WASHINGTON — Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian award, at the White House Thursday afternoon and declared the honor “allowed me to complete my life circle.”
“I can stop chasing the bouncing ball,” he said during the Oval Office ceremony.
President Trump recognized Cousy for his skills as a Hall of Fame point guard and integral member of six Celtics championship teams but also for his support off the court of his black teammates through the fraught period of racial integration of the National Basketball Association in the 1950s and ’60s. Cousy is known for his friendship with teammate Chuck Cooper, the first black player drafted by the Celtics.
“He is a great champion and we love champions,” Trump said in presenting Cousy with the medal.
In a speech laced with self-deprecating humor, Cousy said the medal elevated him to a level of acceptance in society that he never dreamed of.
Cousy also thanked Trump, calling him the “most extraordinary president in my lifetime.”
“Mr. President,” Cousy told him, “I know you’re on your way to making America great again. In my world it’s been great for 91 years.”
Cousy credited his Jesuit mentors at College of Holy Cross with instilling in him a moral code. They taught students to maximize their God-given skills then use those skills to help others, he said.
“To the best of my ability I tried to do that,” he said. “And I like to think that the good Lord has rewarded my feeble attempts.”
Cousy was joined by his two daughters and two grandchildren. He became emotional when he mentioned Missie Ritterbusch, his wife whom he joked “put up with me for 63 years.” She passed away in 2013.
Cousy toured the White House in a wheelchair but stood to receive the medal and deliver his speech.
In his remarks, Trump told a well-known story about how Cousy left Raleigh, N.C., on a midnight train after Cooper, his roommate, was refused a hotel room because he was black.
“Throughout his long career Bob was a voice against prejudice, racism, and bigotry,” he said.
Trump’s critics have charged him with stoking racial tension as president, including sharply criticizing former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other players who have knelt during the national anthem to protest treatment of black Americans.
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin advocated for Cousy to get the award after they met through a mutual friend, the Democratic senator said Thursday before the ceremony.
“I remember Bob Cousy growing up. My goodness, he’s my idol,” said Manchin, who attended the ceremony.
Manchin said he mentioned the idea to Trump when he was having lunch with the president in the White House in December, after noticing he had given the award to several other athletes. Immediately, he said, the president called Cousy and told him he would be receiving it. Representative Jim McGovern of Worcester had pushed for Cousy to receive the award during the Obama administration.
The Medal of Freedom comes after Cousy’s exploits in college and the pros led to the nickname “Houdini of the Hardwood” and his enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. He was the MVP in the NBA in 1957 and a 13-time All-Star. He had his No. 14 uniform retired by the Celtics in 1963.
Cousy got his start as an All-American player at Holy Cross in Worcester, the city where he still lives.
Cousy is the third Boston sports icon to receive the Medal of Freedom, joining Celtics center Bill Russell, who received it from President Obama in 2011, and Red Sox legend Ted Williams, who was honored by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. Cousy is only the fourth NBA player to receive it, joining Russell, Michael Jordan, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom was established in 1963 by President Kennedy. About three dozen sports figures have won the award, including Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Tiger Woods, Jackie Robinson, and Babe Ruth.
Cousy is also known for his work to help found the National Basketball Players Association, the league’s first union, which advocated for higher wages and benefits.
Although known for his support of black teammates, later in life Cousy has said he regretted that he did not do more, especially in support of Russell, who faced overt racism in Boston.
At the age of 90, Cousy read the Ta-Nehisi Coates book “Between the World and Me,” which is a letter from the author to his son about how to survive and cope with being African-American in the United States.
Cousy told the Globe last year that after reading the book, he penned a letter to Russell, expressing regret that he did not do more at the time to be supportive of his teammate amid the racial backlash Russell experienced after joining the Celtics in 1956.