Out of the greatest dynasty in American professional sports history, an intimate story of race, mortality, and regret.
An enthralling portrait of the heart of this legendary team that throws open a window onto the wider world at a time of wrenching social change.
I had just published a narrative called Their Life’s Work about football’s great dynasty of the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers. That was a story about football’s gifts and costs. I started thinking, What if I examined another great sports dynasty as a way to take on the evolving tenor and tone of American sports during the 20th Century?
I considered baseball’s New York Yankees of the 1920s, 40s and 50s, and basketball’s Boston Celtics, who between 1957 and 1969 won an unmatched 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons. Nearly all of those long-ago Yankees had died, but most of the Celtics’ Hall of Fame players were still around, including Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, and Satch Sanders. I had interviewed the Celtics’ coach Red Auerbach in 2003, a few years before his death. Auerbach was a colorful curmudgeon, an authentic period-piece character. I thought, Maybe I can capture those Celtics in their twilight years?
After my first interview with Cousy, I made an editorial decision: the story to tell was his. I met him at his house in Worcester, near Boston. Our interview lasted four hours. I probed and challenged. He engaged and was engaging. He laughed. He thought deeply. He wept about his late wife. His intellect was sharp, his emotions close to the surface. He had much on his mind, and in his heart, particularly about Russell, his black teammate who had endured intense racial prejudice when they played together on those storied Celtics teams. There was something uncommonly deep and moving in what Cousy had to say. Over time this evolved into a story about an old man coming to terms with his life.
Candid, honest, intense, contemplative, emotional. He was all-in every time. At 90 years old, Cousy lives alone in a big house in Worchester, MA filled with echoes and memories. His wife Missie died in 2013 and their grown daughters moved away many years ago. He has the time, space, and intellectual capacity to think deep thoughts.
We conducted 53 interviews in all. I made trips to Worcester and conducted a series of interviews during each visit. One day we sat in his living room, the next day on the enclosed back patio, and so it went. Later I traveled to West Palm Beach where he spends winters.
Many of our interviews were done by telephone. Every few weeks we talked. Sometimes he wrote me a letter or a note. Or he’d leave a message on my answering machine saying he’d been thinking about our last conversation and had more to say. It became a continuing dialogue that spanned 2 ½ years.
During our interviews, Cousy reconsidered his life, piece by piece. He catalogued people and events. At times he unburdened himself. It seemed cathartic for him. Once he told me that he had enjoyed the intellectual nature of our interviews. “Or maybe,” he said, “I just like talking about myself.”
You can’t understand today’s NBA without dealing with Cousy. His impact on the game is outsized, and systemic. As a player, he was a 13-time all-star, league MVP, and six-time NBA champion. His audacious passing and dribbling as point guard wowed the crowds. It made him the “Houdini of the Hardwood.”
During the early 1950s, he saved the pro game from general disinterest just as Wilt Chamberlain would save it in the early 1960s, and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the late 70s and early 1980s. Those four players had unique skill sets and personalities. Fans responded, and the game lifted.
Cousy’s imagination and theatricality on the court live in the soul of today’s NBA. The self-expression in the playing styles of players such as Steph Curry, James Harden and Russell Westbrook – the way they run the break, dribble, distribute, and throw no-look passes – Bob Cousy is the progenitor. Certainly today’s game is more refined, stylized, and talented than ever. But it’s that self-expression – basketball as free flowing art – that draws us in. And all of that flows historically through Cousy.
Cousy cared about the welfare of the game, then and now, as much as any NBA player ever has. He founded the NBA players union during the 1950s. Today, the average salary for an NBA player is about $6 million, higher than the averages in major league baseball and the NFL. The decimal point has moved three places since Cousy’s day: Cousy earned a $35,000 salary in 1963, his final season with the Celtics, and LeBron James earned about $35 million last season.
During his playing days, Cousy made several trips abroad with Auerbach – to Europe, Africa and Asia – as basketball ambassadors sponsored by the U.S. State Department. They gave lectures, held clinics, showed films of the Celtics fast break. Those trips were instrumental in popularizing the game around the world, and bear fruit today: A record 108 players from 42 nations and territories made opening-night NBA rosters for the 2017-18 season.
Cousy served as president of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which curates the history of the game. He was an NBA head coach in Cincinnati for several years, and a TV broadcaster for Celtics games for 34 years.
In Boston, the white sportswriters adored Cousy, and the largely white crowds at Boston Garden embraced him; the cheers were louder, longer, and more heartfelt for him than for Russell.
At that time, the Celtics were considered Cousy’s team, not Russell’s. That was a lie, at least partially coated in racism, unless you believed it was Cousy’s team, and Russell’s game. These are the facts: In the six years before Russell got to Boston, Cousy’s Celtics did not win any NBA championships. Then, as teammates, they won six titles in seven seasons. After Cousy retired in 1963, the Celtics, led by Russell, kept winning, capturing five more NBA titles in the next six seasons.
History has revised the label. Now the dynastic Celtics are known, properly, as Russell’s team. Cousy understands. He knows what happened. “Reality happened,” he says.
