Fifty years ago is a lot of yesterdays, and Bob Cousy likes to define himself, in part, as “not really a yesterday guy.’’ The great Celtics point guard repeated those words once more last week, speaking by phone from his winter home in Florida, and then he added, “But . . . ’’
But on March 17, 1963, exactly a half-century ago, the great Cooz stood on the original, bumpy parquet floor of the Boston Garden and said goodbye. At the event, soon to be dubbed “The Boston Tear Party,’’ a weeping 34-year-old Cousy read from handwritten remarks, his vocal cords slowly tightening, his voice choked to a whisper, and for one brief moment Cousy and the sellout Garden crowd lapsed into almost pin-drop silence.
Until . . .
“We love ya, Cooz!’’
The shout came from the old barn’s upper reaches, bellowed by Joe Dillon, a water department employee from South Boston. It provided the signature moment to a storybook day, and Cousy remains ever grateful for the assist, Dillon’s words the serendipitous distraction that allowed him to escape his own emotional full-court press. The crowd erupted. Cousy took a deep breath and continued.
“Oh, it helped,’’ he recalled. “I’m an emotional person anyway, always have been. I mean, God, I cry at plays. Which is why I’d written everything out ahead of time. I knew I wouldn’t make it through — 13 years . . . all with the Celtics . . . the championships . . . the friendships on the team . . . my parents there with me that day . . .
“There was a lot going on.’’
It remains perhaps our city’s fondest, most memorable sports farewell. The only one that compares, in my mind, is Carl Yastrzemski’s adieu to Red Sox fans at Fenway Park in 1983. Like Cooz, Yaz delivered his words in a pregame ceremony. Absent a Dillon-like shout, Yaz himself memorialized the event later with a career-closing lap around the ballyard, jogging full-circle at the foot of the stands, high-fiving anyone within reach, waving to those in the bleachers and those high up in the left-field grandstand.
Bobby Orr’s retirement in January 1979, his No. 4 lifted to the rafters, was also special, but painful. He had exited the game not as a Bruin but a Blackhawk, his knees and gifts spent.
We cherish these moments, especially in these times, when our favorite players more typically leave town and slip from our consciousness as Wes Welker did last week.
On his day, Cousy was handed the keys to a Fleetwood Cadillac and received a load of mementos, including sterling silver sets from the Celtics and the Syracuse Nationals (all stolen years later from his Worcester home). A letter from then-President John F. Kennedy, praising Cousy, his career and legacy, was printed in the game program.
By comparison, Welker’s departure from the Patriots forever will be remembered as an offer sheet from the Denver Broncos. We are left with news analysis, talk radio, and all the Joeys from Revere to remind us of the good times.
Cousy was stitched into the fabric of our town. Welker just wore the laundry.
Cousy left at the top of his game, his body and skills diminished slightly from when he left the Holy Cross campus, but still of championship stock. He won six NBA titles with the Celtics, the final one coming only a month after that farewell address before the final regular-season game of the 1962-63 season.
“Look, if I had been making $18 million, they would have had to carry me off the floor,’’ he quipped. “There would have been no question of me leaving.’’
Instead, the man who created the position of point guard made but $35,000 his final season in a Celtic uniform. By 1963, there was a Bob Cousy ball in the marketplace, along with Bob Cousy sneakers. Leaving on top was, in a sense, a matter of asset protection. Walking away in full stride, being remembered as the best there ever was, was good for the brand. Stick around, lose a few steps, and perhaps sales would decline.
“Image was important then, I was very conscious of that,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to tarnish it.’’
There was, too, the matter of psychological wear and tear that came with being the best, Cousy intent on living up to that every time he stepped on the court.
No one in the game had ever passed like him. No one saw the whole floor the way he did, anticipated the movement of all the working parts. In an era when instant photographs were being dispensed from Polaroid cameras for the first time, Cousy’s eye could identify a play long before it developed.
By the end of the decade, Boston saw the same magic from Orr. A city twice blessed. What were the chances?
“I was conscious of people sitting in the stands, saying things like, ‘See that skinny guy with the hairy legs, No. 14? He’s the best point guard in the league,’ ’’ recalled Cousy. “Well, after a while, it’s like standing over a 3- or 4-foot putt on the golf course. Should be easy, right? But when everyone’s expecting you to do it, time and time again . . . wow, the pressure goes way up.’’
Upon leaving, Cousy promptly became the Boston College basketball coach, making some $20,000 less per season than his top NBA wage. He shaped the Eagles into winners (114-38 during his stay), left The Heights when he couldn’t stomach the recruitment process, and then hitched on as coach of the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals. The Buffalo-based Jacobs family, owners of the Bruins now for more than 35 years, hired the Cooz to run their Royals.
These days, Bob and Missie Cousy spend eight months a year in Worcester, the rest in Florida, where he usually golfs five rounds a week.
“Used to golf seven days a week,’’ he said, noting, with some regret, that his handicap has increased in recent years. “You know, nothing gets better at age 84, and that includes golf.
“But I am still into it, maybe too much, because I’m still competitive. I’ll be out there yelling like a banshee because I’ve made some shot, and I’m sure there are people out there thinking, ‘Uh-oh, the old guy’s losing it!’ ’’
Cousy never met Joe Dillon, the lovable leather-lung who made March 17, 1963, “We love ya, Cooz!’’ Day. The Dillon family kept in touch through the years, he said, and informed him not long ago that Joe had died.
But Dillon’s words live on. Cousy doesn’t make regular visits to the Garden anymore, but when he stops by during a Celtics game, it’s inevitable, a half-century later, that someone in the crowd will holler it again from the stands.
Love’s echo persists, endures, resonates.
“It’s nice to hear,’’ said Cooz. “I guess even if my ego doesn’t require it.’’