Q&A: Bob Cousy reflects on his life, NBA career, Bill Russell and more

Hall of Famer to receive Presidential Medal of Freedom later this month

Bob Cousy turned 91 on Aug. 9, but it ranked no higher than second as far as big deals for him this month. On Aug. 22, Cousy will visit the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Donald Trump. It ranks with the Congressional Gold Medal as the highest civilian award and typically is bestowed for “meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Honored recipients are chosen from across all fields, from business and economics, politics and academia to religion, the arts, science, philosophy and medicine. Cousy will become the 33rd recipient from the sports world.

What the legendary Boston Celtics guard is most proud of, in receiving the medal, is that it recognizes contributions outside of his athletic career. Cousy’s Celtics’ career was remarkable — six NBA championships in seven years from 1957-62, 13 All-Star selections in 13 seasons, a first-ballot selection to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and acclaim as the both the league’s prototypical point guard and a major gate attraction with his clever, behind-the-back passing and peripheral court vision.

> NBA History: A closer look at Cousy’s career

But the 6-foot-1 guard from Holy Cross was the spark behind the formation and acceptance of the National Basketball Players Association, the union that has made partners of NBA team owners and players while generating the top salaries in major U.S. sports. He also helped to usher black teammates — including pioneer Chuck Cooper, Bill Russell, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and Satch Sanders — as well as the Boston team, the league and their fans through racial integration in the 1950s and ‘60s as America’s civil rights lights were blinking on.

Cousy spoke with NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner about his upcoming White House visit, as well as his illustrious career. Here is part of that conversation. (For more on Cousy’s remarkable career, check out 10 Things To Know.

* * *

Steve Aschburner: Congratulations on the honor and your upcoming trip to the White House. What do you make of it, being chosen to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and why is it happening now?

Bob Cousy: The story is, three or four good friends came to me about four years ago and asked if I was prepared to perhaps be a recipient, and did I want them to pursue it? I told them I really had never pursued that type of acknowledgement before. But I also didn’t tell them “No.” So they went out with their plan.

Congressman Jim McGovern [D-Mass.] agreed to help them. They put a portfolio together. We thought we had a pretty strong case to make to President Obama. We had a letter that President Kennedy had written to me. We got letters from [former Massachusetts governor] Deval Patrick and [Senator] Cory Booker [D-N.J.], but at the end of the day it didn’t happen. I became involved and reached out to a friend of mine — who is Senator Joe Manchin’s [D-WVa.] closest friend, I guess — and he reached out to Joe. And Joe is an honest politician who follows his conscience.

SA: Oh, he’s the one …

BC: He’s a Democrat who doesn’t rely on a particular ideology or party affiliation to make decisions. He makes them on their merits. I’ve tried to do the same thing my entire life. My wife and I were registered independents for 63 years for that reason. We didn’t want to get locked into ideology, where everything that came up you just voted the same way. That’s what Joe does.

Anyway, Joe had an opportunity to help me. The President [Trump] reaches out to Joe from time to time.

SA: And it worked?

BC: The President called me last Dec. 3, with he and Joe having lunch together at the White House. Joe had given him my portfolio and, despite the fact it was kind of Democratically tinged, he obviously thought it had merit and he offered me the medal to be given in April.

I obviously accepted — we had a nice 15-minute dialogue — and I did say, ‘Mr. President, I am flattered by you calling personally. But I told Joe a year ago I’d refuse to accept this award posthumously.’ He laughed at that and said, “I’m going to do it again in April and you’re the first one I’m inviting.” He said, “So can you stay alive till April.” I told him I’d give it my best shot.

SA: But it didn’t happen in April, did it?

BC: A guy named Tiger did something spectacular [Tiger Woods won the Masters golf tournament with a stirring comeback performance]. So the President delayed my presentation because he wanted to do Tiger immediately. Shortly after that, his aide contacted me and said, “OK, the President would like to make it on July 29.” I said, “Oooh, that’s only two weeks away. Do we have a Plan B?” She said, “Sure. How ‘bout August 22.” I said “Bingo! I’ll be there with bells on.”

SA: Will you be honored with other recipients?

BC: No. He’s the first President — my ace son-in-law investigated this back to [former President Harry] Truman, and it’s always been done in one ceremony once a year in November. It usually focuses on the arts, but they throw in a few jocks.

