Several other stories were touted on the cover: "Will Dissension Destroy the Dodgers?"; "Jimmy Brown: The Story Behind His Startling Revolt"; a story by Bill Veeck on how the big trading spree has shaken up baseball; and the Sport Special, "Life with Elgin Baylor."
On the 10th page of the magazine there was a double-page ad from the Columbia Record Club, billed as 79 albums from every field of music. You could buy any six albums for $1.99, and the list included Andy Williams Sings Moon River, Doris Day's Greatest Hits, a new album from Johnny Mathis, and another by Jimmy Dean, featuring "Big Bad John." There were love themes from Ferrante and Teicher, another album billed as a sing-along with Mitch Miller. There were few rock 'n' roll albums, save for The Many Sides of Gene Pitney, Bobby Vee singing Hits of the Rockin' 50's, and a twist party album with Chubby Checker.
There were ads for Charles Atlas, the most famous body-builder of the day, and one for the Mercury Comet, "the sportiest new hardtop you can buy." There was a "Sports Quiz," with Tom Harmon, who did a daily sports report on ABC radio. There also was a column called "Great Moments in Sports," written by a sports commentator on ABC radio named Howard Cosell.
There were two pictures of Cousy in Hirshberg's article. One was an action scene, Cousy at the top of the key, in the act of throwing a behind-the-back pass to a streaking Sam Jones. The other shows a smiling Cousy in a white shirt and dark tie, a black phone to his left ear.
The article was subtitled: "Behind-the-back razzle dazzle, five NBA titles, the Players' Association. They, and more, stand as monuments to the man now playing his final season of pro basketball, the small man who built a legend in the big man's game."
The article was a compilation of what several of his teammates thought of him, especially ones who had been very young when Cousy had been so instrumental in keeping the league afloat. Satch Sanders, a young Negro player in his third year, had probably said it best, saying that a man walks in his own shoes, and no one was ever going to fill Cousy's shoes, not ever. Frank Ramsey called him a natural leader, saying he always had looked up to him. Most of the thoughts had been obtained one night in the Celtics locker room before a game with the Warriors, and at one point, Hirshberg asked Red Auerbach about Cousy.
"What can you say when you know you're going to lose the greatest backcourt man who ever lived?" Auerbach said. "Nobody will ever take his place. There's only one Cousy."
Auerbach was going through some mail, and tossed the letter he was reading.
"He's the captain in name and the captain in action," he said. "He sets the pace out there. He never tells me he's tired. I've got to watch him myself, and pull him when he has to be pulled. He's an inspiration to the younger kids. He's their idol. He gives us all a morale lift."
Near the end of the article Hirshberg talked to Cousy. It was after the game. Cousy had played well, adding to the theory he shouldn't be retiring, that he wasn't yet finished as a player.
"How do you feel," Hirshberg asked.
"All right," Cousy said.
"You don't seem to have slowed up any?"
"I'm all right for 20-25 minutes," Cousy said. "I used to go 40-45."
"That's the only difference?" Hirshberg asked.
"The only physical difference. But I used to love it. Now it's a chore."
"Any chance of you changing your mind about quitting?"
"None whatever," Cousy said.
Now it was almost over, his last games starting to slip through the hourglass that had been his career, but there was a sense of regret, too, a life slipping away, this life that had come to define him. He had come so far from the tenement of his childhood on Manhattan's Upper East Side, from the dysfunction of his family and the kind of poverty that can deaden dreams. He had overcome so many obstacles, for what were the odds that someone who had been cut from his high-school team in the 10th grade would grow up to be "Mr. Basketball"? Were there odds that high?
On that St. Patrick's Day he was being honored in the most boisterous, gift-laden ceremony held for any athlete in the city's history.
This was no small thing, for Boston was one of the best sports towns in the country, had been the home address of several of the biggest stars in the history of American sport in Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and Ted Williams. Also Bill Russell, who had been Cousy's teammate for seven years now. Ruth had played for the Red Sox in the late teens, leading them to a world championship in 1918, but he'd been traded to the Yankees afterward, ostensibly because Sox owner Harry Frazee had blown much of his money financing a Broadway play, No, No Nanette. Foxx had had many of his best years with the Athletics, had come to Boston when Philadelphia no longer could afford to pay him, but was well liked and became a sort of mentor to the young Ted Williams.
