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This story was re-broadcast on 9/5/2020 as part of The Best Of Only A Game. It originally aired in December 2018.
On a cold autumn morning, Bob Cousy greets me at the front door as the leaves fall around his home in Worcester, Massachusetts. He’s lived there alone since his wife died in 2013. I shake his hand and ask him how he’s doing. "Never ask a 90-year-old that question," he says. He brandishes his cane for emphasis.
We sit at his enormous dining room table and talk about his early days on the Celtics. His hands move like he’s throwing passes to invisible teammates as he discusses his rookie year.
The Early Years
"Well, we had some talented players," Cousy says. "We had some not-so-talented players."
Cousy says that his fellow rookie, Chuck Cooper, was a "5 or 6 on a 10 scale," talent-wise. But Cooper was something else.
"Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball in 1947," Cousy explains. "Three years later, our owner, Walter Brown, got up at the meeting and said, 'The Celtics draft Chuck Cooper from Duquesne.' "
Cousy had no black friends growing up in a Manhattan tenement. He had no black teammates in high school or college. Now, he was roommates with the first black player selected in the NBA Draft. They went to movies, listened to jazz and drank at bars. Their bond was tested on Feb. 28, 1952, after a game in Raleigh.
"And he wasn’t allowed to register in the hotel with us," Cousy says. "And Chuck and I somehow found out that there was a sleeper going through Raleigh that night at 12:30 to New York, with a connection to Boston."
Cousy and Cooper went to Union Station to wait for the sleeper train.
"We start drinking beer," Cousy says. "And after three or four beers it’s, like, midnight. And we have to go whiz."
They made their way to the rest room. Cousy was unprepared for what he saw.
"Stupid-a-- signs," he says. "Big, white signs, with a black arrow — one pointing right, says 'Colored.' The other pointing left says ‘White.’ And I was stunned. I was ashamed to be white. I didn’t know what to say to him.
"I said, 'C’mon, let’s go out.' We go to the end of the platform, and we peed together."
Their friendship grew off the court and on it. Cooper was a good player. But Cousy, a point guard, was beginning to transform the league.
"This is the 1950s, and he’s a little bit like Elvis Presley in music or James Dean in film," says writer Gary Pomerantz, who's interviewed Cousy over 50 times.
"He’s a renegade, pushing out against the conservative norms," Pomerantz continues. "Dribbling behind his back and throwing no-look passes. He was adding sort of a jolt of caffeine to the NBA. A jolt of style."
But the Celts were only slightly better than mediocre.
"They were a team struggling to find itself," Pomerantz says. "The Celtics needed a big man to make it to the next level."
'Russ Changed The Dynamic In Every Way'
In a trade after the 1956 draft, the Celtics acquired center Bill Russell.
"Russ changed the dynamic in every way," Cousy says.
He was a fearsome shot blocker.
"He put a trauma on opposing shooters," Pomerantz adds.
And he was a great rebounder.
"An opponent would take a shot and miss, and there’s Russell — rising, rising, 6'10", long, lean and springy — getting the rebound and half-turning and snap-passing the outlet to Cousy," Pomerantz says.
Russell and Cousy created a fast break style that was nearly indefensible.
"These are, in many ways, the ultimate teammates," Pomerantz says. "They were both murderously competitive. And, very quickly, the Celtics emerged as a force to be reckoned with."
"Russell and Cooz had a relatively tight relationship on the court," says Satch Sanders, who joined the Celtics in 1960. "They had a lot of respect for each other. That was clear. Off the court, they were not spending a lot of time in each other’s company."
Two Stars, One Divide
Racial tensions were high in the U.S., and that carried over into some NBA locker rooms. But Sanders says that wasn’t the case with the Celtics. Cousy says Red Auerbach — who he alone called by his first name, Arnold — created clubhouse harmony in a rather unusual way.
"I think Arnold, frankly, solved the black-white situation pretty well," Cousy says. "He treated everyone the same: badly. So Russ and I — the relationship was the same as any two people that are working towards a goal."
The goal was to win championships. And, with Russell, the Celtics began to do that. But something else was happening at the outset of the Celtics’ dynasty.
"Russell and Cousy were together for seven years as teammates," Pomerantz says. "And if you put that on a civil rights timeline, it’s roughly from the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott to Dr. King’s March on Washington Address in 1963. That is the heart of the black freedom struggle. And Russell would engage in that struggle in a way that few athletes did."
On Oct. 17, 1961, the Celtics played a preseason exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky. Satch Sanders remembers what happened at the team hotel before the game.
"We had gone downstairs to eat, and they said, ‘Well, we really can’t serve you people,’ " Sanders says.
"They weren’t happy about it," Pomerantz says. "And they gathered in Russell’s room at the hotel."
Russell and Sanders, along with K.C. Jones and Sam Jones, decided not to play.
"And Red didn’t want to turn away from a nice payday for the team," Pomerantz says. "So he tried to convince the African-American Celtics to stay. And Russell said, ‘We’re going home.’ "
"The white players gave it consideration," Sanders says. "But in the end, they decided to play the game."
Seven white Celtics played, including Bob Cousy, who didn’t protest.
"I have no explanation for this," Cousy says, "feeling as I do about social justice, being a captain of the team."
When Pomerantz originally asked Cousy about that game, he said he didn’t remember it.
"Cousy said, ‘Why did I play? What was I thinking? It was an exhibition game. Why didn’t I say something?’ " Pomerantz says. "I think he was so focused on being Bob Cousy, some of the most essential American history of the second half of the century passed him by, went over his head. He was focused on winning. He was focused on his endorsements and his brand. And it just went by."
