Robert “Bob” Cousy is a former thirteen time All-Star who was a crucial part of a Boston Celtics dynasty that began in the 1950’s. With the nickname “Houdini of the Hardwood” Cousy captured the 1947 national championship at Holy Cross and then helped the Celtics win six world championships. Cousy’s achievements also include winning the Most Valuable Player award in 1957 and leading the league in assists for eight consecutive years.
In this interview Bob and I discuss a wide range of topics, all the way from racial tension he viewed firsthand during his career to his recent conversation with President Trump.
SHAFIN KHAN: What championship was most memorable to you?
BOB COUSY: The first one. 1957.
COUSY: We had worked for six years without accomplishing a lot and then Red Auerbach had drafted Tommy Heinsohn and Jim Loscutoff and with the adding of those guys we could rebound the ball better. We had pretty much everything else in place and that led to the first championship. A lot of hard work, tears and focus went into that first championship.
KHAN: Who was the toughest player you ever had to guard or some of the toughest players you had to go up against?
COUSY: The two high profile guys were Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, they gave me problems. The two lesser known guys were Larry Costello and Slater Martin. Those four gave me trouble over the years.
KHAN: Who were some of your basketball idols growing up?
COUSY: I didn’t have any idols. I have idols now, but not in basketball necessarily. On December 3rd of last year at about 1:30 in the afternoon my phone rang and believe it or not it was the President of the United States[Donald Trump]. We talked for about twenty minutes and he offered me the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which I guess is going to happen this year. I said in the course of our conversation “Mr. President, one of my heroes from Holy Cross has already received this award and I said unlike me he deserves it because he has saved millions of lives.” His name is Anthony Fauci.
KHAN: Do you wish the three point line existed in your era?
COUSY: No, not really. I don’t know if guards in those days had that kind of range. I had it. I could have gone back to a three point line. I don’t know what my average would have been but it was doable. We focused almost entirely on a transitional game. Our first option every time offensively was to bring the ball to the basket. I understand that the game has evolved and that computers say you should exercise your perimeter offense and then take it to the basket. I disagree with the computers on this. I think it should be as we had it and the first option should be to take it to the basket. You have got twenty-four seconds to do it now and if it doesn’t happen in that period then the perimeter shot is pretty much always available to you.
KHAN: If there was another coach you could have played for in college or at the professional level who would it be?
COUSY: My style of play required an up-tempo game. There were a lot of coaches in the 50’s and 60’s that were old school and if you even whispered to them that you wanted to run an up-tempo game more, they would throw you out of the building. If I had played for a walk-the-ball up the floor coach or in a slow structured offense, you and I would not be having this discussion today because you would have never heard of me. My game required an up-tempo style and a transitional offense. I was fortunate after my first two years[At Holy Cross], [Alvin] Doggy Julian, he was not a walk-the-ball up coach. The coach I had the last two years, his name was [Lester] Buster Sheary, he was an up tempo guy and that’s what we did pretty successfully my last two years. I admired Joe Lapchick and Clair Bee too. Clair coached at LIU in the forties and these guys were both Hall of Famers.
KHAN: Red Auerbach has passed on but his legacy is enormous in the basketball world. Do you have any good Red Auerbach stories?
COUSY: Arnold was an exceptional coach. He and I had a special relationship because we went to Europe three times together for the state department. Now, the game of basketball is the number two sport in the world. It’s everywhere and soon it will become number one in my judgement, I think it will overtake soccer. In the late 50’s and early 60’s when Arnold and I went together on those trips we would typically go wherever. Kuala Lumpur, Taiwan or Hong Kong or Casa Blanca, all these exotic places. We would work with the coaches that were just starting. We would give clinics for a week in each country and then we would go to the next country, Morocco or French West Africa, wherever. We literally introduced basketball to the world in those days. It was really in its infancy. He and I shared a special relationship other than just player to coach with the Celtics.
KHAN: Who was the best teammate you had during your career?