Williams's presence towered over the Boston sports scene, but his tenure in Boston always had been complicated, layered with mixed emotions. He was mercurial at best, downright difficult at worst, a mixture of charm and self-absorption, charisma and boorishness. His career in Boston always had been somewhat tainted by his relationship with the Boston media. He derisively called them "the knights of the keyboard." They, in turn, largely considered him spoiled and arrogant, owner Tom Yawkey's pet. He had retired three years earlier, homering in his last at bat in Fenway Park, an event turned into literature in a John Updike magazine piece called "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," but he never had been given a farewell day.
Cousy had always been loved by both the press and the fans in ways Williams never had been. Maybe that's because he had played in college at Holy Cross, just 40 miles to the west, had played many of his college games here in Boston, being regarded as the hometown boy. Maybe it was because he was flashy, an innovator, doing things with the ball people had never seen before. Maybe it's because the Celtics had now won five world titles, while the Red Sox never had won one during the Williams era. Or maybe it was as simple as what teammate Tommy Heinsohn would later say, namely, that in those early years of the Celtics the Boston fans weren't necessarily pro basketball fans, they were Cousy fans.
But, even now, Cousy was the emotional link to the fans, adored in ways that Russell never was. No matter that it had been the arrival of Russell that had made the Celtics into the best team in the game's history. No matter that Russell had become the most valuable player in the game, the first man who used defense as a weapon, the one whose rebounding enabled the Celtics to run, their fast break eventually changing the way the game was played. Russell was aloof, distant, a six-foot-nine black man playing in a city with an unfortunate racial problem, one that would be on the national news a decade later when court-ordered school busing unraveled a city. Cousy, by contrast, was six-foot-one, white, looked like the majority of the fans looked, Everyman in sneakers.
His career also coincided with the rise in popularity of the NBA, the transformation from the dank arenas of the Northeast to the time when national television was starting to make the league an integral part of the American sports scene.
In its early years professional basketball had all the glamor of a smelly uniform stuck in some old gym bag. Founded in 1946, the NBA was overshadowed by college basketball, which had begun in Madison Square Garden in the mid-thirties. When Cousy joined the league in 1950 it was still in its infancy, and professional basketball was viewed in many quarters as comparable to professional wrestling, rodeo, and other events that came into arenas in the dark of night and disappeared almost as quickly. Certainly it was nothing that was taken too seriously by the American sporting public.
So by the time of "Bob Cousy Day" in the Boston Garden in March 1963, the NBA had significantly changed. While a variety of factors contributed to this, Cousy had been instrumental in changing the league's image. In a league that later learned very well how to market its stars, to the point of developing a cult of personality, Cousy was the first genuine superstar, even if the towering George Mikan had been the game's most dominant player in those early years.
But Cousy was the first whose name transcended his sport.
That had never been more apparent than two years earlier when he had been profiled in The New Yorker, the elite literary magazine that had become one of the unofficial arbiters of taste and culture in America. That Cousy had been so prominently featured in it was testimony to his stature, the perception that of all the basketball players on the planet he had become the most well known.
The article, by Robert Rice, had been written for an audience that probably didn't know the difference between a two-hand set shot and a moving screen, and it was a way of almost introducing this new sport that seemingly had snuck up on an unsuspecting country. At one point, the article proclaimed that one factor for the sport's growing popularity was "an affluent society's resourcefulness in creating new consumer needs," and that the "spectacle of ten tall, skinny young men running around in midwinter in costumes that look very much like summer underwear no longer appears quite as bizarre as it once did."
Throughout the article the NBA was referred to as the "Association," and Cousy was portrayed as the key performer, the best all-around player, someone who had scored, with the exception of the bigger Dolph Schayes, the most points in the league's history. He also was portrayed as driven and extremely focused, as someone who regarded his opponents as enemies and spent the few hours before a game brooding and working himself up into a quiet rage, a man whose outward stoicism belied the emotional storm he went through during every game. It talked about the time, in 1958, when the Celtics had lost to the St. Louis Hawks in the NBA Finals, and how Cousy had broken down and sobbed in the locker room, all the pent-up emotion dissolving as tears on a cement floor. Later, he would realize he hadn't cried because the Celtics had lost, or because he had played poorly. Rather it was because he felt he had failed to get himself into a proper mental state, thus had failed to be the type of leader he should have been.