Cousy sees those years with new clarity. Of course, hindsight helps. He spoke candidly to me about his regrets that, as the Celtics team captain, he had not done more to help Russell against racism he faced in Boston and across the league. Things got so bad for Russell that, at one point, vandals broke into his house, wrote racist graffiti on his walls, and defecated on his bed.
Through our many conversations, I began to understand that Russell had become, to Cousy, like a mirror: in looking to his old teammate Cousy saw a reflection of himself, what he had done, what he had not done. Cousy’s regret was palpable during our interviews, and led to his last pass – a mea culpa letter he sent to Russell in February 2016 when we were still conducting our interviews for this book.
He sees a lot now that he didn’t see then. He sees how race shaped Russell’s career, and his own.
Opposing fans called Russell “BLACK GORILLA!” and “BABOON!” at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. In suburban Reading, outside of Boston, white residents didn’t want Russell and his family to live in their neighborhood and white police eyed Russell suspiciously when he drove by.
If Cousy had been black, he says he would not have been perceived as innovative for his fancy passing and dribbling during the 1950s. He says most likely the league’s response to his Houdini style then would have been, “That fancy black shit will never work at this level.”
And, he says, if Russell had been white, he would be remembered in Boston much more fondly now than he is. “Maybe they would’ve named a bridge after him,” Cousy says, “like they did [a tunnel] for Ted Williams. It’s a distinction where the difference in his life would’ve been extreme.”
Cousy wishes that he’d pulled Russell aside privately and said, “Russ, I’ve got your back. We all do.” And he wishes he had said that boldly in public. He knows the white sportswriters would have printed what he said. But he didn’t do or say that. He also wishes he had participated in civil rights marches with Dr. King, but he didn’t do that. Regret, and more regret.
He’s closing circles at the end of his life with the people who matter to him most. He closed the circle with his wife of nearly 63 years, Missie, who died in 2013 after struggling with dementia her last decade. He took care of her during those final years in a touching, exemplary way, and still honors her portrait in his house with an occasional kiss.
He closed the circle with his two grown daughters, both retired educators, by selling his basketball memorabilia in 2003 for about $450,000 and giving them the proceeds. His daughters remain his devoted support system, though they live far away now.
And now he wants to close the circle with William Felton Russell.
Time is running out. At 90, Cousy is proving that it is never too late to say you are sorry.
Cousy is a voracious reader. He reads four or five hours a day, usually alone in his den. He reads biographies, espionage thrillers, and books about race, including Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Both of those books affected him deeply. He watches the news, and followed the stories about the deaths of black men and youths like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. He watched the Black Lives Matter movement take flight. All of this made him reconsider how race had played out in his own life. It’s uncommon for a ninety-year-old white man in America to do that. When Cousy thinks about race invariably that returns him to Russell.
I’ve often thought that it would have been great if Ruth and Gehrig could have sat down as old men and talked about their seasons together and what their shared success meant. But Gehrig died of ALS at 37 and Ruth of cancer at 53, so that never happened. Like Gehrig and Ruth, Cousy and Russell are inextricably linked in our sports memory. They were the Ruth and Gehrig of the Celtics. They were instrumental in creating a sports dynasty together, but of course, both wanted to be Ruth. That’s how alphas are. Still, in the case of Cooz and Russ, as they were known, they made it work splendidly on the court for a long time. Red Auerbach once said, “Both have pride; both love to win and both know that it takes a team to win championships, not one man.”
No, in fact, when Cousy retired in 1963, Russell was the only teammate to give him a personal gift, a desk clock. It was engraved with words that speak of friendship: “May the Next Seventy Be as Pleasant as the Last Seven. From the Russells to the Cousys.” At the team’s annual end-of-the-season dinner that spring, Russell fought tears at the microphone, and spoke of Cousy as his “brother.”
And yet, Russell later would say that his relationship with Cousy had been “remote,” and he was right about that. As teammates, they never had a meaningful discussion about race or their personal lives. In personality, Russell could be prickly and rude, and Cousy, six years older, could be taciturn and a loner. Russell is a man of great intellect, pride, humor, and sensitivity. He will say, “It is more important to understand than to be understood,” and it’s as if he has thrown that cloak of mystery over himself. Auerbach said, “The real Russell is a very difficult man to know, but one worth knowing.” I am certain that is true.
The Cousy-Russell relationship, such as it was, didn’t develop in a vacuum. There were powerful societal forces at work during the seven seasons they played together (1956-1963), most notably the tsunami of racial history crashing down upon the nation. The modern black freedom struggle spread across the front pages and on the evening news. Boston in particular had its own fraught racial narrative. But Cousy kept his head down, tried to stay clear of controversy, remained popular, and got a slew of endorsements. Russell – like most black star athletes of that generation – landed relatively few endorsements.
Russell spoke out against racial injustice. He became involved in the movement. He called out the NBA for its quota that limited the number of roster spaces for black players. After the NAACP’s Medgar Evers was slain in Mississippi in June 1963, Russell traveled to that state and, in a tense environment, led integrated basketball clinics. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “March on Washington” address two months later, Russell sat in the front row. He called out Boston for racial discrimination – later termed it “a flea market of racism” – and when the city erupted in violence over busing in the mid-1970s he seemed a truth-teller.
