Legends profile: Bob Cousy

The Celtics legend helped usher the game into a new era with his dribbling and passing skills.

Bob Cousy was one of the NBA’s first showmen as a passer and playmaker.

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Bob Cousy, one of the greatest passers and playmakers in NBA history, was flashy before flashy was cool. Benched early in his college career because his coach didn’t like his revolutionary, razzle-dazzle style, Cousy went on to help build the Boston Celtics of the 1950s and 1960s into basketball’s most enduring dynasty — America’s team. He was a tremendously passionate and intense player, so much so that he would often suffer from stomach cramps and chest pains in the locker room before big games.

Cousy was the heart and soul of a team of stars that featured Bill Russell, Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Bill Sharman and Satch Sanders. He played in 13 straight NBA All-Star Games and earned six NBA championship rings. He led the league in assists eight consecutive seasons and consistently ranked near the top in scoring and free-throw percentage. His skills and instincts graced the game a generation before their time.

Cousy left the game respected by players and worshipped by fans as no other player had been before him, and as few have been since. In 1970 he was rewarded with election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Bob Cousy was a playmaking maestro in the NBA's early days and a crucial part of Boston's 6 championship teams, too.

In 1960, after admiring his play for a decade, former New York Knicks Coach Joe Lapchick called Cousy the best player of all time. After Cousy retired, Celtics owner Walter Brown told a Boston newspaper that “the Celtics wouldn’t be here without him. If he had played in New York, he would have been as big as Babe Ruth. I think he is anyway.”

Like many other NBA greats, Cousy made his entrance into basketball because of a twist of fate that occurred when he was a youngster. The son of poor French immigrants, Cousy grew up a “ghetto rat” on Manhattan’s East Side. While very young, he played stickball and boxball and stole hubcaps. When his moonlighting, cab-driving father was able to stash away $500, the family bought a house in the St. Albans neighborhood of Queens, New York. There, Cousy traded in his broomstick for a roundball.

Still new to the sport, Cousy was cut twice from the Andrew Jackson High School junior varsity team. At the age of 13, he fell out of a tree and broke his right arm. So he did what any other kid would have done: he learned how to dribble and shoot with his left arm. When his former coach, Lou Grummond, saw the ambidextrous youngster playing in neighborhood leagues, he invited him back on the team. Grummond needed a playmaking guard, and Cousy fit the bill.

A star was born. In only a year and a half on the varsity squad Cousy became the most talked-about kid in town. As a senior he won the city scoring championship, securing the title by tallying 26 points in the final game of the season.

The following summer Cousy was offered a scholarship at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, 40 miles outside of Boston. It was 1946, at the tail end of the Dark Ages of basketball, when players spent a good deal of their time flat-footed and the offensive weapon of choice was the two-handed set shot. The game wasn’t quite ready for a Bob Cousy. After platooning as a freshman during Holy Cross’s national championship season in 1946-47, he won a starting spot in his second year. But Coach Alvin “Doggie” Julian thought his sophomore guard was a showboater and limited his playing time. Cousy considered going back home and transferring to St. John’s but was persuaded by Lapchick, the coach at St. John’s, to stay with Holy Cross.

Bob Cousy introduced a new blend of ball-handling and passing skills that earned him the nickname 'The Houdini of the Hardwood'.

Cousy’s fate changed during a game against Loyola of Chicago at Boston Garden. (Holy Cross’s own rickety gym wasn’t suitable for big games.) With 5:00 left and Holy Cross trailing, the crowd spontaneously started chanting, “We want Cousy! We want Cousy!” Julian had no choice but to insert him into the lineup. Cousy scored 11 points, including a buzzer-beating left-handed hook shot that he threw up after spinning past a much larger player with a behind-the-back dribble. (Although not the first to use it in college — Seton Hall’s Bob Davies did so in 1941– Cousy helped popularize the move.)

A three-time All-American, Cousy became one of the biggest names in college hoops. With Cousy leading the way as a senior in 1949-50, Holy Cross won 26 straight games and finished second in the National Invitation Tournament.

Meanwhile, the fledgling Boston Celtics, who had played the previous three seasons in the Basketball Association of America, joined the newly created National Basketball Association (a combination of the BAA and the National Basketball League) for 1949-50 and finished last in the NBA’s Eastern Division with a 22-46 record. It became almost a foregone conclusion that the lowly Celtics would nab Cousy in the 1950 NBA Draft.