In his view, his role was to make his teammates better. That was the way he'd been taught to play the game back in the school yards of New York City. That was the way he always played it, even if his own style of play pushed the envelope, Cousy becoming the basketball godfather of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, men who instinctively knew that the great pass is the ultimate basketball expression. He called it "spreading the sugar," this conscious act of passing the ball, keeping everyone happy. He was the captain, and that wasn't just an empty title.
His Celtics' teams also had begun to change the face of American sport.
When Cousy joined the Celtics in 1950 they essentially had been an all-white team. Now four of their best players -- Russell, Satch Sanders, Sam Jones, K. C. Jones -- were Negroes. One of the main reasons the Celtics were a great team was the ability of both white and black players to get along, deal with one another, respect one another. This was no small thing in an America that was already in the nascent stages of the Civil Rights Movement, the time when race in America was about to be put under a national microscope.
But they all had come to the Celtics after Cousy. He already had played six years before Russell and Heinsohn had arrived. Sam Jones had been at a small Negro college in North Carolina when Cousy had first been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, K. C. Jones at the University of San Francisco. The guys he had come of age with on the Celtics were all gone now, Ed Macauley traded away seven years ago, his old roommate Sharman retiring two years ago. He was the one who had survived those early years, the one still standing. Him and Auerbach.
And now it was time even for him to leave.
The ceremony went on for almost an hour before the game with the Syracuse Nationals. Cousy was flanked by his wife, Missie, whom he had married 13 years earlier, his onetime hometown sweetheart. Also there were their two young daughters, Marie and Mary Patricia, in their identical green dresses with white bows; and his parents, who had come from St. Albans, New York. His parents sat on two folding chairs in the middle of the court. He was presented with numerous gifts, including a new Cadillac, as volley after volley of deafening cheers rolled down from the Garden's balconies.
Alternately, Cousy wiped his eyes, wrung his hands, fidgeted, bowed his head, shuffled his feet, and bowed to the crowd.
It was the biggest goodbye in the history of Boston sports, and afterward, Celtics' coach Red Auerbach, who earlier had read a proclamation from President Kennedy, would say, "In the history of my life I've never seen anything like this tribute to an athlete. You talk about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams. This was second to none."
Also at the ceremony was Ned Irish, who ran the New York Knicks, the man credited with jump-starting college basketball 30 years earlier with his idea to stage doubleheaders in Madison Square Garden. There, too, was NBA commissioner Maurice Podoloff, called "Poodles" behind his back. He was a diminutive man who'd been chosen back in 1946 to be the ceremonial head of a new professional basketball league, even though he knew virtually nothing about the game, and resented Cousy for starting the Players' Association a decade later.
"There has been only one Bob Cousy," Podoloff told the crowd. "There never will be another and none will ever attain the heights you've reached."
If the NBA was different from when Cousy first had joined it in 1950, the Celtics were appreciably different, too. They were the best team in basketball, having won five NBA titles in the last six years. They had become perhaps the greatest dynasty in the history of American sport. They also had changed the way basketball was played, fast and free flow, the fast break as an art form, and they had the defensive brilliance of Russell, the first big man who was a great athlete, and not just some genetic freak rooted in the game's stationary past.
After the Celtics, professional basketball never would be seen the same way again.
The other key players were Heinsohn, Satch Sanders, Sam and K. C. Jones, and Frank Ramsey. They were white and black, city and country, all coached by a Jewish man who had come of age in a New York ghetto. In many ways, they were a precursor of a new America, a study in diversity before that concept became popular. They were different men of different backgrounds, all with their own hopes and ambitions, men who often went their different ways once the game was over. But together, within the insular world of the team, they were remarkably similar, shared both a vision and a pride that kept being reaffirmed the more they won, the more championship banners were raised to the rafters of the Boston Garden.
