Bob Cousy, the Boston Celtics point guard whose slick ball handling and passing wizardry earned him the nickname “Houdini of the Hardwood," was considered the NBA's second great gate attraction (after George Mikan) even before he began winning championships.
Once he was teamed with defensive genius Bill Russell, though, there was no stopping him: Cousy helped the Celtics to six titles in seven years over the second half of his playing career. He was an NBA All-Star in each of his 13 seasons, led the league eight consecutive years in assists and was named MVP in 1957 as Boston – after never even winning its division – won the first of its 17 championships.
Here’s a look at some factoids to know about the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer.
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Fast breaks and artful passes: Nobody passed the ball quite like Cousy -- not Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd, LeBron James, Steve Nash or any other renowned distributor -- because he was an original, inventing slick deliveries and the Celtics’ fast break on the fly in the early 1950s. Most teams’ style was as grainy and black-and-white as the footage we see from that era.
Said backcourt mate Bill Sharman: “Cousy was a lot like Magic Johnson, in that he was an innovator and his first instincts were to get you a good shot. On the fast break, he was an artist, inventing something new – he was way ahead of his time.”
Cousy did talk of “painting a picture” every time he raced up the floor with the ball in his hands, spotting teammates and defenders instantly. And while he wasn’t technically an outlet passer, he routinely would fire sidearm deliveries 50 feet to other streaking Celtics.
“Going behind your back like [Cousy did] was unheard of,” St. Louis Hall of Fame forward Bob Pettit once said. “But I thought the big thing he could do was throw the ball the length of the court right on the nickel.”
The NBA’s first ‘real’ N.Y. point guard: When Joe and Juliette Cousy arrived from France in 1927, their only son technically might have qualified as a stowaway (she was pregnant at the time). They settled in Queens, and the boy soon was drawn Dr. Naismith’s game. The nearby high school had recently won the city championship, grabbing Cousy’s attention.
“I became completely consumed with basketball,” he said. “O’Connell Playground every weekend, every day after school in the school yard, we played 3-on-3. When it snowed, you shoveled so you’d have space to shoot.”
Cousy spoke French as a kid but learned English despite a speech problem that made his R’s come out like L’s. That’s how he got his early nickname “Flenchy” from other kids, and eventually why he was one of the few people Auerbach allowed to call him “Arnold.” It was better than what Cousy would have done to “Red.”
Boston didn’t want him … twice: Logical as it may have seemed for the Celtics to draft Cousy -- a Holy Cross star -- with the No. 1 pick in the 1950 Draft, that didn’t happen. First, the newly hired Auerbach went for need, selecting Bowling Green center Charlie Share. Cousy went third to the Tri-Cities Blackhawks.
Cousy wanted no part of the Illinois/Iowa region and planned to go home and earn his living via his partnerships in a gas station and some driving schools. He didn’t change his mind when Tri-Cities traded him to Chicago. Then Chicago folded, all before the 1950-51 season began, sending Cousy into a dispersal draft. Near the end, three Chicago guards still needed new teams. New York, Philadelphia and Boston all wanted Max Zaslofsky, a four-time All-Star.
When none of them would budge, then-NBA commissioner Maurice Podoloff said the players’ names would be drawn from a hat. The Knicks drew first and got Zaslofsky. Celtics owner Walter Brown went next, hoping to pull veteran Andy Phillip but instead got Cousy.
Good roommate, great friend: In Cousy’s rookie season, he offered to room with Chuck Cooper, the first black player drafted by an NBA team. Auerbach liked to switch room assignments every so often, so over time several Celtics roomed with Cooper. But Cooper considered Cousy to be not just a teammate, but also a friend.
The NBA’s integration didn’t generate the headlines that Jackie Robinson’s rise to the Brooklyn Dodgers had, coming three years later in a lower profile league. But it still had its moments: In February 1952, after a neutral-site game played in Raleigh, N.C., Cooper wasn’t permitted to stay with his teammates at a segregated hotel. He volunteered to take an overnight train to New York and meet the others after their flight the next morning. Cousy said he would accompany Cooper on the train.
While waiting at the station, they encountered “whites-only” and “colored-only” restrooms, a first for both men. Cousy was embarrassed … until he suggested that they walk to the end of the train platform outside. As midnight approached, they stood side by side to urinate into the Carolina night.
“The Rosa Parks moment we couldn’t talk about,” Cousy joked in a 2018 NPR interview.