President Trump is the first one that has decided, instead of one ceremony, he is going to stagger ‘em. He did, I think, [auto racing giant] Roger Penske in June and [economist] Art Laffer in July, and then I’m up for August. He told me he liked doing it so he didn’t want to do them all together. I was told I’ll be the only recipient on August 22 in the Oval Office.

… I did say, ‘Mr. President, I am flattered by you calling personally. But I told [WVa. Senator] Joe [Manchin] a year ago I’d refuse to accept this award posthumously.’ ” He laughed at that and said, “I’m going to do it again in April and you’re the first one I’m inviting.” He said, “So can you stay alive till April.” I told him I’d give it my best shot.”

Bob Cousy, on receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom

SA: How exciting is this for you and your loved ones?

BC: I’ve had my moment in the sun. I’m the Howard Hughes of the sports world. I’ve done like four appearances in 10 years. I hide pretty well from the media. I’ve taken this occasion to do a few interviews because this came out of the blue, and it’s very meaningful coming at this age. It’s a completion of a life’s circle for me, and it’s not necessarily related to sports. As he told me when he called, he was reading the portfolio and focused on things I’d done in terms of social justice and other things.

SA: Doesn’t ever get boring, eh, being honored at the White House?

BC: I’ve been spoiled. I’ve been to the White House. I’ve been invited six times. I went first in ’54 when President [Dwight] Eisenhower. Then President [John] Kennedy in ’63. Then I got the Big Brother of the Year award that was presented by President [Lyndon] Johnson in ’65. It was nice because he had received it in ’64. I was heavily involved and still am in Big Brothers. And I went back the next year when they gave the same award to Billy Graham. That was nice, I brought my daughters.

Then I had a small exhibit in the Smithsonian, and President [Ronald] Reagan had a Smithsonian night at the White House. Everyone who had some sort of connection went to that.

SA: That’s an impressive —

BC: Wait, let me correct that. President [Richard] Nixon in ’73 invited us. Believe it or not, we didn’t go to that one. I was coaching a team that beat the Russians, who had beaten us in ’72 in the Olympics for the first time. The AAU brought a team back, they asked me to coach it, and we beat them four out of six, I think. It got a lot of attention, and President Nixon invited us. It wasn’t a popular thing with the players, though, so I called a team meeting.

I said, ‘Guys, you’re the ones doing all the work here. Am I misreading this or are you not thrilled with going to the White House? If that’s the case, let’s have a show of hands.’ They were mad at Nixon for Vietnam. I didn’t go into the politics of it, I just called the AAU guy in and said, “Please thank the President profusely. Make whatever apologies you want.”

So this is my seventh invitation and, for a lot of reasons, the most exciting.

SA: So you and your team were ahead of your time 46 years ago. We have seen instances of sports people or teams turning down White House invitations from the current administration. Did you consider that?

BC: Oh no. As I told you, my wife and I were registered independents. To be honest, I didn’t vote for the President. I also didn’t vote for Hillary [Clinton]. I voted for the guy who didn’t know where Aleppo was. [Libertarian POTUS candidate Gary Johnson, in a November 2016 TV interview, couldn’t answer a question about the city at the center of Syrian’s civil war.]

However, given this situation, this President will definitely have my vote in 2020. I simply feel, without getting into the politics of it at all, like many Americans — I agree with some of the things he’s done and disagree with others.

SA: From what we see and hear on social and traditional media, there are very few of your type, in the middle.

BC: [Laughs] I’m certainly not radicalized at all. I’m upset as most moderates are, I’ve never seen in my 90 years this type of polarization and this vitriolic language that’s being used to oppose anybody. Doesn’t matter whether it’s Donald Trump or anyone, I’m just amazed it’s become so passionate and it’s dividing us as a country. I’m upset about that. I’ve never seen it this bad.

But obviously, I’m going to the White House with my family and some close friends, and trying not to make it political in any way. I’m just very pleased to be chosen at this point in my life.

SA: Now you and Bill Russell, who received the award in 2011, are legendary teammates who have won this award?

BC: There are only two teams in American sports. The Yankees, with Babe Ruth and Yogi Berra. And Russ and I now with the Celtics. For whatever that’s worth to the two teams involved. I hope it’s meaningful to them as well.

This narrative we’re having now, I see it as perhaps as helping to focus attention on [racism]. For a lot of moderates like myself and those in a position to be helpful, this is helping us to pay attention to it. And maybe something productive and good will come out of that. That’s my hope.”

