Bob Cousy: A Frenchman from Long Island, 1953

[There have been several books written by or about Bob Cousy. That’s why I’ve been slow to post much about him and his celebrated NBA career. But let’s change that right now. Here’s an article from the noted Cousy biographer Al Hirshberg published in the March 1953 issue of SPORT Magazine. The piece is a little long, but, if Cousy is one of your favorites, not quite long enough.]


Basketball’s most-spectacular individual gate attraction is a Frenchman from Long Island whom nobody wanted. The experts said that Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics, the college sensation when he was at Holy Cross, was too small for the National Basketball Association. They said he was too razzle-dazzle. They said he didn’t have the right temperament. And they said he’d give away more points than he got because he had such glaring defensive weaknesses. 

The Celtics didn’t want him at first, despite his all-time Holy Cross record of 582 points piled up in his senior year, 1949-50. They could have drafted him, but they drafted big Charley Share of Bowling Green instead. They picked up Cousy by accident, took him because they had to take him and, once they got him, weren’t quite sure they knew just what to do with him. 

At 6-foot-1 (he has since added an inch), he didn’t figure to be able to cope with the giants of the basketball’s big league. As for the other objections—the Celtics didn’t care one way or the other. They simply weren’t too much interested in the black-haired kid from St. Albans, Long Island. 

Now, they wouldn’t swap him for all the tea in China—plus George Mikan. Everyone in the Celtic organization, from president Walter A. Brown and coach Arnold (Red) Auerbach down, will fight at the drop of a hint that Cousy isn’t the greatest thing that has appeared on a basketball court since the game was invented. Last year, his second as a pro, Cousy was third in the league, behind only Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers and Paul Arizin of the Philadelphia Warriors, in practically all departments of the game.

When Cousy, who helped put basketball on the New England sport map, had finished his last season at Holy Cross, he was drafted by the old Tri-Cities team after the Celts passed him up. There was a rumor that Bob refused to report, and that he had insisted that he would find some other way of making a living rather than play for the Illinois club. Actually, Cousy was packed and ready to go to the Midwest when he was suddenly ordered to report to Boston. 

“I’d have played for Afghanistan if that had been the only way to get into the NBA,” he said. 

The shift from Holy Cross to the Celtics was made in the most-complicated possible manner. To get to Boston, it’s only 30 miles from Worcester, home of the Crusaders, but Cousy made the jump the hard way. He didn’t do any actual traveling, but his name was bandied about all over the place. He belonged to three different teams before he was paid for holding a basketball in his big hands. 

Cousy was in the middle of a tremendous double shuffle, caused partly because the Tri-Cities team didn’t want him, anymore than anyone else did, and partly because the Chicago Stags suddenly folded just before training began for the 1950-51 season. One evening, Bob belonged to Tri-Cities. The next morning, he belonged to the Celtics and, on paper at least, he had been on the Chicago roster. 

He was at home in St. Albans waiting for a call from Ben Kerner, the Tri-Cities’ owner. Kerner was in New York for a meeting to determine the disposition of the players owned by the defunct Stags. The Tri-Cities magnate intimated to Cousy that there might be a change, and told Bob to wait for a call before leaving town. 

The night that Cousy waited for that call was one of the longest he has ever spent. All of the member clubs were represented at the meeting, and they had a long, noisy session dividing up the Chicago spoils. The deal involving Cousy came when Kerner “traded” him to Chicago for Gene Vance. That meant that Cousy’s name was in the Stags’ pot, to be pulled out and assigned to some other club. The division of the Stags’ players moved slowly and painfully along until at last, there were three names left and three clubs eligible to choose for them. 

The teams were the Celts, represented by Brown; the Philadelphia Warriors, represented by Eddie Gottlieb; and the New York Knickerbockers, represented by Ned Irish. All three were hopelessly tangled up in a fierce rhubarb over which club would get Max Zaslofsky, the most desirable of the players involved. The other two, besides Zaslofsky, were Andy Phillip and Cousy. Phillip was definitely the second choice. The wrangling became so serious that Maurice Podoloff, president of the NBA, finally settled it in the only way possible. He threw the three names into a hat. Brown drew first and pulled out Cousy’s name. Irish picked out Zaslofsky; Gottlieb settled for Phillip. 

“I thought I got stung,” Brown said recently. “I’d had a bellyful of hometown heroes. We picked up half that great 1947 Holy Cross team, including George Kaftan, Joe Mullaney, and Dermie O’Connell. We tried Tony Lavelli of Yale, and Ed Leede from Dartmouth and half a dozen others. None of them made the grade. I was afraid Cousy would be just another of those home-grown phenoms. How stupid can you get?”

