Bob Cousy’s name has been synonymous with Boston Celtics Basketball since 1950. That was the year that both he and Red Auerbach joined the club. At that time, the National Basketball League was only a few years old. Like any new endeavor it takes time to build a brand, and the NBA was no different.
In a recent interview, Bob reminisced about those early days of the league. He also recalled his upbringing in Manhattan, moving to St. Albans, and being introduced to basketball.
Always a fighter for social justice, he talked of being teammates and roommates with Chuck Cooper, the first African American drafted by an NBA team, the Boston Celtics, and some heart-wrenching experiences Cooper endured. Bob offered his observations on where the league is today and how his early efforts creating the Players Association has led to multimillion dollar contracts and team value beyond anyone’s imagination. The following are excerpts from my talk with this fascinating icon of professional basketball.
Frank: Where did you grow up, Bob?
Bob: We lived in this ghetto in Manhattan on East End of 80th and 81st, a place they call Yorkville now. We were right on the East River, in this terrible East Side brownstone, as they called them. The cockroaches were bigger than the rats sometimes. We were kids, so we didn’t mind. It took my father literally 12 years to save $500 so we could move. He drove a cab. He was good with his hands, a mechanic. All he did was work. I never saw him. I’ve spoken to you longer than I did to him his entire life.
Frank: And you finally were able to move?
Bob: Yeah. It took him that long to get us out to St. Albans, where there was fresh air and hoops. That’s when I got introduced to basketball, thank God. But even then, I didn’t make the team. There were five thousand kids in the high school. Every kid in St. Albans wanted to make the high school team they had started in ’36. This was ’40, ’41, ’42. Every kid wanted to play. With five thousand kids in the school, I tried out twice. All you could do is shoot layups and scrimmage a few minutes. I was a 5’9” skinny guy with hairy legs. Anyway, I got turned down. I only played a year and a half of varsity basketball. We didn’t win the city championship, but we go to the semi-finals and finals each year. That’s when I started seeing one or two black players. At that point in high school, I remember one black player. That was in 1941, ’42, like that. I got into college in ’46, and it was the same say. The black players simply hadn’t made an impact in basketball or any sport at that point.
Frank: How segregated the country was at that time.
Bob: Oh, absolutely. I hadn’t seen people of color. I had reacted to anti-Semitism because I became aware of it coming through school. We had some Jewish kids, but I really didn’t understand. Remember this was NYC. It was a jungle. My mother, who had many good qualities, was French, spoke with a strong French accent. But she disliked Germans, as many French women did at that time. She would take me shopping, and if there was a clerk who was overworked and underpaid in this jungle, and he didn’t respond to her request in this ghetto, which he didn’t, she would say the worst things about him being German. Even at 13, 14 and 15, I’d say to myself there was something wrong here. Maybe some Germans are not bad people. They can’t all be bad.
Frank: It was your awakening.
Bob: There was something wrong with that logic. Then, of course, the Jesuits opened my eyes further, to the point where I wrote my senior thesis on the persecution of minority groups. At that time, I was primarily focused on anti-Semitism. I hadn’t been exposed to racism at that point.
Frank: As a pro, that began to change.
Bob: Yes, now I bonded with Chuck Cooper [one of the first three African Americans to play in the NBA and the first to be drafted by an NBA team, the Celtics], immediately, to the point where he and I roomed together our first year in the league. That was 1950, ’51. I don’t remember getting a reaction one way or another. Naively, believe it or not, all I saw was a 6’7” or 8” power forward from Duquesne who had different color eyes, different color hair, and oh year, skin that was a little different color.
But not as a black basketball player. I saw him as a basketball player who had a different skin color. Obviously, we found out differently pretty quickly the second year. Auerbach started rooming us by positions, and he had just traded for Bill Sharman. He puts Sharman and I together. But Chuck and I remained dear friends, literally until he died [in 1984]. In ’53 we are playing in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was the first time they wouldn’t let Chuck stay in the hotel.
All of us were like really upset. Auerbach is a fighter. He wants to go to the mayor and all that stuff. Chuck and I found out there was a sleeper going through Raleigh that night at 12:30 a.m. It goes from Raleigh to New York, then connects to Boston on another train.
We said, “Arnold, don’t make a freaking fuss. We’ll play the freaking game. Don’t worry about it. After the game we will pack, we’ll bring our stuff from the hotel with us. Chuck and I will go to Union Station, and we will take that train. Well see you in Boston in a day and a half.” He said, “Fine.”
Frank: Then what?
Bob: We didn’t have bad habits in those days. We didn’t sniff anything. We didn’t snort anything. We didn’t inject anything. We wouldn’t even take aspirin, frankly. We were so concerned about putting anything foreign in our body, any chemical. But we did drink beer. The game ends, and we go to Union station at 10:00 o’clock. We go to the bar. We have three or four beers, and then we have to whiz. It’s almost midnight. Now, Chuck is from Pittsburgh. He thinks he’s pretty sophisticated. I’m from the Big Apple, I think I’m pretty cool. So, we get up to go.
That’s the first time either one of us had ever seen those horrific freaking signs. Big white signs with an arrow, colored, they called them that, colored one way and white the other way.
I teared up. I was so ashamed. I was ashamed to be white. I didn’t know how to explain myself. By now Chuck and I had really bonded. We were good friends. I just couldn’t explain this, but I did say, “Chuck, come with me.” I took him out to the platform. It was midnight. Not a lot of people. We went down to the end of the platform, and we peed together. It was our Rosa Parks moment. We couldn’t talk about it because we had to go back to Raleigh on another day. But we won our little victory that night at least.
