Monday, April 18, 2011

As the NBA playoffs begin and Linda McCoy-Murray heads into Boston on her tour of the East Coast, we thought a vintage Jim Murray column on legendary Boston Celtics guard Bob Cousy would be perfect.


A Tribute to Cousy

      There are some things that just should not happen, and one of them is that Bob Cousy should never have to walk off a basketball court with tears in his eyes.
   And the young man who ran out on the court to take a swipe at him as he did the other night should be taken to the woodshed forthwith.
   There were more than 15,000 people in the L.A. Sports Arena two nights this week. If there had been room, there could have been 20,000. I don't know of anybody who can take a deeper bow over this state of affairs than Robert Joseph Cousy.
   At his age and status in life, you might expect to walk up to Cousy after he had lost a hard game, ask him if it hurt, and get a wisecrack in reply, "Only when I laugh."
   But Cousy's approach to basketball — or anything else — has never been flippant. Bob Cousy is one of the finest athletes and finest gentlemen ever to grace any professional sport. The really magnificent thing is that, after 12 years of gallops up and down a hardwood floor, a confused mélange of arenas and crowds and dusty buses and 100 nights a year of hearing "Cousy, you're a bum!" Bob Cousy not only still cares, he cries when he loses.
   He was still a little sheepish as I braced him in his dressing room the other night, not over the tears but over the fact he had whirled on his tormentor, who was beating him on the back. "It was just a kid," he said wryly. "I thought it was a man, and I felt bad when I turned and it was just a worked-up kid."
   Before Bob Cousy, professional basketball had all the class of a traveling band of snake-oil hucksters. Franchises were jerked out from under the league. The Pistons were in Fort Wayne one part of the season and some other place — or two other places — the rest of it. The players moved by bus or creaky old airplanes Eddie Rickenbacher's Flying Circus wouldn't throw their goggles in. The crowds were just guys waiting for the pool rooms to open.
   Cousy brought the electrifying drama of the dribble behind the back, the backward pass, the all-court pass off the dribble and any one of a dozen feats of legerdemain that not only hadn't been thought of as possible but hadn't even been thought of, period. For the first time in history, when someone referred to a "dribbling fool," he meant it as a compliment.
   Cousy doesn't even look like a basketball player. He looks like what he also is, an insurance agent. He was even cut from his high school team once. His legs are too heavy. He was what the mariners would call "beamy." But basically, his trouble is that he's built too close to the floor. At 6-foot-1 on the skyline of professional basketball, he's a shack.
   But there is little doubt the majestic poise of the Boston Celtics derives in large part from the presence of Cousy. He revived the science of playmaking just at a time when it seemed the pivot man and the overworked pituitary would reduce the game to an endless comedic vaudeville — when a player's only future was stooge for the Globetrotters.
   He was as canny as he was good. He led the fast break like the lead kid out the door on the last day of school. On court he had a field of vision like a haddock. The Celt player who was daydreaming was liable to find a basketball sticking in his ear from a Cousy pass thrown while Bob had his back to the target. He specialized in whistling a pass close enough to the ears of a rival to make him flinch enough to open a path for a Cousy drive-up.
   Many of the Cousy techniques are standard today. They were revolutionary when Cousy tried them. The business of showing a defense man the ball in one hand, like a shill flashing a pea under a walnut, then switching it quickly to the other hand for the layup has flowered under Baylor. But it may have been planted under Cousy.
   Basketball is an endless search for the "open" man today. An orthodox pass will never find him. Cousy has practiced the no-look feed so expertly there have been movements to frisk him for mirrors.
   The game will be poorer without Bob Cousy. He's the son of French immigrants whose father had to give up a baronial farm, after the Kaiser burned it down, for a taxicab job in New York. But Bob is genial and approachable, and a man who has given unselfish hours to the promotion not of Bob Cousy, but of the sport generally.
   He is decent to the core. His own speech impediment (his "r's" come out "w's," which gave the gagsters a field day with his "Roman Meal Bread" commercials) may be rooted in the fact that he had a two-language communication problem at home. But it made him aware of the shyness of people handicapped in the world. His college thesis was "The Persecution of Minority Groups," and he lived up to its high sound in Raleigh, North Carolina, one year when a hotel turned down his Negro teammate, Chuck Cooper. Cooz got tears in his eyes then, too, from anger. So he called for his bag and rode a sleeper back to New York with Cooper.
   As elder statesman of the game, Cooz gets certain privileges — a $35,000 salary, dressing in a head coach's office. But among them should be the right to walk off a court dry-eyed with head held high — to the accompaniment of cheers, not punches in the back.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

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