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An Interview With

Bob Cousy

 

December 26, 2008

 

 

 

"I didn't understand group intolerance.....
I think in many respects we still should be swinging from the trees by our tails."

When one thinks of basketball legends, former Boston Celtic great Bob Cousy is always on the list. He began his professional career in 1950 and retired 13 years later. During those years he helped lead the Celtics to six national titles and in 1957 was voted the NBA's MVP. Perhaps more important were his views on social injustice and civil rights. At a time when racism was all too prevalent in professional sports, his views and actions helped to change the way people were thinking. I was fortunate to be able to catch Mr. Cousy, now 80, after a round of 18. Before I could even fire a question, he freely shared some of his views about society and human relationships.

Mr. Cousy

I wrote my senior thesis at Holy Cross in 1950 on the persecution of minorities. At that time, growing up in New York, a melange of nationalities, I was more thinking about anti-Semitic persecution. African Americans hadn't gotten into basketball, for that matter, most of the sports at that time. I could understand individual hatred or intolerance very easily because being as competitive as I am,I used to go through it all the time. I used to focus on the enemy and that bad guy.

But if he happened to have two heads and be polka-dotted, I don't know how you went from there to hating all people that had two heads and were polka-dotted. I didn't understand group intolerance and here we are 58 years later and I still don't have an explanation for it in my mind. How you can hate people in general terms? I put it down to the insecurity of the beast. I think in many respects we still should be swinging from the trees by our tails. I think we're still scratching the intellectual surface on how to get along – just human relationships. The insecurity of the beast leads you to this place – hating other people. Because they're different, they believe differently, the culture, religion, color – whatever. And therefore they're going to take something away from us that we have.

I think my simplistic answer to most problems in the world is, on a government level, a church level or whatever, is not so much about the money, which they all say, but it's survival and self-interest. Most people unfortunately act out of survival and self-interest from the minute they get up in the morning. As we move up the ladder and we become more influential or powerful, whether we're world leaders or whether we're church leaders or corporate leaders, now we have more of an excuse because all those nasty things we're doing is because our primary responsibility now is to the stockholder, to the parishioners, to the constituents. We always blame it on something. When you get to be 80 years old you get pretty damn cynical about everything. I think on an individual level, the animal still shines. We see examples of that constantly.

As one moves up the ladder, the air gets more filtered and they lose sight of everything except their own personal goals. We see the politicians do it and the corporate leaders. Look what we've seen just in the last few years in terms of these kinds of abuses. So Darfur sits in the middle of that. It's the Muslims trying to kill the Blacks simply for their own self-interest, all because they happen to be a different religion. They want to get those people out of there. In Bosnia, it was the Muslims and the Christians. We can't get along here from one block to another, going back to the Armenians, the Turks, Hitler, now even in Iraq we have the Shiites and the Sunnis. Not being able to understand it, I try to simplify it and just say the animal can't handle it, we can't handle human relationships.

When I got out of college and got into the pros, it was black/white, pretty much, and it still is in this country. In my rookie year with the Celtics, the first black player was drafted, Chuck Cooper. Chuck was a classy, bright individual. We shared some common interests – he liked jazz, I like soft jazz – and we'd sit around the clubs. Earl Garner was a big featured black pianist and we used to go listen to him. So we shared a lot of things, so he and I roomed together our first year.

We were in Charlotte (North Carolina) for a game. They wouldn't let Chuck stay in the hotel. So, I told Auerbach Chuck and I would leave on the train after the game. We'll get our ass out of town, and that way there won't be a fuss. We weren't looking to make a statement but we weren't going to put up with that if we could avoid it. Chuck was a pretty sophisticated African-American, and growing up in Pittsburgh he hadn't been exposed to hatred or put-downs. And I hadn't either, as a matter of fact. At midnight we were the only ones on the train platform waiting for the train. We went to go to the boy's room and it was the first time either one of us had seen the signs – you know, whites one way and negroes – they used to call them – negroes go this way. So we couldn't even pee together. So, we went and peed together off the platform.