COUSY: Well, I roomed with Bill Sharman for ten years. He’s a Hall of a Famer too. He died a couple years ago now and we remained dear friends until he passed. Bill was as good of a shooter that has ever played in the NBA. I don’t know what he shot for his career but I know he led the league in free-throw accuracy. He was my closest friend over that period.
KHAN: You mention that you had a “Rosa Parks” moment in an interview with ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan. Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with your teammate, Chuck Cooper?
COUSY: Chuck was the first African-American player drafted in the NBA by Walter Brown, the owner of the team [Boston Celtics]. This happened three years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball and of course it made international headlines. Three years later, Walter Brown, got up at the owners meeting and said “We draft Chuck Cooper from Duquesne” and then Ed Gottlieb, the owner of Philadelphia, got up and said “Walter, don’t you know he’s a negro?” and then to Walter’s credit he said “I don’t give a damn if he’s polka dotted. [Red]Auerbach thinks he can help us win, we take Chuck Cooper.” Well, that was 1950. Auerbach, Chuck and I came to the Celtics that same year. Chuck and I and a guy named Ed Leede bonded together. We all had bizarre sense of humors. We all liked slow quiet jazz. We used to go watch Erroll Garner, who was an international African-American piano player. We used to go watch him in Boston till two in the morning and drink beer. The three of us bonded and I roomed with Chuck that first year. The next year was when Bill Sharman joined the team and Auerbach started to room us by positions. We bonded though and became friends forever, until he died. Anyways, that third year we were playing in Raleigh, North Carolina. They wouldn’t allow Chuck to stay in the hotel with us, so Auerbach got all disturbed about this and wanted to make a fuss. We found out that there was a sleeper that went through Raleigh at 12:30 at night back to New York and that eventually connected to Boston. So, we said “Coach, forget it, don’t make a fuss. Chuck and I will go to Union Station after the game and take the sleeper.” So, in the 50’s we weren’t sniffing, we weren’t snorting or taking anything internally. No drugs of any kind. Our drug of choice though was beer. We drank a lot of beer. We went at around 10 at night to have three or four beers. Obviously, it got to be midnight and we needed to whiz. Now, he was from Pittsburgh and I was from the Big Apple, New York and we thought we were pretty cool and sophisticated. We went to go take a leak and it was the first time either one of us had seen those big white signs. The white sign with a black arrow pointed right and said “Colored” and the sign next to it pointed left and said “White.” It was the first time either one of us had seen that and I was so disturbed I actually teared up, I didn’t know what to say because I was ashamed to be white. Here was one of my good friends now and I couldn’t whiz with him because some fool had put up signs saying that we couldn’t. However, I solved the problem. It was midnight and the train didn’t come through for thirty minutes so there was almost no one on the platform and we went outside to the end of the platform and we peed together. That’s when I told Jackie that it was a Rosa Parks moment but we couldn’t talk about it for many, many years [laughing] because I don’t know how long it took for the statue of limitations to run out.
KHAN: If you could go back in time is there anything in your career you would change and would you have fought racism differently in anyway?
COUSY: I would have enjoyed it if Dr. King would have asked me to march with him. I could have sustained getting hosed down by those hoses in Birmingham. I don’t know about getting bitten by those snarling Dobermanns. I would have liked to been part of the Dr. King movement because I think he had it right on. Him and Ghandi both. If we are ever going to make progress in race relations you fight hate with love, you don’t fight hate with hate, that’s counter productive. I agree with that philosophy completely, I would have liked to been part of that movement. On the other hand, I am the luckiest jock that ever existed on this planet. I captained six world championship teams. I was a crucial part of a NCAA championship team at Holy Cross. It was in my first year and freshman were allowed to play. There were ten of us and I am the only one left. My dear friend, Andy Laska, just died over the weekend. When I visited him in November before leaving Worcester I said “Andy, you got to hang in. You and I are the only ones left.” I should have said it louder because he died last weekend, so I am the only left from that team.