Original Old School: Mr. Show

It’s the era of the point guard in the NBA. Need any proof? Just look at our last two covers: Derrick Rose and John Wall. We don’t want to leave anyone out, so we won’t list all of the League’s best playmakers, but it is important that we do single out one of the original ones. Bob Cousy was a player before his time. A great point guard when the rest of the NBA was slow to catch up. In SLAM 83, Cousy talked about being one of the great floor generals in League history. –Ed.

SLAM 83 Bob Cousy

by Alan Paul

Bob Cousy did as much as anyone to usher basketball into modern times. He doesn’t quite go back to the peach basket days, but the “Houdini of the Hardwood” did join the Celtics in 1950, four years before the advent of the 24-second clock. The “jump shot” was still a rare and wondrous thing, but the NYC native had already earned college fame at Holy Cross for innovations like dribbling behind his back.

As a rookie, the 6-1, 175-pound point guard averaged 15.6 points and 4.9 assists and made the first of 13 straight All-Star appearances as the Celtics’ win total improved from 22-dead last in what was then the Eastern Division-to 39. In this third season, Cooz averaged 19.8 ppg and began a streak of eight straight seasons as the League’s assists leader. He also fueled a revolutionary Celtics fast break that would earn Boston six rings before he retired in ’63. While it was no coincidence that the first title came in Bill Russell’s rookie year of ’56-57, Cousy was the League MVP.

Though Cousy, Russell and Red Auerbach were the three key figures in the Celtics’ dynasty, the coach did not initially want the flamboyant playmaker.  A consensus All-American in ’49-50, Cousy led Holy Cross to 26 straight victories as a senior while the Celtics were floundering just a short drive away. Grabbing the local hero was considered a no-brainer, but Auerbach instead chose 6-11 center (and soon-to-be journeyman) Chuck Share from Bowling Green. “We need a big man,” Auerbach explained. “I’m supposed to win, not go after local yokels.” He had a chance to rectify his mistake when the Tri-Cities Blackhawks used their first-round pick on Cousy and then, unable to sign him, shipped him to the Chicago Stags. The Stags promptly folded, and Boston was last in a three-team drawing to determine where Chicago’s best players would go. They pulled Cousy’s name out of a hat.

Now 76, Cousy still lives most of the year in Worcester, MA, and broadcasts about a dozen Celtics games a year. He is also active with the Basketball Hall of Fame, where he has been a member since 1971.

SLAM: Your style was considered revolutionary. Did you pattern your game after anyone in particular?

BC: No one whatsoever. I was just a show-off by nature, blessed with a lot of God-given skills, which enabled me to do these things. Coaches in the ’40s weren’t even allowing hook shots, never mind behind-the-back stuff. Necessity is the mother of invention, and that applies to most of the unorthodox stuff I did. The first time I dribbled behind my back, it won a big [Holy Cross] game against Loyola, and it caused a huge sensation. I honestly had never done it before, but the situation called for it and I just responded to the moment. Because I was the only one doing that stuff, it got a lot of attention, which turned to exaggeration. Ninety percent of my game was bread and butter-I am a very conservative person by nature-but I would try anything that the situation dictated and my skills allowed.

SLAM: You are so closely associated with the Celtics, but you were the property of two teams before landing there.

BC: It was a different world. Playing in the NBA wasn’t even a goal of mine. The League was only four years old, the Celtics drew like 1,200 people and I had never even seen a game. I had planned to open a string of gas stations and auto driving schools with a friend. I was busy teaching ladies to drive when I got the call that I had been drafted by something called the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. My response was, “Jesus, I was a pretty good student, but I must have been asleep in geography class. What the hell is a Tri-City?” which didn’t endear me to the good people of Moline, Davenport and Rock Island. The owner flew me up and asked what I wanted. When I said, “$10,000,” he said, “Oh, my God,” and offered me six. I said no thanks and went back to teaching the ladies to drive. I’d already put together my own traveling exhibition and with my local notoriety in New England, I knew I could make more than $10,000 doing that. Today, when people get paid millions to play a child’s game, it sounds foolish to talk about going independent, but remember that I retired in ’63 as the highest-paid player in the League, making a whopping $35,000.

SLAM: And you weren’t even Red’s first choice. Did you have any hard feelings about him calling you a “local yokel”?

BC: No. I don’t blame Arnold for going after a big man. [Cousy still refers to Auerbach by his given name.] Then as now, talented big people were a lot more rare than talented little people. Also, Arnold has always been very independent, so the local media hassling him about me probably pushed him in the other direction.

SLAM: Did coming from an inner-city, ghetto environment have a big impact on you as a basketball player?

BC: Absolutely. I think we’re all products of our environment, and the lessons that are honed coming out of a ghetto atmosphere allow you to be much more focused. You have to fight for everything, and it hones your competitive experience, so you are going to be a little more determined than the next guy. Arnold enjoyed that same kind of mindset, scratching his way out of Brooklyn.