Meanwhile, Bill Russell spoke more and more publicly about civil rights and the treatment of African-Americans. He called Boston "a racist city." The press went to Russell for quotes, but "they didn’t like him," Sanders says. "Because he exuded arrogance, confidence and all the other things that black guys should not have, in a lot of estimations."
In 1963, someone broke into Bill Russell’s home, scrawled insults on the walls, and defecated in his bed. Russell wore his anger even more prominently on his sleeve.
"Russ was the ultimate angry black man," Cousy says. "And I didn’t blame him then, and I blame him even less now."
Cousy says it pained him to watch African-Americans struggle for acceptance and inclusion. But he remained quiet. And he says Russell’s anger made it hard for them to form a friendship like the ones Cousy had enjoyed with Chuck Cooper and some of his other black teammates.
" 'Let's go have a beer, let’s go to the movie together,' whatever, or socialize outside of the unit," Cousy says. "I was the senior member. I had a good relationship with the media. I always have. So I could have reached out and perhaps shared his pain a little bit with him, you know? I never did that with Russ."
The End Of An Era
Bob Cousy retired at the end of the 1962–1963 season after yet another successful title run. He and Russell had led the Celtics to six NBA championships in their seven seasons together.
The Celtics gathered for a postseason dinner.
"And Bill Russell took to the podium to speak," Pomerantz says. "And what Russell said was, 'You meet very few men in life like Bob Cousy. I consider Cousy like a brother.' And Russell became emotional at this point."
Cousy doesn’t really remember that, either.
"Obviously, this should have been special to me," Cousy says. "When I read what he said, it brought back a slight memory. And it brought a tear to my eye. But I don’t know why I don’t remember it more specifically, other than I’m 90 freaking years old. That’s something to do with it, you know?"
"When I read these quotes to Cousy during an interview, Cousy just started shaking his head," Pomerantz says. "He said, 'What was I thinking? Why didn’t I get up and go across the room and give Russ a hug?' "
In the fall of 1963, the Celtics became Bill Russell’s team … unless that had happened much earlier. Russell retired as a player in 1969. After 13 seasons in the NBA, he had earned 11 championship rings.
Cousy did a lot of thinking over three decades about how he’d fallen short as a team leader. But he didn’t talk about it until a 2001 ESPN interview about Russell.
"And he was talking in a breezy way about Russell’s extraordinary athleticism," Pomerantz says. "But the topic shifted to race."
"I should have been much more sensitive to Russell’s anguish in those days. Uh … we talk … uh … "
"And he just broke down sobbing," Pomerantz says. "He buried his head in his hands on camera."
A couple months later, Cousy attended a charity golf event in Florida. Russell — who had seen Cousy's ESPN interview — was there, too. And Cousy had no idea what to expect.
"Russ and I, I always said over the years, had kind of a love-hate relationship," Cousy says. "And he’d either kind of ignore me, or glare at me. Or, in this case, he ran over and threw his arms around me. And we talked about this — first meaningful conversation we probably ever had in our relationship.
"And he basically said, 'Cooz, whatever you might have done wouldn't have been helpful.' He said what he had to do to make me feel better, I guess. And I appreciated that."
"And he hoped this conversation would lead to a higher ground in their relationship, a deeper friendship," Pomerantz says. "But it really didn't."
"I thought about it for 15 or 16 years," Cousy says. "And I wrote him a letter three years ago, pretty much doing a mea culpa."
Cousy hand-wrote that letter.
"And I basically said, 'Russ, I know we’ve never been pen pals, and I’m sorry about that. It was my responsibility to reach out to you and hopefully share the pain that you had during that period — or minimize it, or whatever. However, I didn’t do that. Sorry about that.' And that was it."
"Well, then six months passed without a response," Gary Pomerantz says. "And then a year. And two years. And then, two and a half years later, in 2018, Cousy got a call on a Sunday night at home.
"It was an old, somewhat enfeebled voice saying, 'Bob, it’s Bill Russell. I’m calling to see how you are.'
"They talked for about 10 or 12 minutes, according to Cousy. And then he asked the question: 'Russ, I sent you a letter a couple years ago. Did you get it?' And Bill Russell said, 'Yes I did. Thank you.' Nothing more."
Was Russell’s response brief because he was angry? Not angry at all? Cousy wouldn’t speculate. I asked him if Bill Russell’s simple response of "yes" was sufficient.
"Yes, absolutely," Cousy says.
For three seasons, Satch Sanders observed the relationship between Bob Cousy and Bill Russell up close. I ask him if he thinks Cousy owed Russell an apology.
"No," Sanders says. "I don’t think Cousy owed him an apology. But I do think that Cousy, because he was Cousy, thought he could do more. And then started thinking that he should have done more. Because he’s a man of conscience. And sensitive.
"Could he have done more? Possibly. But he feels he could do more, and that’s what really counts."
"I do a lot of meditating these days, thinking about the old days," Cousy says. "But I notice I blank out the negatives as much as I can. And I focus on the positives."
When our conversation is over, Bob Cousy shows me to the door. Autumn air rushes in as he retrieves a plate of food a neighbor covered in tin foil and left for him on the front step. I say goodbye and shake his hand: the one that threw so many perfect passes to his teammates. The one that held the pen as he wrote a letter to Bill Russell.
Gary Pomerantz’s book is "The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics and What Matters in the End."
This segment aired on December 6, 2018.
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