Instead, new coach Arnold “Red” Auerbach chose Chuck Share, a 6-foot-11 center from Bowling Green. (Share would go on to have an unremarkable nine-year career.) “We need a big man,” Auerbach said at the time. “Little men are a dime a dozen. I’m supposed to win, not go after local yokels.” Auerbach was blasted in the press.

Cousy went to the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, which soon traded him to the Chicago Stags, but that franchise folded before the 1950-51 season started. The names of three Stags — Cousy and two much sought-after players were tossed into a hat. Gathered in a hotel room, the owners of the Celtics, the New York Knicks, and the Philadelphia Warriors each pulled out a name. All three wanted the league’s leading scorer, Max Zaslofsky.

“When I drew Cousy, I could have fallen to the floor,” Celtics owner Walter Brown said later. Cousy asked for $10,000 a year; he settled for $9,000.

It wasn’t long before Brown and Auerbach were eating crow. Cousy dribbled, shot, passed, scampered and otherwise ran rampant as the Celtics ended the 1950-51 season with their first winning record, 39-30. “Easy Ed” Macauley, picked up from the St. Louis Bombers, pumped in 20.4 points per game. The 22-year-old Cousy averaged 15.6 points and 4.9 assists. The rambunctious rookie almost single-handedly drew fans into the Garden, although Auerbach was still unimpressed with Cousy’s flair.

During his days in the NBA, Bob Cousy ran a basketball camp for kids. Check out a dribbling exhibition he used to inspire young ballers!

The Celtics added sharp-shooting guard Bill Sharman in 1951, and Cousy and the rest of the team continued to improve. Cousy averaged 21.7 points and 6.7 assists, both marks near the top of the league. As in the previous year, however, Boston was stymied in the first round of the playoffs by New York.

The Cousy legend started to form by the end of the 1952-53 season, only his third in the NBA. Cousy won the first of eight straight assists titles, averaging 7.7, remarkable for the era before the shot clock. The fast-breaking Celtics won a then franchise-record 46 games and swept the Syracuse Nationals in two games in the division semifinals. Cousy’s dominating performance in Game 2 of that series would be one of the most talked about of his career and would even be compared to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962.

Although hampered by a bad leg, Cousy scored 25 points in regulation, tying the game at 77 on a last-second free throw. In the first overtime Cousy scored six of his team’s nine points, including another game-tying free throw in the final seconds. In the second extra period he scored all 4 Celtics points. In the third he scored 8, including a 25-foot, game-tying jumper with three seconds left. With the Celtics down, 104-99, in the fourth overtime, Cousy scored 5 straight points, giving him 9 of the 12 points that Boston scored in the period. The Celtics finally prevailed over the Nationals, 111-105.

By the time the 3-hour, 11-minute game ended, five players on each team had been disqualified. Cousy finished with 50 points, including 30 free throws in 32 attempts. In the next round, the drained Celtics lost 3-1 to the rival Knicks.

Over the next five years Boston would add Bill Russell, Tommy Heinsohn, K. C. Jones, Frank Ramsey, and Jim Loscutoff to its already high-scoring team. By 1956-57, Russell’s rookie season, the Celtics were nearly unstoppable. Their 44-28 record was the best in the league that year. Cousy won the NBA Most Valuable Player Award, finishing first in the league in assists (7.5 apg) and eighth in scoring (20.6 ppg), just behind teammate Sharman (21.1 ppg).

In the playoffs “the Green and White” swept Syracuse in three games to reach The Finals. Boston prevailed in a tight series against the St. Louis Hawks, winning Game 7 when a Bob Pettit shot bounced off the rim as time expired in the second overtime. Cousy and Boston had won their first NBA championship.

The Hawks got their revenge the next year, besting the Celtics in six games in the 1958 NBA Finals. What followed was a period of dominance by Boston that has not since been duplicated by any other team-and probably never will be. From 1959 through 1966 Boston won eight consecutive NBA titles. During the streak the Celtics brought in Tom “Satch” Sanders (1960) and John Havlicek (1962). The deadly combination of talent made the Celtics the most feared team ever. Until he retired in 1963, Cousy was the one player who brought it all together for Boston with his brilliant playmaking and court savvy.