Cousy never did hear from Kerner. He went to bed without hearing from anybody. The next morning, a call came through, but it was from Brown. Brown might not have been too happy about getting Cousy in the draw, but the thin young man from St. Albans was delighted. He didn’t even have to open his suitcase. He simply picked it up and headed for Boston instead of Moline, Illinois.

Whatever unhappiness Brown might have felt about getting Cousy in the draw was nothing compared to the dread that assailed him last year when Cousy’s name was carelessly tossed around in connection with the nationwide basketball scandal. The rumors began in New York, where the District Attorney’s office was making routine checks of all college basketball stars of the post-war era. Stories started leaking out that Cousy was involved in the scandal from his Holy Cross days, and, sooner or later, the tales reached the ears of Walter Brown. The Boston promoter, having already sunk thousands of dollars into the Celtics to build them into a winner, both at the gate and on the court, went quietly crazy. He knew that basketball couldn’t survive in Boston if Cousy, the darling of the gallery gods there, should be drawn into the gambling net that had closed in on so many others. 

“I had to find out what was going on,” Brown told the writer, “and I did it the only way I knew how. I called the kid in and said, bluntly, ‘Bob, are you mixed up in this thing?” Cousy looked straight at me and replied, “Mr. Brown, I’ve never in my life done a dishonest thing, either on or off the basketball court.’ I held out my hand and, as we shook, I said ‘Bob, I’ve got to believe you.’ I meant every word of it. Cousy was no more involved in that scandal than I was. He was just the victim of some pretty vicious stuff that was going around at the time.”

Cousy himself took the rumors more calmly than Brown did. While the whispering was at its height, the Celtics played the Knickerbockers in Madison Square Garden in the first game of a doubleheader. Cousy, completely untroubled, played a fine game and then stayed around to watch the second one. A friend said to him, “Don’t you think you’d better get out of here? You might get picked up if you hang around.” Cousy ignored the advice. He stayed around until the last gun was fired. “I knew nobody was going to pick me up,” he said softly. “Why should they? I wasn’t guilty of anything.”

Cousy started with the Celtics a bare two years ago. Today, Cousy is the hottest thing in basketball, a ballhandler who does unbelievable things with a pair of unbelievably big hands with which he manipulates a basketball as if it were a ping-pong ball. Along with a fantastic ability to do tricks that no one else can match, Cousy has great speed, tremendous power, and such an intense devotion to the game that he plays all 12 months a year. 

His lack of real size hasn’t hurt him because of his cleverness, which keeps far bigger men than himself from knowing where the ball is half the time. His temperament, rather than being spotty, is perfect. He is not hungry for points, and under the sharp coaching of Auerbach, he has become one of the best feeders in the business. Most of his defensive weaknesses have long since been corrected. And, even though he is still razzle-dazzle, he never does tricks just for the sake of attracting attention. There’s always a method in his madness. 

Even Auerbach, a cynical, trigger-tempered redhead who was satisfied with nothing less than perfection, says, “He’s one of the greatest all-round basketball players alive, and undoubtedly the best backcourt player in the game today.”

Paul Birch, coach of the Fort Wayne Pistons, once said, “Cousy’s the finest basketball player I’ve ever seen.” Doggie Julian of Dartmouth, who coached Cousy at Holy Cross, remarked , “He’s good at everything.” Adolf Rupp of Kentucky, after watching him one night, said, “He’s the trickiest ballplayer I’ve ever seen,” and Ralph (Boag) Johnson of the Pistons, after chasing him all over the court one night, said, “He’s really easy to play—when the ball is out of bounds.”

Bones McKinney, a teammate of Cousy’s for the past two years and now a preacher in Raleigh, North Carolina, put the whole thing in a nutshell when he declared one night last season, “Someday, he’ll make the ball disappear entirely right in front of me.”

Cousy’s specialty is a casual behind-the-back dribble which looks more like a Harlem Globetrotter gag than a big-league basketball maneuver. The difference between Cousy and the Globetrotter stars is that the Harlem boys do things like that for laughs and Cousy does them for expediency. They’ve helped him and the Celts score baskets, and they’ve kept opponents from getting near the ball. 

Cousy (r) gives Knicks’ Ernie Vandeweghe the slip

One night in Boston last winter, the Celts were leading the Knicks by a skinny margin with only a minute to play. Cousy got the ball, and he began dribbling it around the center of the court, shifting hands, swinging the ball behind him and on both sides, dodging, backing and generally driving the helpless Knicks mad. He ate up 30 seconds that way, and only a desperation move on the part of Ernie Vandeweghe succeeded in stopping him. Vandeweghe fouled Bob Donham deliberately. It didn’t help, because Donham sank the foul, and it was all over. The foul succeeded only in getting the ball away from Cousy. 