They were a team in the very best sense of the word, for they had come to that most simple, if often elusive, realization that they were better collectively than they were individually. That always had been the gospel according to Auerbach, and in this particular church there were no heretics. It was a message all the players bought into, whatever their reasons, the article of faith that was never questioned. Players came and went, the seasons kept changing, but the philosophy within the group never changed.
This was no insignificant thing.
America was changing, the tensions that later would erupt in the mid-sixties already beginning to run through the culture. Russell was the most obvious embodiment of that. From the time he arrived in Boston in December 1956, fresh from the Melbourne Olympics, he'd been a complicated personality, one of the first black sports stars who refused to be subservient and play by the white man's rules. He always was his own man, regardless of the consequences, but as part of the Celtics, within the group, he was also the ultimate teammate, someone who would subordinate his own interests for the betterment of the group.
He also brought to the team his obsession with winning, the feeling that he would do anything to win.
Years later, Heinsohn talked about this need to win. At one point he was talking about Cousy, Russell, and Auerbach, the three most dominant personalities on the Celtics, and how, beneath the surface, they were much more alike than anyone would realize: the point guard who had grown up the only son of French immigrants, the black center who had spent his early years in segregated Louisiana, and the Jewish coach who had hustled his way out of a Brooklyn ghetto.
It was Heinsohn's theory that while the rest of the Celtics certainly wanted to win, those three had to win, as though winning had become a form of validation. He called it the "love ache," thinking that their insatiable need to win again and again and again was a form of love deprivation, a hunger they could never satisfy, no matter how many cheers, how many victories.
Cousy and Russell never had been particularly close, though they had tremendous respect for each other as players, and perhaps more important, as teammates. But their relationship had seemed to grow more distant as the years went by. Cousy considered Russell almost impossible to get close to, as if he long ago had erected renewable barriers around himself, so that every time you got through one barrier another simply grew in its place. Heinsohn would later say that no one fully understood Russell, not even himself.
Not that Cousy and Russell were unfriendly to each other, or had problems. That certainly wasn't the case. But their wives were more friendly than they were. Cousy had come to believe that part of the reason the two weren't closer was that, at some level, Russell resented the fact that Cousy got endorsements and he didn't. In America in the late fifties that was probably inevitable.
A few years ago, during the filming of a television documentary, Cousy started crying when asked about the prejudice Russell suffered through as a player, essentially saying he wished he had done more at the time to help Russell, that he should have been more sensitive to Russell's plight. Afterward, Russell told Cousy he shouldn't feel guilty, that there was really nothing he could have done to make Russell's stay in Boston any easier.
Still, they always had been linked together, a fact of life they both understood.
"You want to know why Cousy was the greatest?" Russell once said. "Two reasons. First was his imagination. No matter what the situation was, he'd think of something new to try. He'd try anything. And he'd make it work for the second reason -- his confidence. He just knew it was going to work."
Hadn't Cousy's signature move -- his behind-the-back dribble -- been sheer instinct, a move he made to get around a Loyola of Chicago player in the dying seconds of a big college game in the Boston Garden in 1949? Hadn't he simply bounced the ball behind his back and then sunk a hook shot, with his left hand no less, to win the game at the buzzer as the crowd became a hurricane of noise?
"That was from the president," Auerbach said to the crowd, after reading a proclamation from Kennedy, "but I've got something to add, too. I know you people are here to honor Bob, are sorry to see him go. Well, how do you think I feel? I want to thank all you people for seeing it, because that's Mr. Basketball."
There was a certain irony to that, too, though odds are that most of the fans that had packed the Boston Garden that afternoon had long forgotten it. It had been Auerbach who had passed over Cousy in the first round of the NBA draft in 1950, even though Cousy had been the hometown star, the Holy Cross senior who had played many of his games in the Boston Garden, the darling of the Boston sportswriters. Auerbach was newly hired then, the brash young coach who had been hired to save professional basketball in Boston.
"Am I supposed to win, or please the local yokels?" Auerbach had snapped that day, when pressed on why he didn't draft Cousy.
So Auerbach and Cousy had grown together, like some arranged marriage that turns out to flourish. They had shared a success that would have seemed incomprehensible on that draft day in 1950. Now on this day they hugged and cried together.
There were words from Mayor John Collins and Governor John Volpe. Russell's wife spoke. Then Walter Brown spoke.
