Cousy, Robert ("Bob")

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COUSY, Robert ("Bob")

(b. 9 August 1928 in New York City), premier guard for the National Basketball Association's (NBA) Boston Celtics, coach, radio commentator, and Basketball Hall of Fame inductee who was cited in the Biographical History of Basketball as one of the fifty greatest NBA players of all time.

Cousy was the only child of a cab driver whose full name is not known, and Juliet Corlet Cousy, a homemaker and occasional teacher of French. Cousy's parents arrived in the United States on a ship from France a few months before Cousy was born. He discovered in his twenties that he had a half sister, Blanche Pettuy, his father's daughter from a previous marriage, sixteen years his senior and living in Nice, France. For the first five years of his life Cousy spoke only French. He lived a meager existence first on East Eighty-third Street, then on nearby East End Avenue in Manhattan, and his father often worked seven days a week. Cousy attended Saint Katherine's parochial school on East Eighty-sixth Street and Third Avenue. In the summer of 1939 the family, in a somewhat improved economic situation, moved to Saint Albans on Long Island, first renting, then buying a house. Cousy first attended the public school because the parochial school was filled, then he attended Andrew Jackson High School. From Morty Arkin, a local playground director, he learned how to properly hold and shoot a basketball, and in his enthusiasm he practiced noon and night. He played both for teams of the community leagues and for the junior varsity and the varsity of Andrew Jackson High School. In the summers he worked at the Tamarack Lodge in the Catskills and played in the basketball league there. He graduated from Andrew Jackson High School in 1946.

With his parents insisting he attend a Catholic college, Cousy enrolled at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1946. He made the basketball team as an alternate, then he became a starter. Though he and coach Alvin "Doggie" Julian did not get along—Julian would not speak to him for long periods—the team enjoyed great success, winning the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship his junior year. In Cousy's senior year Julian left to coach the professional Boston Celtics, and the more affable Lester "Buster" Sheary took over as Holy Cross coach. The team reeled off twenty-six consecutive victories, though they faltered in the postseason tournament games. Cousy averaged 19.4 points a game and made most All-America team selections. In a Holy Cross game Cousy, hemmed in by opposing players, made his first behind-the-back pass. On 9 December 1950 Cousy married Marie "Missie" Ritterhisch, his high school sweetheart. They had four children.

Cousy, to his surprise, was not drafted by the Boston Celtics and its new coach Arnold "Red" Auerbach, who professed a disdain for the "local yokels" and chose instead Chuck Share, a tall center from Bowling Green. Cousy went to the Tri-Cities team in the Midwest at a salary, after hard negotiation, of $9,000 per year. He was promptly traded to the Chicago Stags, which folded before the opening of the season. The Stags players were distributed throughout the league. Auerbach and other coaches wanted Max Zaslofsky, and since the matter could not be settled, they agreed to draw slips from a hat. Boston drew Cousy's name, for that team a fortuitous turn of events.

Cousy played for the Celtics from 1950 to 1963, becoming a premier playmaking guard and initiator of the fast break as well as an ample scorer. He played a wide-open game featuring sleight-of-hand passes from all angles and behind-the-back dribbles. At first he was seen, with some justification, as a showboater, known as the "Houdini of the Hardwood," but he learned to control his antics for the betterment of the team. He amazed observers with his ability to find the open man when no opening seemed to exist. Cousy was by no means among the quickest players in the league, venturing in Cousy on the Celtic Mystique (1988), "I couldn't have beaten my grandmother down the court in a race." But he had, as he pointed out in Basketball Is My Life (1957), certain physical attributes that ensured his success, including "unusually long arms and sharply sloping ape-like shoulders … huge, ham-like hands … tremendously powerful thighs … unusual peripheral vision. I can see more than most people out of the corner of my eyes."

