Editor’s note: Celtics Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, who will be honored at the White House Thursday with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, sat down with ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan in October 2018.
WORCESTER, Mass. — Bob Cousy figures he’s running out of time. The brilliant Hall of Fame point guard, who was so deft and creative with the basketball that he was nicknamed Houdini of the Hardwood, is 90 years old. He walks with a cane, and, he tells ESPN, he expects it won’t be long until he needs a wheelchair.
The reflective Cousy is the centerpiece “The Last Pass,” of a new book by Gary Pomerantz that chronicles Cousy’s journey toward racial self-discovery and his attempts to make amends with Hall of Fame teammate Bill Russell for not being more supportive during the racially charged ’60s.
Cousy recently sat down with ESPN to discuss “The Last Pass” and his complicated relationship with Russell.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
JACKIE MACMULLAN: In the wonderful new book, “The Last Pass,” you are very candid regarding your regrets over your relationship with your longtime teammate Bill Russell. What prompted this reflection?
BOB COUSY: Just getting old, I guess. That’s what we do. We blank out all the negative stuff and focus on the positive. During my years with Russ, during the glory years, I was focusing, unfortunately, on being Bob Cousy and doing my thing and being completely self-absorbed, as opposed to asking questions like, “Why are we all here?” Questions that my Jesuit mentors [at Holy Cross] told me years ago, over and over again, “What it’s all about is giving back.”
MACMULLAN: You mention that growing up, you had very little exposure to African-Americans. That changed when you joined the Celtics.
COUSY: Yes, in 1953, I was assigned to room on the road with Chuck Cooper, the first black player drafted in the NBA. And we immediately became dear friends. So, I was mentally involved [in social injustice] up to a point. I cared, but not enough to take the next step.
MACMULLAN: In the book, you lament the fact you weren’t more in tune with the kind of racism Russell endured.
COUSY: I didn’t become aware of Russ’ problems until later. He came to the team, and we had K.C. [Jones] and Sam Jones, and they were all an integral part of our success. Arnold [Red Auerbach] deserves credit for how he handled the integration of the Celtics. He handled it easily, by treating everybody the same: badly.
MACMULLAN: Do you think Russell resented the fact you were white and a favorite of the fans? Was his frustration with racial injustice obvious?
COUSY: Within the unit, I think Russ felt we had his back. But when he walked outside the unit, he’d sit in the lobby and be reading his paper and some white guy would come over and make his speech — “Mr. Russell, I’m your biggest fan, you are the greatest” — and Russ would never look up from his paper. So, Russ felt very strongly, and I don’t blame him, about the issue [of race]. My god, they broke into his home, they defecated on his bed. He went through so much.
“[Red Auerbach] deserves credit for how he handled the integration of the Celtics. He handled it easily, by treating everybody the same: badly.”
MACMULLAN: You talk a lot about Chuck Cooper in “The Last Pass.” You sound like you struck up a great friendship with him.
COUSY: Chuck and I hit it off. We liked the same things. We liked soft jazz, we used to sit [in the club] Storyville across from the Lenox and listen to music and drink beer until two o’clock in the morning. We had the same bizarre sense of humor. Our third year together, we’re playing in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Chuck can’t stay at the hotel [because he’s black]. It was the first time I’d seen that kind of blatant racism. Arnold [Auerbach] wanted to make a fuss. Chuck and I went to him and said, “Play the game. There’s a train going through New York that connects to Boston. We’ll take the sleeper.” After the game, we went to Union Station and drank a lot of beer. Around midnight, we had to take whiz. We went to the bathroom and there were two big white signs: colored and white. I teared up when I saw it. I still do to this day thinking about it. We solved the problem. We went outside on the platform, close to midnight, nobody around, and we both peed together off the platform. It was a Rosa Parks moment we couldn’t talk about because I’m sure we’d be back in Raleigh and they’d throw us in jail.
MACMULLAN: You clearly had this special relationship with Cooper, who was African-American. Why was it so difficult to connect with Russell in the same manner?
COUSY: I don’t know. Russ could be intimidating, as you well know. Inside the locker room, we’d joke, we’d needle him and we’d have some sort of relationship. Outside — it was probably me. I couldn’t speak the language well, I was an only child from a dysfunctional family. I was very introverted, maybe that played into why I didn’t reach out to him. And I was the man in ’56. I had a great relationship with the media, I was the hero, and I was six years older. It was my responsibility, as I look back, to reach out more and say, “Russ, let’s go to a movie this afternoon,” or “Russ, let’s go have a beer.” I didn’t do that. And I guess he didn’t know how to treat this white superstar, either. So, it never happened.