I remember writing for a national magazine – I think the name of it was Basketball – it was a professional magazine that was out in the ‘60's, and I remember writing an article called “Black is Beautiful in the NBA.” It had to do with the stereotypes that had been established. Some felt blacks couldn't be quarterbacks because they couldn't think well enough to be a quarterback and handle a team. Others thought blacks were poor shooters. By then, Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson were around, some pretty terrific black shooters. There weren't any black quarterbacks but I made the case for the fact that in sports, you didn't have to be an Einstein. It was more action and reaction and if you had specific God-given skills, you could flunk in a classroom and still be a helluva quarterback.

I have found, unfortunately, some of the most intense bigots, or people who become bigots, are minorities themselves who have been abused. I hate to say it, but some of my close Irish-Catholic and Italian-Catholic friends are closet bigots. I understand the redneck down in Mississippi with their gun and rack in the back of his car being a bigot – he doesn't know any better. So fine, we all can have the right to do our thing. But I don't understand how someone who's been through the intellectual process and exposed to enlightenment, how these people justify it. I don't have the slightest respect for educated bigots.

Spencer
You began your professional career in the 1950's with the Boston Celtics. Two months ago you stood together with other Celtic legends to celebrate the 17 th national championship of the Celtic organization. This year, the Celtics are off to a 27-3 start. How would you compare Pierce, Garnett and the current squad, with Cousy, Russell and the Celtic dynasty squad from half a century ago?

Mr. Cousy
I think generally speaking, today's athlete is bigger, stronger, probably better. I'm asked all the time, could we compete today? Of course we could. I think the distinction is we could certainly compete and hold our own but we wouldn't dominate the way we did 50 years ago. When I used to jump as high as I could, I'd hit the bottom of the net. When Michael jumped as high as he could he'd jump over the damn backboard. If you're talking about the run-of-the-mill player that played when we played, maybe he couldn't play today. But for the hall-of-famers of sports, they certainly could hold their own and do well. The skills that were required to play the game, to be a point guard for instance, I'd still put my own creative skills and imagination up against any point guard who's played the game. Those are just God-given skills that I was able to exploit with peripheral vision and imagination. But I'd put those skills up against anybody who's played point guard since then.

Spencer
Most would agree that the NBA has changed considerably since you retired in 1963. What changes do you like, and are there any that you don't?

Mr. Cousy
I think the 3-point play has helped the game from the standpoint of fans. It adds and element of excitement to the game, it gives the team that's behind – it gives them a chance to get back quickly. But I'm a purist; to me it violates the essence of the game we grew up with. Everybody tells me, you know, well those guys they dunk all the time. Raise the basket or something. And I say no, lower the floor or whatever. I'm fine with basically the rules the way they are and the game the way it is. I might be in favor of making the hoop a little smaller. Dunking, even though it may be exciting to watch it the first couple of times, if that's all you were looking at you'd get bored with that. It's more about what goes on, the cohesion. Basketball requires, in my judgment, more teamwork than any of the team sports. It's structured only up to a point. In basketball, the option to the play works better than the play itself, because the defender usually tells you how to adjust and so forth. I think the game is beautiful and is as well orchestrated as any game.

But too often coaches now want to get up and hold up fingers on every play. They want to control and dominate instead of allowing the imagination of the players. That's when it's a work of art, I think.

So if putting the ball in the hole has become that easy, then I would entertain a motion just to make it a little smaller so that they'd have to work harder to create the end result, which is put the ball in the hole.

Spencer
During the early 1950's, college basketball still dominated the courts. Many credit you with changing the image of the NBA. How did you do it?

Mr. Cousy
I was unorthodox at a time when coaches wouldn't let you throw the ball behind your back or in the Midwest they wouldn't allow a player take a hook shot. They were that conformist in terms of how the game should be played. The NBA were getting 3,000-4,000 people at games, so anything unorthodox, they were happy as pigs in mud that a player came along that was a little bit of a show-off and had the skills athletically to do these unorthodox things. However, even with that said, 90% of my game and my personality is conservative. I coached conservatively, I played conservatively. But because I was the only one doing all these things, all – you're questioned. I was, in the minds of the fans, I was the only one doing all of this stuff.