Yes, he was. Three years after Jackie Robinson desegregated major league baseball in 1947, Cousy roomed with fellow rookie Chuck Cooper, the first black player drafted into the NBA. Their relationship was akin to baseball’s famous cross-race friendship between Robinson and his teammate, shortstop Pee Wee Reese. But the integration of the NBA happened beneath the media radar – the league simply wasn’t popular then – so newspapermen didn’t see that Cousy and Cooper, and their wives, socialized, and became friends. “Bob is as free of racism,” Cooper would say, “as any white person I’ve ever known.”
His mother, Juliette Cousy, unwittingly taught him about prejudice as a child in the melting pot of a Manhattan slum. She and her husband, Joe, were French immigrants. But because of World War I, Juliette hated anything or anyone German. She despised the Germans for what they’d done to France during the war. The young Cousy didn’t understand how his mother could hate an entire group of people.
At Holy Cross, a Jesuit college, the young Cousy wrote an undergraduate thesis in the late 1940s on The Persecution of Minority Groups. It centered on Jews, and the Holocaust. Later, he became more attuned to prejudice when he roomed with Cooper, and their friendship deepened over time. In 1953 Don Barksdale became the Celtics’ second black player, and he, too, struck up a friendship with Cousy. When Barskdale was inducted into the Hall of Fame posthumously in 2012, his sons asked Cousy to be the formal presenter, and he was.
Cousy feels he should have done more, publicly. For instance, in October 1961 the Celtics were to play St. Louis in an exhibition game in Lexington, Ky. A waitress at a segregated hotel coffee shop there refused to serve two black Celtics, Satch Sanders and Sam Jones. The black Celtics, led by Russell, met and decided not to play in that night’s exhibition. Auerbach tried, but failed to convince them to play. When their black teammates flew home, the Celtics’ remaining seven white players, including Cousy, played the exhibition. Cousy says he has no memory of this game. He isn’t sure why he doesn’t remember it. But clearly at that moment he wasn’t the fair-minded man he now wishes he had been. That night, he just went with the white crowd. The mistreatment of his black teammates went over Cousy’s head. Now he wishes that he had flown back to Boston with his black teammates.
Most star athletes grow old and then embellish and burnish the stories they tell about themselves. In a profile of Joe DiMaggio in Esquire magazine in 1966, Gay Talese wrote of DiMaggio in retirement, “The baseball hero must always act the part, must preserve the myth, and none does it better than DiMaggio.”
Cousy is not doing that. He recognizes his flaws. He’s admitting them, even drawing attention to them. He is not gilding any lilies or embellishing any truths. He is trying to set the record straight: This is who I was. This is his dying declaration: I wish I had done more.
I believe true greatness transcends time. If Fred Astaire were alive today, he’d be a great dancer. If MLK were alive, his oratory would still soar. Cousy and Russell would seize advantage of today’s training methods and diets. Both would do just fine in today’s NBA.
I put that question to Golden State Coach Steve Kerr. Kerr has won five NBA titles as a player and three more as Warriors coach. He said Russell would “thrive in today’s game because he was so active and versatile,” whereas Kareem Abdul-Jabbar might struggle defensively today. Kerr illustrated his point: Steph Curry would slide off a high screen-and-roll, and, he says, “How is Kareem going to get out there? Bill Russell could do it.”
As for Cousy, Kerr says, “I think he’d be great [today]. But if he were playing today, my guess is he would have shot five hundred three-point shots every day in the summer to become a three-point shooter.”
Absolutely. We all have regrets. We all can look back and see moments when we could have – and perhaps should have – done more, or better, than we did. My interviews with Cousy stirred a memory of a moment from early in my sportswriting career where I surely could have done better.
In February 1983, before a tense basketball game between Georgetown and Villanova at the Palestra in Philadelphia, which I was covering as a young Washington Post sportswriter, some fans mocked Patrick Ewing, the Hoyas’ seven-foot star. Ewing is black, and from Jamaica. He’d been the object of taunts that season at other arenas.
On this night, some Villanova students held up a bedsheet banner that read, “EWING IS AN APE.” When Patrick ran onto the floor, a banana peel flew from the crowd and landed at his feet. It was horrific. But I didn’t write about it in the next day’s paper. Instead, I wrote about Villanova winning a one-point thriller. How could I not write about the bedsheet banner and the banana peel? What was I thinking as a 22-year-old sportswriter? It took me eight days – eight days! – before I finally took to print about this, and apparently I was the first journalist who had been at the game to do so. My newspaper, The Washington Post, followed up on my story then with columns, and an editorial, properly expressing outrage over what had happened.
To this day I regret not writing on that very night about what remains the most memorable moment of my sportswriting career, a moment when coarse college humor became searing racism. Later I covered Super Bowls, Wimbledons, a World Series, and an Olympics. But that night at the Palestra is the one I’ll always remember. People view sports as a toy box filled with games. Well, this was a night when racism crept into the toy box. All these years later, I couldn’t tell you anything else about that game.