Cousy is the Celtics’ “Mr. Outside” and Macauley, one of the best centers in basketball, is their “Mr. Inside.” The two worked together so well that the Celtics, comparatively new in the pro game, are one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA. Macauley is a 6-foot-8 stringbean, who plays his basketball straight and who, with Cousy, helps to make up the best one-two punch in the league. 

But it might never have been that way if Cousy had continued along the primrose path of his college basketball days. When he was at Holy Cross, Bob pulled out all the stops, faking, feinting, and fiddling with the most-intricate collection of stunts in the game. He got away with it in college, because he was such an absolute stickout that his mistakes were overlooked. He put on such a terrific show that coaches and players alike were just as fascinated as the spectators were. 

Unfortunately, while opponents couldn’t keep up with him, some of his teammates couldn’t either. Even as a freshman at Holy Cross, Cousy, eligible for the varsity since the Crusaders played first-year men that year, had to be slowed down by Julian. 

Cousy’s talents were respected, but he was not particularly well liked by his Holy Cross teammates. His name was linked closely with that of Kaftan, a handsome, black-haired, smiling youngster of Greek extraction, who had been the hero of the 1947 NCAA tournament (which the Crusaders won). Kaftan, two years ahead of Cousy, was the club’s golden boy. A friendly kid, he was easier to understand than the taciturn Frenchman, who took basketball with business-like seriousness. 

Where Kaftan cooperated completely with Julian, Cousy assumed an attitude of independence which set him into hot water several times. He was late for practice more than once, and Julian sometimes benched him as punishment. Cousy had little use for his coach, although he respected Julian’s ability, and less for Kaftan. As basketball players, of course, there was no comparison between Cousy and Kaftan. Cousy was great in most departments of the game and was able to correct his weaknesses. Kaftan was a smooth floor man and a great right-handed  shot, but there his usefulness ended. He couldn’t shoot left-handed, and he constantly had to be protected by his mates on defense. He was unable to guard satisfactorily opposing stars. As a result, Julian always had to shuffle his defenses when Kaftan was in action. Cousy saw these flaws, and he resented the evident lack of others to see them, for, publicly at least, Kaftan could do no wrong at Holy Cross. 

The little matter of being too fast for his Holy Cross teammates was one thing, but being too tricky for the Celtics was quite another. Cousy’s legerdemain was a fascinating thing to watch, but at one time it threatened to cost the Celtics points and even games. In his first few weeks with the Celts, Cousy was making his teammates look silly and driving Auerbach, his coach, to the gaspipe. The pros had just as much trouble following the ball as the college boys did following the man. They not only couldn’t keep up with Cousy, but they violently resented getting smacked on various parts of their anatomy by passes they didn’t expect. Their bright young man, always doing the unexpected, was hitting them with passes that weren’t set for. They could watch Cousy all right, but they never were sure where the ball was. 

“Imagine a guy’s surprise,” remarked Auerbach, “when he got hit in the head with a pass. He not only looked bad, but he almost always lost the ball as well. I had to get Cousy to learn to fool the opposition without fooling his own team. I wouldn’t have minded his fancy tactics if they could have been harnessed, or if he had been fooling second-rate players with them. But when fellows like Macauley and Chuck Cooper were reaching for the ball from one direction and getting smacked with it from the other, it was obvious that something had to be done.”

Auerbach took care of the problem in the only way he could have taken care of it. He benched Cousy every time the Celtics lost the ball because one of his passes got lost in transit. Nothing bothers the thin Frenchman as much as sitting on the bench. It wasn’t long before he was playing the game Auerbach’s way. Now, rather than being resented, he is highly respected and well-liked by his teammates. 

Taciturn and serious, Cousy is not a man to make friends easily. If he is talking basketball, he talks well, but he has to be drawn out. Words do not come easily to him. He also has a vague air of independence, a severe indifference to what others think of him, and a suspicion of strangers which is illuminated only after he is certain that their intentions toward him are honorable. Actually, he has much more in common in personality with the Montreal Canadiens’ great hockey star Maurice Richard. The two are cut from the same cloth, quiet, efficient men who live for their sports and care little for much else. Cousy’s relation to basketball is almost exactly the same as Richard’s is to hockey. Both are veritable magicians, outstanding stars who can do things that no one else can do, and both are possessed with an insatiable thirst for more knowledge of their specialties. One big difference between them is that, unlike Richard, Cousy never had a language barrier. Richard could neither talk nor understand English when he first became prominent in hockey, so his natural reserve was heavily intensified. Cousy, although he speaks French, was born in Manhattan and brought up on Long Island.

