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Dr. Jack Ramsay

Former NBA player, coach Costello dies at 70

Friday, December 14, 2001
Costello was intense player and coach
By Dr. Jack Ramsay

Larry Costello loved everything about the game of basketball. An old-school type, he was a solidly built 6-1 guard, deceptively quick with a great first step and deadly with a two-hand set shot. He was a coach-on-the-floor that ran the offense according to the game plan and was the first line of defense at the perimeter. He wore his hair cropped short, looked and was a tough, fiercely competitive, all-business, all-team kind of a guy. Drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors in 1954, he was sold to the Syracuse Nationals in 1957 -- a not uncommon practice in those days of fragile finances among NBA franchises -- and had six productive years (five All-Star game appearances) for the Nats before that franchise moved to Philadelphia as the 76ers.
Larry Costello
Larry Costello coached the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA title in 1971.

Costello played two years with Philadelphia, retiring from the NBA in 1965. However, he couldn't stay away from the game completely and played a season for Wilkes-Barre in the Eastern Basketball League. Alex Hannum had coached Costello at Syracuse and was a huge admirer of both his demeanor and complete game. When Hannum became coach of the Sixers in 1966, he coaxed Costy out of retirement to anchor his backcourt. Costello and Hall of Famer Hal Greer were the starting guards on that team until Costy tore an Achilles tendon. The Sixers were 44-4 at that point in the season. Wally Jones filled Costy's spot as Philadelphia went on to establish a then-record 68-13 regular season, and took the NBA Championship. Costello returned at the end of that season and played briefly in two playoff games.

Costy was highly focused on personal conditioning. Matt Guokas, a rookie member of the championship team, remembers coming to practice early only to find Costello already in a full sweat as he finished his two-hour preparation for the team workout. Costy was the first player that I saw work out on his own for a couple of hours -- stretching, rope-jumping and calisthenics -- on the afternoon of a game day.

Guokas also recalls that at training camp with that team, Hannum advised him and fellow rookie Billy Melchionni to model their work ethic after that of Costy and Hal Greer. "You two are very fortunate to have Hal and Costy on the same team with you. They are very professional...and kind. They'll help you, rather than hurt you like a lot of veterans would do." Matt said, in retrospect, he didn't notice either being anything but physically aggressive.

Costello took that same dedication to his career in coaching, which began with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1968-69 season. In his second season, the Bucks drafted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor). Costy drew up an offense similar to the "triangle" style that has gained so much recognition with the champion Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers. Costello's offense was designed to involve Abdul-Jabbar on every possession. In that season, the Bucks won 56 games. The next year (1971), the team acquired Oscar Robertson, Abdul-Jabbar led the league in scoring, and the Bucks won the NBA title.

Jack McKinney, an assistant to Costello at Milwaukee from 1974-76, says that Costy had a playbook that included over 80 plays; about half of which were designed for getting the ball to Kareem. McKinney credits Costello for giving Kareem a positive start to his great NBA career.

"Costy was obsessed with the game of basketball, and was always thinking up new plays. Whenever we'd lose a game, Costy would come to practice the next day with a new play or two. The players would sometimes roll their eyes as the playbook grew larger and larger, but the plays always worked."

Costello was a tireless worker himself. Guokas later played for Chicago while Costello coached the Bucks, and remembers seeing Costy in the stands in Chicago any time the Bucks were idle and the Bulls had a home game. Costello would drive down from Milwaukee, make notes on the Bulls and opposing teams, and then structure his offense and defense against those teams accordingly. Guokas recalls that the Bucks always took away the first options of any play they ran.

Costello expected his players to be as consumed with the game as he was. He drove them hard, was often caustic, and criticized them freely. His coach-player relationships were not always harmonious. He couldn't care less.

Costy loved talking X's and O's, and was seldom without his coaching note pad. I enjoyed exchanging ideas with him -- usually at coaches meetings. At the conclusion of those chats, he often complained that players no longer had the drive and dedication that they had when he played.

He was probably right. There have been very few before or since that played with the intensity of Larry Costello.

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