That was 10% of my game, and it was only done when that was the best way to accomplish the goal I was trying to accomplish. If I couldn't pass the ball to the guy in front of me, I'd throw it behind my back, if that was the best way to do it. So I was exercising a specific purpose, but I was aware and the league was aware that it was putting asses in the seats. I mean it was getting peoples' attention and magazines – Sports Illustrated. I was the first basketball player on the cover of SI. I had four covers during those periods. This all helped the NBA and the game. But I wasn't giving it much thought. I was just doing my thing. And what I was doing 50 years ago, every 12 year old in every schoolyard now is doing probably with a lot more flare and panache than I was doing it.

Spencer
While others may have scored more points, most agree that no one has ever been able to move the ball as well as you. I believe you called the phrase “spreading the sugar.” Why did you choose that phrase?

Mr. Cousy
Basketball requires more teamwork than any professional team sport that's played, or amateur, for that matter. The obvious guy to meld all of this together is the point guard. He has to strike a balance between when he shoots and when he passes. In Boston at the moment, Rondo, who has exceptional skills, overpasses. And I would have the tendency to do this from time to time. I'd come down floor and my passes were getting more difficult because everything was getting clogged up. So I'd sit down and had to talk with myself or with the coach, and we'd come to the conclusion that the reason the defenses were falling off is I was going through a spell where I was over passing instead of striking a proper balance.

For a play-maker, if you're constantly passing it, it's gonna hurt your passing game. Players like Pete Maravich, who was an outstanding talent, probably could do more unorthodox things than all of us put together, never was known as a play-maker. He was always a great player, hall-of-famer, but as a shooter he never had the luxury of playing on a team where he could exercise his passing skills. If he didn't score 35 points, his team was not in the game. So he was out there primarily as a shooter and I think his passing skills, he never exploited them as effectively as he could have.

But I played with six hall-of-famers, so hell, I could pass all the time and it didn't bother me. In practice when the big guy would be plodding down, I'd throw the fast ball and try to hit him on the back of the head to teach him that as he's running down the floor he'd better know where that ball's gonna be because the play-maker's job is to choose the exact moment when you put the ball in the air.

And you don't throw it to the player, you throw it where he should be or he's going to be at some point in time. They say the point guard has to know the opponent – it's more important that he knows his own team players, where they're going to be, their speed, how quickly, whether they have the desire. Russell, when he wanted to take a blow, Auerbach would always say do it on offense, don't do it on defense. The big men have to run 94 feet, the little guys run 45 feet from the top of the key to the top of the key. Big guys have to do a helluva lot more work – they've gotta run the whole 94 to get themselves into an offensive play. Russell could beat his man – and anyone who guarded him – anytime he wanted to take the energy and run the 94 feet.

But I knew most of the time he wouldn't do that. He'd be pacing himself. So I wouldn't worry about him in transition. But anytime I'd catch the outlet and I'd see him start down court, I was going to give it to him every time. Because I wanted to reward him for running 94 feet to get down floor. So you not only have to be aware of this psychologically, in terms of rewarding the people who do the work. If someone came up with a loose ball and dove to the floor, and got the ball and then got up and ran down, I was gonna do everything I could to give them the sugar at the end and let them get the two points.

Spencer
It has been written that you always felt tremendous pressure to maintain your success. You once said in any competition, I had an almost uncontrollable need to win. Did you, at any time, become a prisoner of your emotions?

Mr. Cousy
Yeah, because if it becomes pretty stressful. You're the first one to know when your skills are starting to erode. I was able to hid it effectively in play-off competition when the intensity level goes up and is sustained, because I was playing with six hall-of-famers. If I had been the go-to guy and I was expected to finish in play-off competition and in my heart I knew physically I no longer could do that, that would be even more stressful. But I could still fake people out, fans included, and do my thing. My dribbling skills, my vision, all of that was still in place.

And so I could still do all that and then let someone else be the go-to guy; give it to Heinsohn or Russell or Sharman, or Ramsey or Sam Jones, or Havlicek. So I had plenty of choices. But it becomes an ego thing at that point. After 13 years, when you know that now in playoffs, the stands are packed with fans and every father is saying to his son, see that skinny guy with the hairy legs, number 14, he is the best point guard that's ever played the game. So you're supposed to live up to that standard, and when you know that you no longer physically can live up to that, it puts even additional personal pressure on you. So I was fortunate in that I was able to step away from it at pretty much the height of my game. I still made the All-Star team, and we won the championship. I was able to go out close to the top of my game. I was the highest-paid player that year (1963), at $35,000.