Cousy has a sense of humor that occasionally pops up unexpectedly. When he was at Holy Cross, he liked to slip behind a window and helped peddle tickets for basketball games. He had a trick of averting his face so that the people on the outside would never get a clear front view of him. Every so often, someone would ask, “Is Cousy going to play tonight?” Deadpan, he would mumble, “I guess so,” and hurriedly sell the ticket. The customers never recognized him. “Did you ever hear of anybody looking twice at a guy behind a cage selling tickets?” he remarked. 

The Celtics’ star doesn’t look the part of an athlete. He has a thin, bony face, out of which peer huge dark brown eyes. His hair is black and curly, and his shoulders slope sharply. Those sloping shoulders are part of the secret of his amazing success in manipulating a basketball, before they give him an inch or two of additional reach that he would not otherwise have. He wears a rather normal size 34 sleeve, yet his arms hang almost to his knees. Probably the most-significant characteristic about Cousy is the great strength in his wrists and the great size of his hands, which are so big that they seem out of proportion to the rest of his angular body. 

With his wrists, he can flick his hands in almost any direction like a double-jointed baby. With his hands, he can grasp a basketball as if it were a baseball and handle it with as much facility. His ability to dribble behind his back is his favorite and most-effective trick on the court, and one of the few that Auerbach has allowed him to retain. Because of his build, he can do it so slickly that he doesn’t seem to bend his back a fraction of an inch. 

“That’s what makes it click,” said Auerbach, as he stood beside his star, appraising him, physical point by physical point, as though he were a prize heifer. “Because of his shoulders, his wrists, and his hands, Cousy can dribble from the front, either side, or the back without breaking his stride, twisting his body or changing the cadence of his dribble. I’ve never before seen a basketball player who could do that. Everyone else has to tip off his intention somehow, usually by bending his back slightly or making a turn one way or the other.”

There are other characteristics that help. Bob has thick, powerful legs, and he runs like the wind on them. His terrific speed not only had to be controlled at Holy Cross, but he had to cut it down in the pro league, too. He is one of the fastest sprinters in basketball and, indeed, he might have made a reputation for himself as a track athlete if he had cared to try. He didn’t care to try, either that or anything else. Cousy is a basketball player, and that’s all. The only time he ever deviated from a 12-month-a-year hoop regimen was when he gave golf the briefest kind of whirl right after he graduated from college. The first time he played, he got a hole-in-one. Then, he dropped the sport. 

Since the days when he first popped a ball into the strings from the sidelines at Andrew Jackson High School in St. Albans, Cousy has been a maniac for basketball. He was only a skinny, 16-year-old junior that afternoon in 1944 when he stopped by to watch the varsity five practice. He was a member of it within a week. 

From then on, he spent his summers playing basketball on the Borscht circuit in the Catskills. He was doing that as late as 1950, when he got his Holy Cross degree. Since joining the Celtics, he continues to play during the offseason. Last summer, he conducted a basketball school in Hyannis, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Even as a professional, he hasn’t become hardened to the game. He still gets a huge kick out of playing basketball, whether in the NBA or in the backyard at Worcester, where he still makes his home. 

As a youngster, Cousy never had the advantages he enjoys today. The Celtics pay him somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 a year, which is big money for basketball. Bob lives with his wife, the former Marie Ritterbush of St. Albans, and his two young daughters in a rented house. His parents still live in St. Albans, where his mother takes in roomers. Bob’s father is a mechanic at Idlewild International Airport. 

His residence in Worcester got him into a terrible mess one night last year. The Celts had a big game with Syracuse late in the season, and first place in the division was at stake. Cousy, who commutes to Boston, was delayed by a flat tire, and he rushed into the Boston Garden two minutes after the game started. He got into action in the ninth minute of the contest, and then, tense and upset, had a miserable evening. It wasn’t all his fault, because the Garden picked that night to try shifting the basketball court around, virtually robbing the Celtics of the advantage they enjoyed by playing at home. All of the boys had trouble that night. But Brown, furious over Bob’s tardiness, angrily fumed, “I blame Cousy for losing that one. Next year, he’ll live in Boston.” It’s now next year, Cousy still lives in Worcester, and Brown, who cools off as quickly as he flares up, is glad he’s that close. 

As for Cousy, he never did have any intentions of moving. The only change he made was to get puncture-proof tires on his car. 

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