SLAM: When Bill Russell arrived, the Celtics went from being a good team to a dominant one. What did he bring to the table?

BC: I think he goes down as the most productive center ever, and certainly the most effective in terms of shot-blocking and rebounding. His offensive skills were a little out to lunch, but he improved to the point where anytime he wanted to run the floor, I could get him 20-plus points simply because he was so much faster and quicker than anyone guarding him. He didn’t continually run on the fast break, because Arnold wanted him to rest to focus on his defense and rebounding, but in crucial moments of important games he would run the floor, I’d get him the ball and he would score. He became a much better offensive player than perhaps his skills indicated he would be.

All these God-given skills were complemented by intense militancy. He was always a very proud African-American player who was deeply hurt by the conditions of the time, and I don’t blame him at all. Anytime he was on the floor, he was competing against and thumbing his nose at whitey and as a result, he had an unbelievable edge. He was the angry young man and he released it on the court, which was fine with us. I never once saw Russ dogging it or pacing himself in a game, which is almost unheard of in the NBA, because of the length of the season. Practice was different-Russ was not a practice player. We used to tell Arnold to let him go up in the stands and read a newspaper so we could have a decent scrimmage, because he would fool around. But once the whistle blew, he went after every penetrator and every rebound.

SLAM: Russell once told me that he was more important to the team offensively than defensively because of his passing, and because so many plays ran through him.

BC: [laughs] Well, I would respectfully disagree. We had some plays where the ball passed through him at the top, but we really only had six plays, with a couple of options off each one. If we went through an entire game without calling a play, Arnold couldn’t be happier, because that meant we were in transition all the time.

SLAM: People complain about the game being too star-centered and undisciplined today, but to me it’s far more structured than in your day.

BC: Absolutely. The coaches have taken over and that’s what I find wrong with the game. They all want to be seen standing there holding up fingers. There are two types: big egos who want control and insecure guys who think they can minimize their margin of error by controlling and over-structuring. This is true in football, where 11 people have to be on the same page carrying out their assignments perfectly for a play to be effective. But the reverse is true in basketball where the option to the play works better than the play itself. Yes, you need a basic framework, but it’s a game of free flow. If coaches put as much time into teaching and disciplining the running game as going over the half court, they would actually minimize turnovers because you are specializing your offense. If that’s the old school, that’s where I’m from.

SLAM: You coached Tiny Archibald when he came into the League. Did you see any of yourself in him?

BC: Absolutely, in a lot of respects. Though he was, of course, African-American, we came out of the same ghetto. The first time I met him, poor Tiny could hardly make a sentence he was so intimidated by the general manager and me. He’d been so cloistered, he was intimidated and frightened of whitey. And I understood, because I was a typical ghetto kid, too, meaning I was emotionally immature, socially retarded and extremely insecure. It took me 70 years to come out of my shell and be comfortable socially. But like me, once Tiny got on the 94-foot hardwood, he was confident almost to the point of cockiness because of how great his skills were. I’m happy to say that he has developed into a fantastic, confident, mature guy who has a Master’s degree and is getting a PhD. I had him when he led the League in assists and scoring, the first and only guy to do so. The only thing I told him was that I never wanted to see him settle for a bad shot, because no one in the League could come close to guarding him.

SLAM: What do you think of the state of passing today?

BC: It’s in the doldrums and needs someone to come and capture kids’ imagination, much as Magic and Bird did in the late ’70s during a similar dormant period. How many real point guards do we have after Jason Kidd? Stephon Marbury is going to be a Hall of Famer, but look what happened when he left New Jersey and Jason Kidd arrived; the difference was a passing point guard who elevated everyone’s game as opposed to a shooting point guard. Looking for your own shot does not motivate your teammates, and I see a lot of excellent two guards masquerading as point guards today. Guys like Gary Payton, Isiah Thomas and Kevin Johnson have all been great, but they don’t think pass-first. Of course, you also need the right situation; Isiah had to post points. Or look at Pete Maravich. He may have been better than any of us in terms of his vision, imagination and skills, but he always played with a team that needed him to score 30. He had the skills to do it all but was forced to focus on scoring. The teams he was with never allowed him the luxury to think pass-first, so we’ll never know.

SLAM: Why did you auction off most of your memorabilia last year?

BC: Simply, to help my daughters. I have two schoolteacher daughters, which means they don’t have any savings. Most of the stuff was in the basement of my house. We had a broken pipe and a flood and it all could have been wiped out, so I decided to sell it off. I’ve never been a yesterday person anyhow; I’m a today and tomorrow person. I’m also very practical, and holding on to all that stuff just meant that our daughters would have to deal with it when my wife and I were gone. We hired a company to take care of it, and they were here for four days cataloging things, and my wife kept slipping down to spirit things away. I pretended I didn’t know, but none of that stuff can replace the memories that are lodged in my head and heart.