Spencer
In 1954, you led the effort to organize the first team sport player's union. Why was this so important to you?

Mr. Cousy
Well, we needed representation, and I was the only one in those days that the owner's wouldn't retaliate against. I went to Walter Brown (Celtic's owner) and I said, Mr. Brown – because I was anxious to maintain his good will, I said don't get mad at me, but I feel this is a responsibility that I'm the only one can take on. And I did that. I had a helluva time getting $10 a year dues out of them and now they pay $10,000 a year dues. Our big victory was we got meal money increased from $5 a day to $7 a day. So this put another $200 or $300 in everyone's pocket. And wow, the next year they happily paid the $10 a year dues.

We'd get our little laundry list that we'd go down to New York once a year and sit in Podoloff's office and he'd keep us waiting 45 minutes to an hour before he allowed us into his august presence. And we'd read our little laundry list and he'd say well thank you for coming down, I'll bring this to the attention of the owners after the season and we'll let you know. And they never did anything. They just stalled us. In fairness to the owners, they all were losing money, so we weren't rabble-rousers, we simply wanted representation. And I was the only one that could lead the effort, so I did it.

The year I left – 1963 – was the year they hired Larry Fleisher as executive director of the association. Heinsohn took over for me, but he didn't go to Walter Brown with a pension plan recommendation until 40 minutes before the first All-Star game – our first national exposure – on television. It was in Boston and all the eight owners were very excited about the game. Fleisher got the players to stay in the locker room until we got assurances they're going to put a pension in. Kennedy, the Commissioner, went in the locker room and gave them his assurance. He said look, I can't guarantee you this now, but at the end of the season, I will ramrod this through the owner's meeting, and next year you'll have a pension. And he was true to his word and he got them out of the locker rooms and onto the floor – they played they game. That was the first time they came out with the big stick.

Spencer
You grew up in a multicultural area of New York and became known for your anti-racist views. When you started playing professional basketball in 1950, one of your fellow rookies was Chuck Cooper, the first African American to be drafted into the NBA. What was it like for African-American athletes in the 1950's?

Mr. Cousy
Other than a few isolated incidences, there was virtually no discrimination in basketball. In St. Louis, we'd come down through the stands and there were some rednecks who would look and scream a few things. There were a few isolated instances, like the incident in Charlotte. Down south, the Blacks couldn't stay in the hotels.

However, with baseball, even to this day, there are too many rednecks and people from each dugout, even with black teammates, screaming obscenities at opponents, black teammates or Hispanic or whatever.

I think baseball players are somewhat unique in that respect, and so all the attention when Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball. This was international headlines – all sorts of exposure. When we drafted Chuck Cooper, I never saw one story in the newspaper – nothing. There was no mention of it. Primarily, in my judgment, because basketball was at the bottom of the totem pole. Now it's the second most-important sport in the world. You may like football and baseball or whatever, but basketball is played by more kids worldwide than any sport, except soccer. And I think in my lifetime it will overcome soccer.

I've said this so often – that if I were black, I think I those days, in this society, I'd have been a bomb-thrower. It's fine to tell someone else to turn the other cheek until it's your cheek that has to be turned. And then if you're a very competitive person, who you have to be to play sports effectively, if I get slapped in the face, I'm going to kick the guy in the groin. But it doesn't do any good to reciprocate. Because somebody's an asshole, that doesn't mean you have to be an asshole.

But fortunately, the black NBA players, in my judgment, did not put up with anywhere near what Satchel Page or Jackie Robinson's did in baseball. Baseball was, I think, unique. I would dare say that applies to football as well. So, integration in the NBA was handled smoothly by everyone concerned.

Spencer
What about the endorsements?

Mr. Cousy
Blacks weren't getting the endorsements because this is bottom line stuff. I was the only white player – I was the only guy getting endorsements. It was Mickey Mouse. In those days, I was doing national ads, television stuff. I was getting $1000. Today on national ads, you get $1 million. So it wasn't a big deal. But then Russell comes and all of a sudden we start winning championships. He's the man, but he's not the man – I'm the man and I'm getting all this attention from advertising agencies. Not a lot, but I mean it was something. The black player was not getting anything in those days.