He was the Celtics' owner, and the Celtics were his baby, especially in the early years when he had paid a big personal price to keep them afloat. He had been one of the founding fathers of the entire NBA, not only the Celtics, even if he really knew very little about basketball, his true sports love being hockey. No one loved the Celtics, and its players, more than Walter Brown, a fleshy-faced Irishman with a heart so big that the players always wanted to negotiate with him instead of Auerbach, because they knew that Brown would always take care of them. To Cousy, Brown was one of the world's good people.
"You feel bad?" he said to the crowd. "Think of how I must feel. I'm the guy who didn't want Bob Cousy."
He paused a beat.
"What a genius."
Then he paused again.
"Things weren't always so good for the Celtics," Brown said. "It was so bad one year I couldn't pay the players their playoff money for nearly a year. Cousy and [Ed] Macauley never asked me for it. Their generosity enabled the club to exist. That was the greatest tribute ever paid me....For 13 years, Bob, you've been the Boston Celtics."
That was not hyperbole.
Cousy had been the Celtics, especially in those years in the early fifties when the NBA was new and professional basketball in Boston was viewed with skepticism at best, and was downright ignored at worst. The Celtics were trying to establish themselves in a city that had no basketball tradition, a city where the sport hadn't been played in the high schools from 1925 until after World War II, a place the fans had to be taught the game.
It hadn't been easy.
Cousy had been the show in those early years, a reason to see the Celtics. Maybe the only reason.
When Cousy entered professional basketball in the fall of 1950, the National Basketball Association was only a year old, a merger of different leagues, more of a curiosity than an attraction. Its eleven franchises included Syracuse, Fort Wayne, and something called the Tri-Cities, which played in three nondescript cities in Iowa. College basketball was far more popular, the NIT in Madison Square Garden every March commanding far more attention than the NBA playoffs. In many ways professional basketball was a regional game. The Northeast. The Midwest. Something to fill the time between football and baseball seasons.
More than anyone, Cousy changed all that.
And that transcended the fact that he was a small man in a big man's game, someone who was never blessed with obvious athleticism, couldn't even dunk.
He was called "The Houdini of the Hardwood," for his unique style of play, one that featured the fast break, the basketball philosophy that brought the game into the modern era. A corny nickname by today's standards, for sure. But it promised possibilities, the idea that to see Cousy play was to see something different, something you had never seen before. Cousy passed behind his back. He often dribbled behind his back. He threw no-look passes, as if he somehow had eyes in the back of his head.
But his influence had transcended his oncourt machinations.
Red Smith, the New York Times writer who was the most influential sports voice in the country, had written, "For him, basketball has a music of its own, but he also has powerful convictions about people and living, human rights, the rigging of games, and the recruiting of college athletes, officials and coaches, and the individuals he has played against."
He had been the leading force behind the birth of the NBA Players' Association, the group that later evolved into the players' union. For decades afterward, he was the standard-bearer for every flashy guard who came along, as if being billed as "the next Cousy" was the highest praise that could be bestowed on any young basketball player.
Now, on a rainy St. Patrick's Day afternoon in Boston, it was all about to end.
The spring before he had announced that he was only going to play one more year, that he was going to coach Boston College. That had set off the biggest farewell tour in NBA history, Cousy being honored in virtually every city as he went through the season: gifts at halftime, speeches, public thank-yous. The NBA was now major league, now stretched across the country -- very different from its beginnings. Every year there seemed to be more and more young stars coming into the league, changing it, making it better. It was very, very different from what it had been only a decade ago, and more and more, as his career wound down, Cousy was being recognized for that transformation. There were some who even said he had saved the young league in those early years, that without Bob Cousy the NBA never would have survived.
After the game, Dolph Schayes, the Syracuse star, said, "I looked over and Cousy was crying before the fans were crying. When I looked over and saw the officials were crying I knew we were in trouble."
Schayes, who had been one of the NBA's best players for more than a decade, leading Syracuse to an NBA title in 1955, had first met Cousy 17 years earlier in the Catskills. He, too, was from New York, but he was two years older. He had been a big star at New York University in the forties, one of the last of the great Jewish stars who came out of the city, back when the city game had largely been Jewish.