Cousy, on race relations in the U.S. today

SA: You witnessed so much of what Russell went through as a proud black athlete during an era when the civil rights battles were beginning. Some of what you have talked about in the past — intruders breaking into the Russells’ home while they were gone, vandalizing it and defecating in the bed — was inhuman. What do you make of race relations in the U.S. some 50 or 60 years later?

BC: I was saying to someone recently, despite the frenetic and passionate rhetoric on both sides — and I feel that it is divisive — I am pleased that we’re having this discussion. Because whether we want to admit it or not — it’s not that we’re a racist country, I don’t think we are — but racism exists. We’ve let it sit there. I don’t think we’ve addressed it, certainly not as effectively as we could have. This narrative we’re having now, I see it as perhaps as helping to focus attention on it. For a lot of moderates like myself and those in a position to be helpful, this is helping us to pay attention to it. And maybe something productive and good will come out of that. That’s my hope.

SA: Seems like so much time and energy get drained by people yelling at each other, doesn’t it?

BC: But if you’ll notice, we’re integrating African-Americans more and more into our culture, certainly in the arts. On television, every other TV ad I see has African-American participation, sometimes completely so, and this is good in my judgment. I’ve traveled all over the world and when you walk the street, you see people of all colors, all ethnicities. After awhile, you don’t even pay attention to it because it’s normal. And what I just cited, this is how you normalize it. Hopefully, eventually, we’ll have the same reaction. We won’t notice who’s white, who’s a tinge of another color. That’s the way it should be.

SA: You’ve said you regret not speaking out on Russell’s behalf more when you were teammates [1956-63] and wish you’d had more meaningful conversations with him on race. That’s noted in Gary M. Pomerantz’s book, “The Last Pass” about the two of you. But Russell was sometimes criticized for being aloof and angry. He is very prideful and did not suffer fools gladly. How did you see it?

I used to say when I spoke, “I was the highest paid player in the league in 1963, I made $35,000. Isn’t that great?” Forty years later, a guy named Michael … made $35 million. And last year, LeBron made $40 million. So I am pleased I made a small role in setting the table for this kind of organization.”

Bob Cousy, on the evolution of the NBA

BC: Russell’s a very sensitive black man who resented any type of racism he endured. He decided to fight the battle in his way. I would not judge. You know, athletes are competitive, and it’s very hard for us to turn the other cheek. And he never did. He made outrageous statements when he had a podium. “Boston is the most racist city in the world,” and things like that. He was trying to get the attention of the majority. That, in his judgment, was his way to fight the good fight. Whether I agreed with that or not.

SA: You saw other ways to make the case?

BC: I will tell you I had great respect for Arthur Ashe. I remember dropping him a note or two, in terms of how he fought it. He fought it in a different way, without becoming an “Uncle Tom” but also without pissing off the moderates. He reached out and tried to do it, I guess, the way Dr. [Martin Luther] King did it: With love. As opposed to Russ’ approach.

You’ve got to follow your instincts in something like that. I had great respect for Arthur Ashe in how he fought the battle. But I would never criticize Russ for how his instincts told him he had to fight his battle.

SA: What are your thoughts on the NBA, which is considered the most progressive of the major sports leagues?

BC: One of the things that makes me the most proud is, I started the NBA players association in 1955. In those days, there were only six franchises, then we went to eight and 10. You had to plead with people to come in, you’d give away tickets. Fast-forward 50 or 60 years, and the last time I looked, they sold a franchise in L.A. for $2.1 billion. That’s with a “b.” That’s how far a league has come that we set the table for in the 1950s. I’m proud that I played a role.

SA: What was the key to making that work?

BC: Part of it was the NBA Board of Governors living harmoniously with the NBA Players Association. In terms of what we just spoke about — the radicalization of politics in this country and the division that’s involved — that was just the opposite.

The reason the NBA has reached the levels they’ve reached in this period of time is, the commissioners maybe weren’t kissy-poo — I’m sure there were harsh words — but in the end the player and the NBA governors worked together toward their common good. And the good of everyone involved.

SA: So no resentment or envy of today’s players and the salaries they command?

BC: [Laughs] I used to say when I spoke, “I was the highest paid player in the league in 1963, I made $35,000. Isn’t that great?” Forty years later, a guy named Michael was the best guard in the league and made $35 million. And last year, LeBron made $40 million for one year.

So I am pleased I made a small role in setting the table for this kind of organization. Now people like Adam Silver, and David Stern before him, continue this legacy, I think, of working harmoniously with the “other side” if you want to call them that. Seems to me they’ve all worked together to create this NBA entity we’re all proud of.

* * *

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.