Spencer
When did that change?

Mr. Cousy
Probably after the ABA came in, I think, in the early ‘70's,when the competition between the two leagues started and now made everyone's situation a lot better financially.

Spencer
When you joined the Celtics in the ‘50's the team was all white. With the arrival of Russell, Sanders and Jones, the team with the Jewish coach because an example of diversity at a time when prejudice was all too common. Did the Celtics set an example, and do you know if there was any effect?

Mr. Cousy

It had nothing to do with racial attitudes within the team or dedicated people working hard to overcome racism. It was not there. Russell had a chip on his shoulder all his life, and I don't blame him one single bit, but he goes through a Jekyll and Hyde transformation. Within the circle of the unit, he felt very comfortable. Russell is very intelligent, bright, gregarious, outgoing within the unit – laughed constantly. But he'd come out of the protection of the unit, and it was half white, half black at the time, come out of there and we'd go on the road. And in train stations, hotel lobbies, he'd be sitting there reading the paper and “whitey” would come up to him in the lobby and make the speech about Mr. Russell, you're the greatest player – I've been following you, and my kids – and he wouldn't look up from the paper.

He felt so strongly about “whitey,” and yet within the unit he sensed that he could count on us to give him whatever support was necessary. As competitive as I am, despite my feelings, if I were black in this society I would not have been able to take it by turning the other cheek, I'll tell you that.

So now, when I'm asked lately who my hero is in sports, I say Arthur Ashe. Because I think he handled his situation with the class and the dignity and in a manner that did the most good for his cause, he didn't turn off the white moderates. When Russ was being quoted everywhere, and he was asked about Boston, he'd say, “It is the most bigoted city I've ever been in, I'd rather be in jail than be mayor of Boston.” We all want to hit back. And you feel better yourself after saying it, but meanwhile, 8000 moderates say well screw that son-of-a-bitch, he's getting paid all that money and this is the way he feels about it. So it gives you personal satisfaction but it doesn't do your “cause” any good. It's a selfish response, even though I probably would have done the same thing.

So I'm not putting Russell down, but I'm just pointing out that Arthur Ashe handled it, and I'm sure he felt every bit as strongly as Russell did about it. But Ashe handled it and he didn't become an Uncle Tom. I'm not saying become subservient. Fight the good fight, and don't prostitute yourself, but do it in a manner that helps your cause, which is not counter-productive to what you're trying to do. There are a lot of people who are going to come along after you that you've must think about. Martin Luther King, non-violence. So you do what is best for the cause that you're fighting for because you've got other people to think about.

Spencer
In terms of talent, could you please tell me what first comes to mind when you talk about Bill Russell?

Mr. Cousy
He's the most productive center who ever played the game. I use productive because obviously Abdul-Jabbar was perhaps the best offensive center to play. Russell certainly is the most defensive player to play. I don't know how many rings Abdul has but it's not more than three or four. Russell has eleven rings the last time they counted. So he's the most productive center that's ever played.

Spencer
Wilt Chamberlain?

Mr. Cousy
Chamberlain was the best individual player but he wasn't a complete basketball player – he was an individualist. But he might have been the most effective. He was the biggest, strongest man we'd ever seen. Seven feet four –and God, he dominated. But the point is he didn't win championships because he wasn't a complete basketball player. One year, he was criticized for shooting it all the time. The next year he came back and he passed every time. He almost won the assist title. But he didn't understand – that had nothing to do with how to win games. His teams never won. They had to strike a balance; his shooting all the time wasn't good and his passing all the time was not good. So I don't think he was a complete basketball player, but he was awesome
.
Spencer
How about Magic Johnson?

Mr. Cousy
Magic, in terms of point guards, he's in the top two or three certainly.

Spencer
Michael Jordan?

Mr. Cousy
I'd agree with most observers who say Michael is the most complete and best basketball player we've produced up to now.

Spencer
Larry Bird?

Mr. Cousy
Bird is probably the most effective power forward that has played; certainly the best passing power forward that's played the game, and I suppose the best shooting power forward as well, because he had such a range, he could shoot so many different ways. And most power forwards don't go outside and kill you with three's and that kind of stuff.

