They had Hall of Fame players and a Hall of Fame coach, and the Celtics were champions every year, it seemed. They won eight consecutive NBA titles in Red Auerbach’s last eight years as coach. They won 11 championships in 13 seasons between 1957–69.
And the one and only constant was Bill Russell. The man in the middle. The greatest winner in team sports history.
Russell died Sunday at the age of 88.
We’ve been losing these fabled champs with somber regularity the last four years. Frank Ramsey died in 2018. John Havlicek in 2019, Tommy Heinsohn and K.C. Jones in 2020, then seven months ago (just before New Year’s), Sam Jones. Hall of Famers, one and all.
Now, Russell. The giant of giants. The greatest of the greats.
Bob Cousy, who played with all of the above and won six championships in seven seasons with Russell, was with his daughter Marie and recovering from a kidney stone when he got the news early Sunday afternoon.
“My old friend, Russ, beat me to it,” said Cousy, days shy of his 94th birthday (Aug. 9) and on the receiving end of many sad calls lately. “He got there first. I got a hunch I’m going to be seeing him shortly. I don’t want to be morbid, but I’m not signing up for the marathon these days. At 88, I suppose we expect it.
“Russell goes down as the best winner ever in American team sports. That’s pretty significant and that’s never going to change. He fought the good fight, obviously, on the floor, but he fought the good fight off the floor, fighting racism all his life. Sticking his tongue out at the opponent. That’s not easy to do.
“People give up things to take a stand, and Russell simply never cared. Jocks generally worry about their image after they’ve had a successful career and they’re all very careful as to what they say and how they approach every issue. Most of them are very circumspect and have people that advise them. Russell just let it flow. He spoke out against racism in every form and I’m sure he’s happier for that now.”
Cousy was a six-year veteran and an established NBA superstar when Russell joined the Celtics after winning Olympic gold in 1956. The early ′50s Celts were perennial contenders, but were not able to win a championship until Russell came on board.
They won it all in his rookie season — Cousy was league Most Valuable Player as well — and never stopped winning until Russell retired, after Red shocked the sports world by naming him the first Black head coach in major US sports history. Russell won his final two banners as player-coach in 1968 and ‘69, then walked away.
“In my judgement, Boston doesn’t make enough of what that group accomplished in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s something that will never be done again in American team sports. It’s spectacular and singular,” said Cousy. “Eleven championships in 13 years. Given what teams go through to win a Stanley Cup or a World Series or Super Bowl, they do it twice and they burn down cities and celebrate all week. We did it 11 times in 13 years and Russ is the center point of that.
“We had eight Hall of Famers and, despite what (J.J.) Redick thinks of players from that time being firefighters or plumbers, the competition was tough. Today’s jock is better, bigger, stronger. Of course they are. But whatever the skill level was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when it was more concentrated [with fewer teams], that made it more difficult to win. Eleven out of 13, and it should have been 12 if Russ doesn’t stub his toe against St. Louis in 1958. He’s the cornerstone.”
Cousy retired in 1963. He spent the ensuing decades wondering why the two were never particularly close, and put his thoughts into a book, “The Last Pass,” with author Gary Pomerantz in 2018. Like many in Boston, Cousy last saw Russell at a memorial service for Havlicek at Trinity Church in Copley Square in 2019.
“I thought a lot about our relationship over the years. We didn’t handle it. We just let it sit. We weren’t buddy-buddy. We didn’t go out,” said Cousy. “I’m close today with Satch [Sanders]. I maintained a relationship with Sam Jones to some degree. And with K.C. [Jones]. But Russ was not the kind of guy you got close to easily. He came to Boston with a chip on his shoulder and none of us knew how to handle it. We were intimidated by him. We were kind of frightened by him and we didn’t reach out. And that book, ‘The Last Pass,’ was my response, 60 years later, for not reaching out. I had regrets and would have done it differently.”
Cousy and 83-year-old Sanders are the last living Hall of Famers who played with Russell, during the Eisenhower administration.
“Satch always says, ‘Don’t look over your shoulder. You’ll see them gaining on you,’ " said Cousy. “So I’m more and more aware of that every time the phone rings and I get news like this. But I’m a realist. I’m ready for the big basketball court in the sky.”
What a team. No doubt Red will be berating officials and Russell will be running the floor, blocking shots and sticking up for social justice.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.