“Cooz was the absolute offensive master,” Heinsohn told the Boston Herald in 1983. “What Russell was on defense, that’s what Cousy was on offense — a magician. Once that ball reached his hands, the rest of us just took off, never bothering to look back. We didn’t have to. He’d find us. When you got into a position to score, the ball would be there.”

Cousy was the ultimate point guard, the engine that propelled the team. At full speed he could see the whole court and spot the open man — even if that player was trailing behind. The league had never seen a player with sharper peripheral vision. His repertoire of passes; no-lookers, spinning dishes, behind-the-back feeds and half-court rocket shots-predated those of Earvin “Magic” Johnson by three decades. When driving to the hoop he knew precisely when to dish off, and to whom.

An amazing dribbler, Cousy could keep the ball away from defenders long enough to allow plays to develop. And when no one could get open, he’d burn opponents with outside shots or slashing drives of his own.

So admired were his skills that errant behind-the-back passes in that era’s city neighborhood pickup games were often met with the joust, “Who d’ya think ya are, Cousy?”

During the Celtics’ tear, they defeated teams that also ranked among the finest ever: the Hawks, led by Pettit and Cliff Hagan; the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers, with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West; and the Warriors, with Wilt Chamberlain and Guy Rodgers. Just to reach The Finals the Celtics had to outduel the likes of the Syracuse Nationals, with Dolph Schayes and the Oscar Robertson-led Cincinnati Royals. Although they had their share of stars, the Celtics were a team in the truest sense of the word.

At age 35, Cousy retired as a player. Even his final moments on the court were spent basking in Celtics glory. His last regular-season game became known as “the Boston Tear Party.” Cousy was rendered speechless by emotion during a 20-minute farewell statement that was supposed to last only seven minutes. Then a voice cried out from the sold-out Boston Garden, “We love ya, Cooz.” Those words from Joe Dillon, a city water worker and certifiable Celtics nut, broke the tension and sent the crowd into a frenzy. President John Kennedy wired to Cousy: “The game bears an indelible stamp of your rare skills and competitive daring.”

Bob Cousy finished his NBA career with a championship in 1963.

Cousy went out on top. Boston defeated the Lakers in the 1963 NBA Finals in six games. In the fourth quarter of Game 6, Cousy sprained an ankle and had to be helped to the bench. He went back in with the Lakers ahead by a point. And although he didn’t score again, he provided the emotional lift that carried the Celtics to victory, 112-109. The game ended with Cousy chucking the ball into the rafters.

Cousy left the Celtics with 16,955 points (18.5 ppg), 6,945 assists (7.6 apg) and an .803 free-throw percentage in 917 games. In 109 playoff games, he averaged 18.5 points and 8.6 assists. And in 13 All-Star Games the two-time game MVP averaged 11.3 points and 6.6 assists. He was subsequently named to the NBA’s 25th, 35th and 50th Anniversary Teams.

Bob Cousy served as coach of the Cincinnati Royals from 1969-74, compiling a 141-207 record.

The summer after he retired, Cousy landed the head coaching job at Boston College. He directed the Eagles to a 117-38 record over six years, posting four seasons of 20 or more victories and making two appearances in the NCAA regionals and one in the NIT Finals. Cousy, however, grew to hate the recruiting game and ultimately felt unchallenged. He announced after two early losses in the 1968-69 campaign that the season would be his last. The Eagles responded by winning 21 games in a row.

The following year he joined the pro ranks as coach of the Cincinnati Royals. He stayed with the franchise when it moved to Kansas City and remained until 1974. At age 41, he returned to the court as a player for seven games during the 1969-70 season, in an effort to spark his slumping team and draw fans (Season ticket sales jumped 77 percent). In 1970, the Royals drafted Nate “Tiny” Archibald and under Cousy, Archibald, also a smallish point guard from New York like Cousy, excelled. However, Cousy stepped down as coach early in the 1973-74 season with a 141-209 record.

Cousy began broadcasting Celtics games in 1974. In 1989, he became the first Hall of Famer to be named president of that institution. He wrote an acclaimed book on the game, Basketball Principles and Techniques; ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Congress; served as commissioner of the American Soccer League; put on basketball clinics in Europe and Asia; and has been a Big Brother. He continues to live in Worcester, Massachusetts.

One writer said of Cousy: “People have little doubt that while Dr. Naismith may have invented the game, Cousy made it as close to an art form as possible.”