The next day the headlines would scream out in big, black type: Cousy Weeps as 13,909 Roar Tumultuous Ovation...Hub's Tears Stir Cousy...Tearful Adieu to City's Beloved Star...Cousy Falters For First Time...Tears Not Out of Place at Farewell."
"It was just something I wanted to get through," Cousy would say years later. "It was a very stressful day."
No surprise there.
For all the public acclaim, Cousy was the most private of men. He never was comfortable with all the attention he received. He knew that it ultimately created more money, so he went along with it, saw it as part of his job. He always tried to exploit situations he thought could help him. But it wasn't something he necessarily enjoyed. He didn't go out of his way to promote himself, or particularly like being the center of attention.
Nor was he the easiest person to know. Heinsohn, who might have known him the best of all the Celtics, would later say Cousy could be difficult, that he was too much the perfectionist, too demanding, both of the people he played with and of himself. One of his favorite tactics was to throw the ball at the back of a teammate's head if he thought that particular teammate wasn't looking when he should have been.
But he was the perfect teammate, too. He often would come into a huddle during timeouts and ask what he could be doing better. He would find the open man rather than take the shot himself. And no one ever wanted to win more.
Heinsohn also knew how important it was for Cousy to go out the right way. For years he and Cousy had driven from Worcester to Boston together, had shared much time together, even if they were very different personalities, Cousy private and guarded with people he didn't know, Heinsohn open and easy and willing to talk to anybody. Heinsohn knew how driven Cousy was, how he always had had a fear of failure, and how he had used that fear to make himself such a fierce competitor. Heinsohn remembered how, after the Celtics had lost in the NBA Finals in 1958 (the year Russell had gotten hurt in the playoffs), Cousy had broken down in the locker room. It had been Heinsohn's second year in the league, and he had thought, okay, we lost, but there'll be more seasons, more titles. Sure, it had been important to him, but to Cousy it had been life and death, for he played every game as if it were his last.
After the game, Cousy would sit in the trainer's room, pale and drawn, and say that the upcoming playoffs would be easy compared to getting through this afternoon.
"How do you say goodbye?" he asked rhetorically.
But he had tried.
When it was his turn to speak to the crowd of 13,909 shoehorned into the Garden, the old Art Deco building in Boston's North End, he spoke haltingly, between sniffles and sobs, asking for forgiveness because he was using prepared notes.
"The biggest regret I have in leaving is no longer being able to share the camaraderie and esprit de corps and the common bond of competition and inspiration I have received by being the captain of this team," he said to the crowd, rolling his r's as he'd done all his life, a product of the Gallic speech characteristics that went back to his early childhood, the speech impediment that caused him to lisp slightly.
Those were not just words.
His sense of being on a team, of competing, had shaped his life in ways he didn't really understand at the time. It would be years before he would come to grips with his competitive nature, the way it had shaped his view of the world.
"I always hoped that my playing has, in a small way, seemed to repay you for your many kindnesses," he said to the crowd.
More applause tumbled down from the upper balcony.
"You know, in 17 years since I entered Holy Cross, I've had the occasion to stand so many times in front of an audience," he said, "but I'm afraid that the task has never quite been as difficult as it is today. It seems so difficult to find mere words that seem so inadequate in order to say these things."
He began to break down, didn't begin to speak for 15 seconds as applause engulfed him.
It was not the only time he would break down. Or have his remarks stopped by applause. Throughout his speech he would constantly be interrupted by waves of deafening applause.
At one point, he said he wouldn't have enjoyed playing anywhere but Boston, a remark that brought another 10 seconds of applause, but those words were redundant. He had become as much a part of Boston as the Old North Church and Paul Revere's Ride. For many years he had been the Celtics, from his number, 14, to his black sneakers, to the sense he'd been born into the Celtics' backcourt.
His eyes had filled with tears again, and his 12-year-old daughter Marie walked to the microphone and gave him a handkerchief. The Garden turned quiet as he wiped his eyes.
As he struggled to control his emotions, in the stillness of the old Garden that had been Cousy's field of dreams for so many years, a fan's loud voice came rolling down from the second balcony, cutting through the building.
"We love ya, Cooz," it said.
Copyright © 2005 by Bill Reynolds