It seems unthinkable now, the idea of the Boston Celtics and Bob Cousy somehow not coming together to shine in the NBA’s first full decade. In hindsight, they seem inseparable and inevitable: The game’s consummate playmaker triggering the ultimate fast break for the ideal coach of arguably pro basketball’s most storied franchise.
Except that the events that brought Cousy and the Celtics together were far more serendipitous than that.
It was puzzling enough, looking back, that new Celtics boss Red Auerbach passed up Cousy when he had a chance to draft him in the 1950 Draft. The native New Yorker had become a star while still in college at Holy Cross, helping the school win the NCAA championship in 1947 and already earning his nickname “Houdini of the Hardwood” with his elusive and innovative dribbling and passing skills.
So what did Auerbach do with Cousy on the board that day in April 1950? He passed on the kid in nearby Worcester, Mass., and selected Bowling Green center Chuck Share. Cousy went two picks later to the Tri-Cities Blackhawks and that, as far as any shared history for him or Boston’s NBA team, should have been that.
Lucky break No. 1: Tri-Cities (which eventually become the St. Louis/Milwaukee/Atlanta Hawks) traded Cousy less than a month later to the Chicago Stags, whose dire financial straits doomed them before the 1950-51 season ever began. A dispersal draft was set up to deliver the Stags’ best players to other NBA teams, with Max Zaslofsky, Andy Phillip and Cousy having their names pulled out of a hat.
Lucky break No. 2: The Celtics got the third pick. Zaslofsky went to New York, Phillip went to Philadelphia and Cousy, by default, was sent to play for Boston.
Cousy had spent the months between the two drafts seemingly uninterested in a pro basketball career – he managed a small group of gas stations and worked for a while as a driving instructor that summer. But by mid-October, he and Auerbach were headed into their inaugural Boston seasons in what was to become, as the movies would call it, a beautiful friendship.
Cousy seems in retrospect to be the poster guy of the NBA in the 1950s, a pasty, smallish, below-the-rim guard with an antiquated shooting stroke, running around in short-shorts and black canvas sneakers. And then, if you’re watching the newsreels or other limited footage, you see how much more there is to his game.
He handled the ball as if it were on a string, crafting moves that seven decades later seem commonplace but back then were revolutionary. His ability to pass the ball, delivering it at the right place and time, brought gasps and smiles. Cousy as a playmaker became what the legendary George Mikan had been as the league’s first real giant: A marquee attraction, worth the price of admission.
For all of Auerbach’s regimentation and adherence to fundamentals, Cousy forced the crusty coach to ease his grip on the Celtics’ reins. The point guard’s bag of tricks weren’t simply entertaining, they were successful. They didn’t just dazzle fans, they bedeviled opponents.
And even if the set shots and sweeping hook shots that flowed from Cousy’s passing were old school, his floor work and daring in delivering the ball had a distinctively modern feel.
A rightie by nature, Cousy became adept at using either hand with the basketball. His ability to literally dribble circles around opposing players – in the context of running the Celtics’ attack or killing time off the game clock – thrilled Celtics fans and even folks backing other teams.
His game was made up of skills unrelated to size, strength or even natural quickness, the sort of things that could be learned and honed by a boy and a ball. He was, as a result, a natural draw for kids at basketball camps.
So many sports stars have talked through the years of achieving a level of mastery and confidence in which “the game slows down.” That is, they are able to read and react a little sooner, a hair quicker, as plays and patterns emerge almost in slow-motion, even as their decisions and quick-twitch muscles fire at normal, elite-athlete speed.
It’s the sort of thing that allowed greats such as Michael Jordan, hockey’s Wayne Gretzky or football’s Tom Brady to seemingly stay a play ahead, anticipation and experience and heightened awareness mingling to do remarkable things.
For Cousy, and for other great playmakers who followed, having a sharp and wide field of vision was essential.
Nearly half of Cousy’s 13 NBA seasons played out before the Celtics became what we think of as “the Celtics.” He was there, doing what he could both as a scorer (19.4 points per game in his first six seasons) and a passer (7.2 assists per game with four assists crowns). Auerbach was there. Pieces such as Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey, Jim Loscutoff began to arrive and gel. Yet in Cousy’s and Boston’s 27 playoff games in that span, they were an unspectacular 10-17.
In 1956, Auerbach landed both Tom Heinsohn and Bill Russell, a turning point for the franchise and NBA history. Russell’s work on the boards and ability to run the floor, with Cousy pushing the pace and firing passes ahead or at oblique angles, fully unleashed the Boston fast break. What followed was a stretch of dominance as complete as the New York Yankees’ in baseball, the Montreal Canadiens’ in hockey or the UCLA Bruins in college hoops – 11 championships in 13 seasons for the Celtics.
Cousy was at the wheel for the first six, won over a period of seven seasons. He was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player en route to the first title in 1957 and he continued as Boston’s driving force for five straight from 1959 through 1963.
By the time Cousy was done at age 34, he had been named to 12 All-NBA teams and played in 13 All-Star Games, twice earning MVP honors. He led the league in assists for eight consecutive seasons and retired as the all-time leader in that category, holding the crown for another five years after he retired (Oscar Robertson was the first to pass his total of 6,955).
More to Cousy’s liking as a team competitor, he, Russell and the rest maintained a veritable stranglehold on NBA championships. And that 10-17 playoff record Cousy and the Celtics compiled in his first six postseasons? They went 53-29 in playoff games over his final seven and 13-1 in series. That included the 1963 Finals, won by Boston after Cousy already had announced his retirement.
The NBA was a far different place when Cousy exited than when he entered. New stars such as Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Robertson had emerged. The Celtics were a juggernaut rather than a wannabe.
Teams were averaging 115 points per game on 101 field-goal attempts in 1963, compared to 84 points on 83 shots when he entered. The league was only 17 years old but already things were getting bigger, faster, flashier. And a shift toward African-American players – teammates and opponents Cousy had befriended and championed, as a man and in his role as players association president – was shifting the NBA culturally as well.
Vertically, the game was taking off, with Baylor in particular serving as the precursor of high-flying future stars such as Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and others. Horizontally, though, as far as the width and length of the court, Cousy was the standard bearer whose skills and creativity on the floor inspired playmakers to come such as Tiny Archibald, Pete Maravich, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Chris Paul and many more.
The “Houdini of the Hardwood” eventually retired but, for future generations of NBA players and fans, his influence has never disappeared.