They seemed to be immortal, those Celtics of my childhood, forever running the parquet floor, earning easy baskets and hard-fought championships. Bill Russell would snatch a rebound, kick it out to Tommy Heinsohn on the wing, and Tommy would find Sam Jones at the other end for a breakaway layup.
The Celtics of 1963 were in the middle of a run of eight consecutive championships, 11 in 13 seasons.
It was a team that featured nine Hall of Fame players, plus a Hall of Fame coach (Red Auerbach) and a Hall of Fame owner (Walter Brown). John Havlicek was a rookie and Bob Cousy was retiring — like DiMaggio passing the Yankee torch to Mantle in 1951.
The reality, of course, is that our Garden Gods do not live forever, and we’ve been losing them at an alarming rate the last couple of years. Frank Ramsey (86) died in 2018, Havlicek (79) in 2019, and last week we lost K.C. Jones (88), one month after Heinsohn died at the age of 86.
“It’s depressing,” the 92-year-old Cousy said from his home in Worcester this week. “They’re starting to fall by the wayside. I’m starting to look over my shoulder the way Satchel Paige used to say — don’t look back, they might be gaining on you.
“We’re hanging in, but stay tuned. We’ll see.”
The Cooz is one of only four survivors from the 1962-63 Boys of Winter. The others are Russell (86), Sam Jones (87), and Satch Sanders (82). Cousy lost his wife of 63 years, Missie, to dementia in 2013.
“When my bride passed, my daughters and my primary [physician] thought I was going into depression,” Cousy recalled. “He put me on anxiety pills for a while and I discarded them quickly and then he even sent me to a shrink. I went to two sessions, and the shrink finally said, ‘Get out of here. We’re wasting both of our times. There’s nothing wrong with you.’
“At 92, you’ve got one foot in the grave. I will admit that I don’t jump out of bed with the same step that I had. I linger there.
“I’ve always been a ‘conquer the world’ guy. Jump out of bed and go get ‘em early. Now I linger and I don’t have the enthusiasm. I think that’s part of the normal aging process.
“And the phone calls don’t help. Three days in a row I’ve had someone call me telling me that someone has passed.”
Cousy last saw Russell at Havlicek’s memorial service at Trinity Church in April 2019 and knows it’s unlikely he’ll see his legendary teammate again. It’s been easier to stay in touch with Sam Jones and Sanders.
“I called Sam when Tommy passed,” Cousy said. “He’d had some orthopedic problems. He sounded good and said he’s back in action. Satch I talk to from time to time. He and his wife are in a facility. His wife has bounced back. He sounded very good and positive on the phone.”
Longevity is a trademark for the men in green who dominated the NBA in the 1960s. Every one of the nine Hall of Famers on the 1962-63 Celtics lived to be at least 79. Must have been all that clean living and fast-break conditioning. Even Red, a cigar smoker to the finish, made it to 89.
The loss of K.C. hit Russell especially hard. Russell and Jones were two-time NCAA championship teammates at the University of San Francisco and won gold medals for the US at the 1956 Olympics before uniting in Boston, where they combined for 22 championship rings (Jones won eight as a player, one as a Celtic assistant coach, and two as head coach).
When he got the phone call about K.C. last Friday, Russell tweeted a photo of the last time they were together, adding, “We have been friends for almost 60yrs … Friends for life.”
I just received a call letting me know my x-roommate/teammate & most of all friend the great KC Jones passed this morning. Prayers to his family. We have been friends for almost 60yrs, this our last photo together. Friends for life #2020Usuck! #RIP @NBA @celtics pic.twitter.com/Ia6yZB5l2x— TheBillRussell (@RealBillRussell) December 25, 2020
Cousy got a call that same day and paid tribute to his quiet, unselfish teammate, with whom he won five championships.
“It had to be frustrating for K.C. when he came to us because we had so many good players,” Cousy said. “We had four Hall of Fame guards. K.C. didn’t get to start for five seasons, until after I left. That’s a long wait for a Hall of Famer.
“It was tough on him because your career in sports is so limited. But having K.C. and Sam as backups just gave our team such power. That’ll never be duplicated.”
Cousy still follows the Celtics religiously and gets the daily Globe delivered to his Worcester home.
“I read those freakin’ obits every day and I look for someone over 92,” he said. “You wouldn’t be normal if you didn’t experience these thoughts, and this pandemic doesn’t help.
“But you either succumb to it and sit and feel sorry for yourself or you deal with it like we are doing now.
“Hopefully this year will be over soon and we can get back to normal and people will stop dying."