Anyway, we’ve come a long way. We are finally making progress. I’m pleased about that. I don’t know. At 92, I’m so cynical I don’t believe in institutions. I don’t believe in people of power. At our level, I believe in the human animal. We see wonderful, wonderful things happen constantly.
Non-profits, Doctors Without Borders, St. Jude’s, on and on and on, so many good people at our level. But once you get up, once you get a little power, you want to keep it. Politicians, our business leaders, our church leaders.
We are ready to change the culture, a positive change, I think. . . It has to become part of the culture. You have to look at people of different color and not even notice it.
Frank: Now, can you please speak about the team training and playing pre-season games in Maine?
Bob: We had complete anonymity. Part of it was the Boston papers. Basketball was not a big deal in those early days, so the Boston papers didn’t cover us. We had no coverage my first pre-season because Arnold had us in Ellsworth, Maine. They had a nice high school gym that we used. We were there ten days, maybe two weeks. Lots of good memories.
A lot of communities were smaller and had gyms that would sit a couple thousand people. That’s all the Celtics needed in those days to make a buck, I guess. Maine really was ahead of every other state in the country, even California, in terms of basketball activity. You would have thought it was hockey, but it wasn’t. We used to go there and play a 22-game schedule, and we’d play in New Hampshire and Vermont, but mostly in Maine. The Maine people, for some reason, always struck me as being more acceptable to strangers than Vermont or New Hampshire.
Frank: You were barnstorming your pre-season in those days—travelling around to various places, including small towns, for exhibition matches. Did you mind that?
Bob: We didn’t mind. We were young, and I was getting a lot of money to play a child’s game. We were also spreading the word because basketball was literally a new game for New England as were the Boston Celtics.
Usually, it was the Rochester Royals. We would barnstorm with the same team because it was less expensive obviously that way.
Frank: In the ʼ50s, you started the Players Association. Did you get much pushback from the owners?
Bob: Well, no, we didn’t. The basic reality was in the ʼ50s I was pretty much the only guy in the league who could do that and get away with it without repercussions. I knew they damn well they couldn’t suspend me because I was putting fans in the seats at home and away games. Before I did anything, I went to the Celtic’s owner Walter Brown. I said, “I just feel we need someone at the table. We have no representation whatsoever. I don’t know what form this is going to take, but I just feel an obligation to start a Player’s Association of some sort, so we can have a say in some the things.” Anyway, he bought my argument. He didn’t genuflect, but he had made this sign of the cross. We were both fairly good Catholics, so he gave me his blessing.
Frank: That was important, an owner on your side.
Bob: It was. We didn’t get a lot done. Connie Hurley, our lawyer, and I would go down once a year to New York and meet with the commissioner, Maurice Podoloff [the first NBA president] at the time. He would say, “Gentlemen, I will bring this to the attention of the owners . . . but not much happened. We put up with it. I was President of the Players Association for nine years. In those early days, we couldn’t find anyone to buy a franchise. But the connection and the cooperation of the NBA and the NBA Players Association over the years has produced a product [NBA franchises] that now sells for over two billion dollars. I feel good about that. It wouldn’t have happened without a Player’s Association.
Frank: That is so true. Someone had to lay the foundation. That is what you did.
Bob: Well, yeah, we started from the bottom of the totem pole. But I do remember one year. Connie and I got them to agree to go from $5 a day meal money to $7 a day meal money. I became an instant hero because we were endlessly on the road in those days.
Frank: The game has evolved a lot. As you said, you played a child’s game and got $10,000 a year to do so in 1950. Now players earn $35 million for the season. What are your observations about how today’s game is played?
Bob Cousy: In my opinion, sports itself is an artform. The point guard is like a painter creating a portrait on a canvas. Each time he is painting a new scenario based upon what the defense does. The end goal is to get it to the basket, not to take a premature 35-footer. The transition today is once they get into the half court it is the 3-pointer that is taken. We miss this wonderful athletic dance that these guys do getting the ball down to these players who have this agility to perform this dance in a very secluded area. That’s what made Russell such an amazing player. He was quick and agile like a track and field player. Most big men were like Frankenstein, big and strong but not much movement. Now all the centers can play that high pick and roll game. But they don’t work the ball in. It becomes a three-point shooting contest and I don’t have any interest in watching this. It becomes boring. They should take away the incentive of the three-point line. This would recreate the incentive to take the ball to the basket, I think and make the game more interesting for the fan.
Basketball is the second-most-played sport in the world, and it’s international. Our finals last year were televised into 188 different countries. Things have changed. I think in my lifetime, we may overtake soccer as the game that is most played on the planet. The Players Association is what I am most proud about.
Frank: You were such a big star that you received a congratulatory letter from JFK upon your retirement. You were elected into the Hall of Fame. You received the Medal of Freedom. You led the league eight straight years in assists, in a mark that will never be broken, and you won six world championships. You used your platform through your actions and words as a champion for racial equality. I think you have much of which to be proud.
Bob: My personality is such that I’m a loner. I prefer being by myself. I have had to, ironically, live my life in a public bubble. But I have been very fortunate. Not only to have been given the God-given skills to play the game well at a time when the game was starting to become accepted and got big. But also, in terms of my personal life, finding someone like Missie [his college sweetheart and wife of 63 years] and having my two daughters. I’m blessed with family. I’m blessed with at least a dozen close friends who have my back at all times. In every possible way, I have been very, very fortunate.