Spencer
How about Pete Maravich?

Mr. Cousy
As I said earlier, Maravich, if he'd had the luxury of playing with a good basketball team, which he never did, we might be talking about him as the best point guard, the most multi-talented point guard that ever played the game.

Spencer
Kobe Bryant?

Mr. Cousy
Yeah, Kobe belongs somewhere among the top small forwards, maybe at this point, the best. He'll be talked about for a long time as one of the top two or three or maybe the best.

Spencer
How about LeBron James?

Mr. Cousy
Well, let's wait for him to build a history. I'm impressed with him, But not oh wow, gee, he's going to maybe overcome Michael Jordan.

Spencer
And finally, Paul Pierce?

Mr. Cousy
Paul Pierce isn't in that category. He's going to be a hall-of-famer but no, Pierce is not in the Kobe, LeBron category. He became the most complete player he could be last year. Pierce was carrying a load – he was double, triple-teamed all the time. All of a sudden he gets Garnett and Allen and now the pressure is off and he becomes more effective.

Spencer

What professional basketball player, past or present, do you think has had the greatest impact on the sport?

Mr. Cousy

I think two. The sport was dormant, and probably in last place until Magic and Bird. And then two things. Not only those two guys – they were high profile and exciting players to watch, but David Stern came on board and has proven to be a marketing genius as well as an able and effective administrator. So it was that combination and television discovering basketball. I think last year the finals were televised in 177 countries. When baseball and football sit around the table at the end of the year, they're divvying up marketing dollars, as popular as they are, they divvy up millions. When basketball sits around, they divvy up billions of dollars, because people in all of those countries that are watching are buying NBA logo material – balls, jerseys, jock straps, you name it. So this is gonna continue the sport.

Because right now, in my judgment, it fits better. It's the least expensive team sport to play – you don't need $200 Michael Jordan sneaks. We used to give clinics in Africa and other places, and kids would have broken down shoes, one broken down ball, playing on dirt courts. And to some degree, that still exists. And it's the only team sport that you can do by yourself and practice the skills of the sport. The old man puts the hoop up on the garage or on a tree. The biggest advantage as well is it doesn't take a large area to play it. Every other team sport needs a lot of people to do it with, and large areas. None of that. So it fits into your metropolitan areas as well as your rural areas. One child can, boy or girl – the girls have made tremendous strides. So we're just scratching the surface. Anyway, all of these started to come together in 1989 or 1988 – whenever. And Stern's marketing skills complimented the fact that these two high profile exciting players came into the league at the same time that television discovered it. Before we were televising one game a week, now you've got three games on every damn night. So all of it started to come together. And then given the right people – it was Magic and Bird that got all of this started.

Spencer
What is your legacy?

Mr. Cousy

I was honored in June. Thanks to 12 dear friends who worked for two years, we had a dedication of a seven-foot statue in front of the gymnasium at Holy Cross. We've had three years of negotiation with the Mount St. James Pigeon Association and I volunteered to be a repository and a depository. So we got this statue put up.

I was fabricated in France; I was born six months after the boat landed at Ellis Island. In the heart of the depression, 1928, it took my father 12 years working two or three jobs, to save $500 to get us out of that ghetto in East 81 st Street and East End and put a deposit on a little house in St. Albans that had fresh air and hoops. That's the first time I discovered basketball. Thanks to a lot of God-given talent, four years later, I get a scholarship to Holy Cross, where 11 of us wander in at the same time – no recruiting whatsoever – we wander in and we win the NCAA tournament. From that humble beginning, basketball activity started in New England. Then I go to the Celtics and we get a guy named Russell after six years, and I captain six championship teams. And now I have a comfortable lifestyle from playing a child's game.

So while I'm proud of the things I was part of athletically and individual accomplishments, things like a statue in front of Holy Cross because of my work in civil rights, become much more meaningful at this point. Having had a private audience with the Pope, having been invited to the White House by five different sitting Presidents, those are the things that you remember. Playing a child's game effectively and having accomplished something –that's fine. And that led to all of those things. But in terms of a legacy or what I remember now in the privacy of my thoughts are those kind of things. You know, having been a Big Brother to African-Americans, having played a role in that – that's more meaningful to me. So that's what you remember.