WORCESTER — The game plan, as he called it, rarely varied. Each morning, he’d awaken first and set things on the kitchen table — her pills, the newspaper, a fiber bar, a banana. Then he’d return to the bedroom and rouse his wife. Often, she balked at leaving the warmth of the covers, so he’d gently coax her. Always, he was gentle.
Once she was up, he’d lead her to the kitchen to read the newspaper. It took two or three hours to get through the pages, because she’d underline each sentence in every story with a black pen. After a while he found comfort in reading between the lines, because it was something they shared.
“She was leading a happy life,” he said. “It was part of the game plan.”
Bob Cousy knows a bit about game plans, and he and his wife, Missie, were always a team. In the early days of their marriage, when the Celtics star was gone for weeks at a time, Missie made her husband a presence in the family home by telling her daughters where he was and what he was doing. Decades later, when Missie slowly succumbed to the ravages of dementia, her husband ensured that the woman he called “my bride” was always by his side, even as her mind wandered where he couldn’t follow.
Last month, after 63 years of marriage, Bob Cousy said goodbye to his bride. His loved ones say he’s bereft, inconsolable. And they’re surprised that he agreed to an interview, because Cousy is a private man who cared for Missie alone for more than a decade, never seeking help, services, or sympathy. That wasn’t in the game plan.
Cousy married his high school sweetheart, the raven-haired Marie Ritterbusch, six months after he graduated from the College of the Holy Cross, where he helped his team win an NCAA championship in 1947. He spent his wedding night playing point guard for the Celtics. Days later, he left for a two-week road trip.
The grueling travel schedule would define the first half of their marriage. While her husband was transforming the game of basketball and later worked as a coach and sports commentator, Missie raised two daughters and instilled in them her passion for civil rights and the peace movement. Quick-witted, beautiful, and kind, she was a mentor to the new Celtics’ wives and especially embraced the wives of black players such as Bill Russell and Jo Jo White. She was a Girl Scout leader and a gardener, a fiercely independent woman who could discuss politics with the same skill she applied to the faulty plumbing in the family’s English Tudor.
“I was busy playing a child’s game,” Cousy said last week, sitting in the living room with daughters Marie and Ticia. “I thought putting a ball in a hole was important. Looking back, I should have participated more in the lives of my family. But my girls were in the best possible loving hands.”
Today, the Celtic legend known as “Cooz” is 85 but looks younger by a decade. Articulate and gracious, he tears up easily when discussing his wife and the love affair that flourished as the couple aged.
“Our marriage was somewhat contrary to tradition,” he said. “Most couples have the most intensity in the beginning. But I was always working. So we had the best and most romantic part of our marriage at the end. We literally held hands for the last 20 years.”
Missie’s cognitive decline was gradual and began a dozen years ago, Cousy said. She would ask him the same question, over and over. She hallucinated, grew disoriented and struggled with balance. But she always knew her husband, and she bristled at any suggestion that she suffered from dementia.
So Cousy worked hard to create the perception that his once-independent wife was vital and healthy. Because she believed she could still drive, he shipped her station wagon to their place in Florida each winter so she could see it in the driveway. Artificial red flowers were planted in her garden. He did all the household chores and let her think she performed them herself.
“My dad provided an environment that allowed her, in her mind, to be a fully functioning adult,” said daughter Marie. “It was amazing to watch.”
The couple’s social life vanished as Missie’s symptoms worsened. Other than a Thursday night “out with the boys” and some quick rounds of golf, Cousy spent all of his time with his bride. He watched “General Hospital” with Missie and patiently answered the same questions. He stocked the fridge with her favorite candy, Reese’s peanut butter cups. At night, she’d cover him with a blanket and he’d stroke her arm.
“I love you honey,” he’d say.
“I love you, too,” Missie would always reply.
The legend who led the Celtics to six NBA championships said he never felt defeated by the challenge of caring full time for his ailing spouse.
“It drew us closer together,” he said. “It was never a chore, because I knew she would have done the same for me. You just have to go with the flow. Every three months, I’d scream out something just for release.”
On Sept. 7, Cousy took his wife for an early dinner at Worcester Country Club. On the way home, in the car, Missie suffered a massive stroke. She died peacefully two weeks later and was buried in St. John’s Cemetery.
Today, Cousy is consoled by memories of his bride and the knowledge that she was happy until the end of her days. He marveled that the son of poor French immigrants could enjoy such a charmed, fortunate life — athletic fame, loving daughters, grandchildren and a wife he adored. Only when asked what he missed most about Missie did he struggle for composure.
“I can’t put the pills out in the morning,” he said. “And I can’t care for her anymore.”
Still, every night he goes to bed and tells his wife that he loves her. For a man as devoted and steadfast as Bob Cousy, it’s hard to alter the game plan.