He is the paragon of playmakers, a pioneer for NBA point guard play. He is the elder statesmen of a long line of Celtics greats who graced the parquet. He is Boston’s first beloved basketball superstar. He is simply “The Cooz.” And Sunday, he is 87 years old.
August 9 should be a universal hoops holiday. Those lucky enough to see Bob Cousy play during his 13-year Hall of Fame Celtics career still gush about him. They demand his name be mentioned in any discussion of the greatest Celtics players of all time, along with Bill Russell, Larry Bird, and John Havlicek. He certainly is in the conversation for greatest living Boston sports legend, joining Bruins doyen Milt Schmidt (age 97) and Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski, who turns 76 on Aug. 22.
It’s ironic that a player ahead of his time has seen appreciation of his greatness fade because of it. If it’s possible for an icon to become underrated, Cousy, who retired from the Celtics in 1963 in unforgettable and emotional fashion, has, drowned out by modern highlights and hype. But Cousy was to passing and ballhandling what Picasso was to art.
It’s standard NBA fare to see a behind-the-back dribble or a no-look pass, but when Cousy entered the league in 1950 out of Holy Cross such basketball behavior was considered both avant-garde and indecorous. A 13-time All-Star and the 1956-57 NBA MVP, Cousy earned one of the best sobriquets in hoops history — the “Houdini of the Hardwood” — for his artful play.
The trick Cousy planned for his 87th birthday was disappearing. He told his daughters to send birthday wishes on Saturday. “I appreciate everyone calling and reaching out, but it just gets to be too much,” he said when reached at his Worcester home. “I’m getting to be an old grouch. I’m going into my Howard Hughes of the sports world routine on Sunday. That’s my trick.”
Cousy revealed he has not been in the best of health recently. He is still rehabbing from a pair of painful back surgeries. Cousy had surgery on three vertebrae in January 2014. When that didn’t provide relief, he spoke with Celtics doctor Brian McKeon and had surgery on another vertebra on Aug. 26, 2014.
The recovery has not been easy for Cooz. “The last year and a half, after enjoying good health all of my life, I’m going downhill,” said Cousy.
Cousy has overcome the odds and doubts before. He made a brief comeback as a 41-year-old player/coach for the Cincinnati Royals in 1970.
Cousy only joined the Celtics in 1950 after his first team traded his draft rights and his second team folded before the season. Cousy ended up as Red Auerbach’s answer to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a great player whom a genius coach lucked into.
The body that produced eight straight assist titles and helped guide the Celtics to six championships might be faltering, but Cousy’s beautiful basketball mind is as sharp as ever.
He said he hadn’t seen a lot of Celtics games and then proceeded to provide spot-on evaluations of coach Brad Stevens and the team’s current plight.
“I think Stevens is an excellent young coach,” said Cousy, who coached in the NBA and at Boston College. “I think he has done extraordinarily well with the talent that he has had. He seems to command their attention and respect. They work very hard for him.
“They just don’t shoot it well enough with any consistency. The effort is always there, though. That is usually the criteria for whether you’re interacting properly — or whatever they call it now — with the troops. If they’re giving you, theoretically, their best most of the time they’re out there, it means your message is getting across, and you’re getting the most out of the material. That’s what I saw.”
Cousy professed “great confidence” in Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and his blueprint for banner No. 18.
But he also offered a pragmatic view of the Celtics’ road back to contention, after a surprising playoff berth last season.
“They’re ending up in the middle, which frankly is the worst place you can be, in my judgment,” Cousy said. “You either get up near the top and enjoy the goodies or you finish last and get the first, second, third pick, and then you’ve got a shot at helping yourself through the draft. When you’re in the middle you’re just not going to get impact players.”
Preach on, Cooz. If the Parishioners of the Parquet aren’t going to listen to bloviating sportswriters (raising hand), maybe they’ll listen to one of their most revered figures.
It’s a shame we don’t get to hear Cousy’s basketball sermons on a regular basis.
He was our basketball Barbara Walters during his 34-year tenure calling Celtics games — a trusted voice of authority and insight with an unforgettable and imitable timbre. Cousy last called games during the 2007-08 championship season.
Cousy told the Globe in 2008: “I talk funny. But I try to tell it like it is, and hopefully the content of what I say is what the fans liked. Fans are sophisticated these days, and they know when they are being hyped and not being told the truth. It’s a child’s game, not nuclear science. I said what was in my mind and in my heart.”
His heart has been heavy since the death of his beloved wife, Missie, in 2013. She was the real superstar of the Cousy clan.
Time takes — loved ones, health, memories — from everyone, even revolutionary talents.
“At 87, nothing gets better. The golden years are not for sissies,” said Cousy. “But I might make a comeback.”
What was uttered the day of Cousy’s retirement ceremony still rings true, “We love ya, Cooz.”
Happy birthday to a timeless treasure.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.