"Easy Ed" Macauley was Boston's capable center during the first half of Cousy's professional playing career. But when the Celtics acquired the rebounding and defensive star center Bill Russell, the team went on to greatness, winning National Basketball Association (NBA) championships every year from 1957 through 1966 except 1958. Other Cousy teammates included the sharp-shooting guard Bill Sharman, the forward Tommy Heinsohn, the rough-and-tumble rebounding forward "Jungle Jim" Luscutoff, and the versatile sixth man Frank Ramsey. Though standing only six feet, one inch, Cousy finished second to Neil Johnston in scoring in 1954. He led the Celtics in scoring from 1951 through 1955 and was the league leader in assists from 1953 through 1960. In 1957 he was voted the Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the league, and twice he was voted MVP in All-Star games. He finished his career with an 18.4 points-per-game scoring average and a 7.5 assists-per-game average, which he raised to 8.6 assists-per-game in 109 playoff games.

In 1953 Cousy came up with the idea for a players' union and became the driving force for its establishment against the hard opposition of Commissioner Maurice Podloff and even some players, particularly the Fort Wayne Pistons, who feared the retribution of their powerful owner, the wealthy industrialist Fred Zollner. Success finally came on 18 April 1957 with the signatures of the Board of Governors of the National Basketball Association. The agreement provided for, among other things, a limit on the number of exhibition games that could be scheduled and the establishment of a board of arbitration to settle player-owner disputes.

Cousy reached out beyond playing basketball to business ventures. In September 1951 he opened a gas station in Worcester, Massachusetts, with Frank Oftring, a fellow Holy Cross basketball player, and in the summer of 1952 he and a friend, Joe Sharry, set up for-profit basketball games in Hyannis on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Neither of these ventures succeeded. Later in the 1950s Cousy entered into a partnership and bought Camp Graylag, a boys' camp in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, which did well.

For a while Cousy was dogged by law enforcement authorities. When he was a Holy Cross player, he sold basketball tickets to a man and did not turn in the money to the appropriate officials. When college betting scandals broke out in 1951, Cousy was accused of collaborating with gamblers. In February 1953 Cousy was questioned and exonerated by the New York district attorney's office. It turned out that the man who bought the tickets was a gambler doing business with a bookie, who stood nearby to verify that contact was made with Cousy. Cousy did not know he was expected to "shave" points. When the score did not turn out as the bookie expected, Cousy was blamed, and his ticket-selling activity was exposed.

After his retirement as an active player in 1963, Cousy coached the basketball team at Boston College for six years. For the 1969–1970 season he coached the Cincinnati Royals. During his tenure he traded away the stars Oscar "the Big O" Robertson and Jerry Lucas to make room for young prospects. Cousy himself appeared in one game at age forty-one, thus becoming the oldest person to play in an NBA game. Cousy next became a radio broadcaster of Celtics games, beginning at WBZ in Boston.

In Cousy on the Celtic Mystique the retired player reflected on the quality of the current players. He felt that they were superbly talented and shot the ball better than the players of his day but that they did not "think" the game as well. They exhibited more dribbling, less passing, more turnovers, and less commitment to the good of the team. He praised Maurice Cheeks, the Philadelphia 76ers guard, and Norm van Lier, the Chicago Bulls guard, for passing to the right man and for their general good sense. He considered Larry Bird, the legendary Celtics forward, the ultimate basketball player. Bird, Cousy explained, was a playmaker despite the fact that he was a forward, was totally unselfish, and could play through pain.

Cousy was the epitome of the playmaking guard, paving the way for the likes of John Stockton of the Utah Jazz and "Magic" Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers. Though the schedule in his day included fewer than eighty-two games, his 6,955 assists place him high on the all-time list.

Bob Cousy, as told to Al Hirshberg, Basketball Is My Life (1957), an autobiography written while Cousy was playing with the Celtics, is invaluable for information on his early years. Cousy, Cousy on the Celtic Mystique (1988), explains why the Celtics were both the most beloved and most hated team. See also Cousy and Frank G. Power, Jr., with additional material by William E. Warren, Basketball, Concepts and Techniques (1983); B. G. Kelly, "For the Love of the Game," Boston magazine (Feb. 1991); and Peter Bjarkman, Biographical History of Basketball (2000).

Abraham A. Davidson

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