Celtics tried to pass on ultimate passer
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
Bob Cousy is to the art of passing a basketball what Babe Ruth was to the skill of hitting a home run.
Cousy seemingly had eyes in the back of his head, and he was the first player to regularly use the behind-the-back dribble as a weapon. Cooz, as he was called, revolutionized pro basketball in the 1950s with his sleight-of-hand tricks. By mastering no-look passes and running the fast break like a magician, Cousy became the Houdini of the Hardwood.
Unlike big men George Mikan, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, Cousy did not enter the NBA with glittering accolades despite being an All-American at Holy Cross. His future pro coach didn't want him: Boston's Red Auerbach referred to him as a "local yokel." Cousy received this evaluation from a pro scout in 1950: "The first time he tries that fancy Dan stuff in this league, they'll cram the ball down his throat."
But neither Auerbach nor the scout could see what Cousy, who had amazing peripheral vision, could. Couz made both of them eat crow (although Auerbach was delighted to eat it). All the 6-foot-1 guard did was lead the league in assists for eight consecutive seasons, and when he retired in 1963 no player had passed off for more baskets. He was the backcourt leader whose uncanny passing wizardry and clutch shooting helped the Celtics win six championships. He was first-team All-NBA 10 consecutive times and second-team twice in his 13 seasons. He scored 50 points one game and had 28 assists in another. He was voted the league MVP.
Cousy was born Aug. 9, 1928 in New York City to emigrants from France. French was spoken at home until Cousy was 5. Cousy's father drove a cab and when his son was about 12, he had saved enough money so the family could move to a cleaner neighborhood in Queens.
One day when he was 13, Cousy hung around the hoop during recess. "I had never had a basketball in my hands," he said. "Once I did, I was hooked."
Cousy, who didn't play varsity for Andrew Jackson High School until the second half of his junior year, won the city scoring championship as a senior. Next to his picture in the 1946 Jackson yearbook it reads:
"Will be among those of basketball fame."
Holy Cross won the NCAA title in 1947 when Cousy was a freshman and he contributed as part of the Crusaders' second platoon. After an uneven sophomore season, Cousy refined his ball-handling skills and one-handed set shot and was ready for prime time as junior. That year, Holy Cross trailed by a point late to Loyola when Cousy went behind his back for the first time in a game. The move enabled him to score the winning basket with his left hand.
By his senior year, the flamboyant Cousy was first-team All-American. But some didn't appreciate his flashiness. Boston had the first pick in the 1950 NBA draft, and Auerbach selected 6-11 center Chuck Share of Bowling Green. After being criticized by the Boston media, Auerbach responded: "We need a big man. Little men are a dime a dozen. I'm supposed to win, not go after local yokels."
The local yokel was picked fourth in the first round, by Tri-Cities (Moline and Rock Island in Illinois and Davenport, Iowa), but was soon traded to the Chicago Stags. Before the season started, the Stags folded and their best players were distributed throughout the league. The names of Max Zaslofsky, a scorer; Andy Phillip, a playermaker; and Cousy were put into a hat. Boston wanted Zaslofsky first, Phillip second. After the Knicks drew Zaslofsky, Boston got "stuck" with Cousy when Celtics owner Walter Brown drew his name.
In his rookie season, Cousy was ninth in the 11-team NBA in scoring with 1,078 points (15.6 average), and he averaged 6.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists (fourth in the league) per game. Boston improved from 22-46 the season before to 39-30. Cousy jumped to third in the league in scoring (21.7) and second in assists (6.7) the next season, after which he was voted first-team all-league for the first time.
In 1952-53, Cousy began his streak of assist championships, averaging 7.7, and was fourth in scoring average at 19.8. In the first round of the playoffs against the Syracuse Nats, Cousy put on a show. After scoring only seven points in the first half, he scored 18 in the second. Then, in four overtimes, he added another 25 points, becoming the first NBA player to score 50 in a playoff game. He made 30 of 32 foul shots as the Celtics won 111-105, their first victory in a playoff series.
While the Celtics were good during Cousy's first six seasons, they became great in 1956-57. Actually, it started at that year's draft when the Celtics used their territorial choice to select Holy Cross' Heinsohn, traded for Bill Russell (the No. 2 pick in the draft) and selected K.C. Jones.
With Cousy and Bill Sharman, the Celtics already had the game's best backcourt. Both averaged more than 20 points. Russell averaged a league-high 19.6 rebounds and anchored the defense, and his outlet passes to Cousy triggered the Celtics' vaunted fast break. Cousy was voted MVP as Boston had the best record in the NBA at 44-28. The Celtics won their first title in a thriller, edging the St. Louis Hawks 125-123 in double overtime in Game 7 of the Finals.
Only in 1958, when Russell sprained an ankle in the Finals, would Cousy fail to win the final game of the season. From 1959 through 1963, Cousy and the Celtics were champions. (The Celtics would stretch that streak to eight straight after Cousy retired).
Cousy set an NBA record with 28 assists against the Minneapolis Lakers in 1959. Almost four decades later, only two players (Scott Skiles with 30 and Kevin Porter with 29) have produced more assists in a game.
In 1962-63, Cousy's last season, his scoring average dropped to a career-low 13.2, but he still finished third in the league in assists. On March 17, 1963, the Celtics gave the Cooz a big retirement ceremony. There wasn't a dry eye, including Cousy's, in an emotional Boston Garden.
"The Celtics wouldn't be here without him," Walter Brown said. "He made basketball in this town. I don't know but what he made basketball period. If he had played in New York he would have been the biggest thing since Babe Ruth. I think he is anyway."
Cousy left the Celtics as the league's fourth-highest scorer with 16,955 points (he would get another five in a seven-game comeback with Cincinnati in 1969-70) and a then-record 6,949 assists.
After retiring as a player, he coached Boston College for six seasons, compiling a 117-38 record. He quit the Eagles mostly because he didn't like the idea of recruiting. Later in 1969, the Cincinnati Royals made him what he termed a "Godfather offer." "I did it for the money," Cousy said. "I was made the offer I couldn't refuse."
He played those seven games at age 41 before retiring as a player for good. In November 1973, he finally had enough as a coach, too, and stepped down from leading Kansas City-Omaha with a 141-209 record in four-plus seasons.
Cousy, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971, was commissioner of the American Soccer League from 1974 to 1979, and he has been a color analyst on Celtics telecasts since the 1980s.