MACMULLAN: If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?
COUSY: I wish Dr. [Martin Luther] King had called my number in those days. I would have gone down to Birmingham.
MACMULLAN: Do you feel you should have said or done more to help your African-American teammates, specifically Russell?
COUSY: I’ve never been a soapbox person. I could have gone up like a Colin Kaepernick and made noise when I had a platform to do it, and the fact that I didn’t results in some of the guilt I’ve experienced later on. ESPN was here about 15, 20 years ago interviewing me. I don’t even remember the topic, but they were asking me a racial question [regarding Russell] and I teared up. So, it must have been hidden down there. I must have subconsciously had some guilt about not doing more.
MACMULLAN: What did you make of Colin Kaepernick’s stance regarding social injustice?
COUSY: I would have encouraged Kaepernick to speak out. That’s our identity in the society we live in. As a white player, I would have joined him, but not in that venue. I agree with people who say he had a responsibility to his cause, but he also had a responsibility to the people who made his brand — the NFL, San Francisco [49ers]. If he had gotten on the phone and called ESPN and said, “Hey, it’s Colin Kaepernick. I have something to say about social injustice,” you guys would have had a crew down there to his house immediately. He could have done his thing in the same way, but by bringing it to the NFL, it cost them what? Thirteen percent [of revenue?] He had a responsibility to the NFL not to hurt his brand.
MACMULLAN: How do you feel the NBA is handling race relations now?
COUSY: As opposed to how the NFL handled their little problem, which everyone seems to feel was very badly, I would say my friend [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver has done evidently an outstanding job, despite LeBron’s statements earlier [about social injustice], which I’m totally fine with because he felt like he wanted to speak out and he’s the best player in the world. People listen to what LeBron has to say. From a league standpoint, Adam has been working behind the scenes pretty diligently not only with the owners, but with the players’ association, and they have come to a resolution. I don’t know what that is, but evidently, both sides have agreed there will be no overt demonstrations similar to what’s gone in the NFL, where the president and everyone on the right are saying the [players] are unpatriotic, they’re desecrating the flag, which is a valid point, I suppose, but that should never have been the issue. So, kudos to the NBA and Adam Silver.
“Cooz, there’s nothing you could have said or done to make any difference. It is what it is. It’s a terrible world, and please don’t feel badly about it.”
Bill Russell to Bob Cousy on race relations in America
MACMULLAN: You discuss in “The Last Pass” your encounters with Russell after you both retired. You anchored a dynasty together that won 11 championships in 13 seasons. And yet that bond didn’t seem to hold somehow.
COUSY: We had a kind of love-hate relationship through the years. Russ lived on the West Coast, so I didn’t see him often. We used to play in a golf tournament, and I’d run into him there. He’d either hug me, which he did after that ESPN interview, or he’d ignore me. We sat and had breakfast right after I had teared up in that interview. He told me, “Cooz, there’s nothing you could have said or done to make any difference. It is what it is. It’s a terrible world, and please don’t feel badly about it.” But then, the next time I ran into him, he’d be glaring at me.
MACMULLAN: You wrote Russell a letter three years ago and sent him the book “Between Two Worlds.” What was your message to him?
COUSY: I wrote him, “I think, in retrospect, I should have felt your pain much more. I should have reached out.” I did my confession and signed off. The title of this new book, “The Last Pass,” refers to my letter to Russ.
MACMULLAN: I understand you finally did hear from Russell recently.
COUSY: Yes, I did. Probably a couple of months ago now. It was Sunday night, I was dozing, and I got a call from my friend Bill Russell. He said hello and asked how I was doing. I did most of the talking. At some point, I said, “So Russ, I dropped you a note and a book three years ago.” And he said, “I got the note, but I never read the book.” And that was the extent of it. I don’t think it was a lack of empathy on Russ’ part. I don’t know how much he was hearing. We weren’t really having a back-and-forth conversation. In fairness to Russ, he might not have been grasping it. Gary [Pomerantz] has been trying to desperately for three years to interview Russ, because we wondered if he got the letter, did it mean something to him, did he really understand what I was saying? So, I’m not sure.
MACMULLAN: Did you get the closure you were hoping for?
COUSY: I got the closure three years ago when I sent the letter. We used to go to confession. Why did we go? We did something wrong and needed to get it off our conscience. The priest listened and said, “Don’t do it again.” So, you walk out of there feeling like you don’t need anything more. And that’s how I feel now.