Smallest MVP till 2001: Not even Steve Nash or Stephen Curry, both of whom won the award twice, were as slight as Cousy -- at least, that’s if you believe Nash’s and Curry’s listed height of 6-foot-3. Only Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson, at 6-foot and 165 pounds, was smaller than the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Cousy.
“I’ve never been a big self-promotion guy,” Cousy said not long ago in an ESPN interview, “but I would put my creativity, my imagination, my passing skills, with anyone who’s played the game. In 1957, I thought I was the best damn player on the planet, frankly.”
Cousy had been an All-Star in each of his first six seasons, averaging 19.4 points and 7.2 assists while finding another gear when the league adopted the shot clock in 1954-55. Two years later, though, with Bill Russell aboard, Cousy reached another level. Boston topped the league with 44 victories, swept Syracuse, then beat St. Louis in an exhausting seven games. Finally winning a championship, he said, was like a huge weight lifted off him.
Almost air-balled away Game 7: Cousy did, in fact, shoot an uncharacteristic air ball from the foul line late in the 1957 Finals’ double-overtime clincher. He shot 2-for-20 from the field, while Sharman went 3-for-20. And with the Celtics ahead by 1 with five second left, Cousy made one free throw, then bricked the other.
“I missed steel, OK,” he said years later. “I missed steel! I got letters for many years after, saying, ‘Cous, what was Arnold’s strategy? Why did he have you miss that on purpose?’ ”
Hawks player-coach Alex Hannum drew up a play in which he would inbound the ball all the way off the far backboard, so the carom would go to his star, Pettit. That’s exactly what happened – but Pettit missed and Boston won.
“He choked as badly as I did,” Cousy said.
Today’s players should thank him: Cousy was as competitive as anyone (“I didn’t want to play kissy poo with the opponent. I wanted to glare at them and hate them.”). But he felt a kinship with his NBA brethren when they were off the court. Players needed a voice in the league, he thought, prompting him in 1954 to contact top players from the other teams about starting a union. Among their early demands: Set a limit of 20 exhibition games each season, end the refs’ practice of imposing “whispering” fines during games, and set up arbitration for player-owner disputes. Finally, in 1957, the Board of Governors recognized the union.
His comeback, well, sold some tickets: Cousy wasn’t even that interested in coaching, until the Cincinnati Royals in 1969 offered him a contract paying more than $100,000 annually, triple what some other NBA coaches made. He took over a Royals team with future Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas that had missed the playoffs for two seasons. Cousy’s stint made it four more as they went 141-207.
Like a lot of great players, overseeing non-great players was frustrating for him. As for the great players, he and Robertson didn’t mesh (“The Big O” and Lucas were eventually traded). In the first season, the Royals took that “coach on the floor” stuff about point guards seriously, activating Cousy at age 41 after six years of retirement.
It wound up as a gate attraction, and he only appeared in seven games. He had neither the size nor the legs to keep up defensively. In a total of 34 minutes, Cousy added five points and 10 assists to his career totals. Cincinnati went 5-2 when he played, 31-44 when he didn’t.
His bond with Russell: On the court, Cousy and Russell were more than brothers, almost like twins in their synchronized movements and know-how in triggering a fast break or snagging a ball handler in Boston’s defensive web. As men, though, they weren’t nearly as close as you might expect. The mutual respect was enormous and they shared plenty of moments, but Cousy felt that his shyness and Russell’s simmering anger kept them from discussing some of life’s bigger topics. In particular, the racism Russell experienced in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Over time -- a lot of time -- it gnawed at Cousy, who finally penned a letter to his old teammate in 2015. He told Russell he was wrong not to defend him more publicly or offer more personal support. That gesture was a central theme of author Gary M. Pomerantz’s book, “The Last Pass.”
It took three years for Russell to respond, finally calling Cousy for a belated phone visit. Didn’t bother Cousy, though. It helped him, he has said, just to write and send his “mea culpa” letter.
The ‘Hermit’ of the NBA: That’s how Cousy describes himself these days. He spent 34 years as a Celtics TV analyst. He still lives in the spacious house he and his wife, Missie, bought in the early 1960s. He’s an avid reader, his health is said to be good and he seems as sharp as ever.
Missie, his wife of almost 63 years, died in 2013 but she’s still very much in his life. Each morning Cousy rises from bed, walks to a chest of drawers where he keeps her funeral Mass card and welcomes her to his day: “Good morning, sweetheart. I love you.”