I was thinking of adding “Boston Celtics and pro basketball legend” to the title, but I depressed myself thinking it was necessary, which of course it is. When Bob Cousy retired, in 1962, there wasn’t a more famous NBA star alive. Now, not only is the play-making wizard who led the Boston Celtics through the beginning of their unparalleled dynasty unrecognizable to most Americans, so is the kind of basketball he played, before it was all dunking and styling by pituitary cases.
But I digress.
In the newly published book “Last Pass” by Gary Pomeranz, Cousy, the Hall of Fame Boston Celtics captain who led the team to its first six championships, opened up about his relationship with Bill Russell, the great, enigmatic, difficult, defensive genius who was the center on Cousy’s teams, and on many Celtics championship teams thereafter. Russell was the first back superstar in sports-crazy, perpetually racist Boston, and as he reaches 90, Cousy is reflecting on what he did, and what he didn’t do, as the white superstar on a team whose brilliant black center was often the target of racists. In the Boston suburb of Reading, vandals once broke into Russell’s home, spray-painted racist graffiti on walls and defecated on his bed. The Cooz, as he was called, is remembered as being ahead of his time as an NBA player in his sensitivity to race and civil rights. Still, Cousy blames himself for not having done enough, and for not having understood the depth of prejudice Russell faced as an African-American in Boston. Cousy told the historian that he wants to make amends.
To Boston’s white sportswriters the Celtics were Cousy’s team, not Russell’s, and as Russell became more publicly involved in the civil rights movement, a lot of anger and abuse was focused on the moody center who Cousy considered a friend and still does. But, as he says in the book and has in other interviews, they were close, and never discussed race. “I was timid, he was angry. You know, neither one of us ever said, after a game, “Let’s go and have a few beers together.”
When Cousy retired, Russell made an emotional speech calling him the best human being he ever knew. Cousy finally opened up to Russell, but only three years ago. He sent him a letter and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” saying, as he tells it, “Russ, I know you and I weren’t pen pals. And I’m sorry for that. I know we weren’t that close when you came to the team in ’56. I was the man, I had the media in the palm of my hand. You know, looking back on it, I should have done more to share your pain. I’m sorry I didn’t.”
Cousy is continuing his mea culpa and regrets in the new book. He says he wishes he had spoken out publicly against the racism that was constantly shadowing Russell. “I might have been able to neutralize some of this,” he says, “if I had been more outspoken.” He wishes, too, that, as Celtics captain, he had told Russell privately, “Russ, I’ve got your back.”
It is admirable and noble that Cousy has the self-perception and willingness to be self-critical to express these regrets. Perhaps his story will galvanize others to act in their youth, take the risk, speak out, take a stand, rather than waiting decades to regret what they did not do. Writes Pomeranz,
“It is rare in America for a white man approaching 90 to reconsider race and how it played out in his life. But that’s what Cousy has done. Most great athletes embellish and burnish stories about their past. Cousy is only trying to set the record straight. This is who I was. This is his final declaration: I wish I had done more.”