After all these years, Bob Cousy knew he needed to reach out to Bill Russell
As he prepares for what he calls the “big basketball court in the sky,” Celtics great Bob Cousy compiled a list of items he’d like to accomplish while his mind is still sharp, his memory still keen, and his regrets still piercing.
A few years ago, Cousy, 90, said he decided to research more about race and social issues and he 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.
After reading, Cousy decided to pen a letter to his former teammate, Bill Russell, about their severed relationship. Cousy’s regrets are detailed in Gary Pomerantz’s “The Last Pass,” which details Cousy’s quest to make amends with Russell nearly 55 years after their final game together in Boston.
Cousy said he never understood the root or reason for racism and didn’t understand the impact it had on Russell until years later.
“I’ve had an interest in social justice since Holy Cross,” said Cousy. “I came up here rudderless and left four years later with a moral compass and I have to give credit to the Jesuits. I have experienced hatred for an opponent, but to go and transform from there to everybody or in the case of the black/white situation going on in this country, I never understood hate to that degree.
“I think it’s an insecurity we all have in us. Someone is a little different. I still haven’t had a rational explanation for how you can hate people, and Russ went through that.”
Cousy wrote a letter apologizing to Russell for not being more supportive of his teammate during the overt racism he faced in Boston after joining the Celtics in 1956. Russell had trouble purchasing a home in Boston because he was black, and also had his home burglarized. Burglars once defecated on his bed.
Russell took decades to forgive the city of Boston for what he believed was betrayal and mistreatment. Cousy never publicly supported Russell. Perhaps the greatest guard-center tandem of all time didn’t really get along well during those years.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t bond,” Cousy said during a recent appearance at Holy Cross, his alma mater. “I bonded with Chuck Cooper, the first black player that the Celtics drafted. We roomed together that first year. I didn’t see Chuck [as a race]. I saw Chuck as a basketball player. He was 6-foot-8, different colored eyes, different color here and oh yeah, his skin was a little different, literally because he was very light skinned. I never saw him as a black basketball player. I wasn’t naïve.
“In Russell’s case, I think it was a personality thing, we never did bond. We played together seven years. Years later, I’m sitting there saying I should have shared his pain more. I was the man. I was the hero of the media. I could pretty much if I wanted to, speak out, but I’ve never been a soap box person. I tried to share my opinion with example. Mentored three young men in three or four years at the time, and two of the three were African-American kids. That was my way to express how I felt.”
Cousy said he should have been more public in his support of Russell, much like Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese openly supported Jackie Robinson soon after he broke baseball’s color barrier. Cousy has regretted his lack of support for decades and described what prompted him to reach out to Russell in February 2016.
In 2001, during an ESPN interview for the network’s “SportsCentury” series, Cousy broke down when asked about his relationship with Russell. That pain has lingered ever since.
“Deep down in the recesses there was a sense of guilt,” he said. “I hadn’t articulated it to myself even. That question triggered it. And since then this transformation I’ve gone through is, yeah, why didn’t I do more? Why didn’t I reach out more? I was the man. I was in the position that maybe it could have made a difference and then it eventually became when I started thinking about my to-do list before the big basketball court in the sky, I put a mea culpa with your friend Russell. So I dropped him this note three years ago.
“I think what triggered the immediate action is I had just read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Between the World and Me’ — a black father telling his son how to exist in this society. It was powerful. I also read ‘Just Mercy’ from who is my new hero now, [social justice activist] Bryan Stevenson. I [wrote to] Russ, ‘Look, I know you and I have never been pen pals and frankly looking back, I should have done much more, I was the elder statesman. I was six years older. I was the man. The media would have responded to what I said. I feel badly that I didn’t share your pain.’ ”
Cousy also enclosed “Between the World and Me” for Russell to read. Russell didn’t respond — until this past summer.
“A Sunday night in August,” Cousy said. “It should have been my Seattle[-based] daughter, 8:30 on a Sunday night, I’m getting ready to bring the lights down. I normally don’t answer the phone. I pick up and hear, ‘Bob, this is Bill Russell, I’m calling to see how you’re doing.’
“I had an exchange with him. One of things I said, ‘Russ, I’m an old fart at 90 years old but you’re no spring chicken, either. But you must be a hell of lot younger than I am because I noticed you just married a 49-year-old.’ ”
Russell responded with his legendary loud cackle. “I got the letter, thank you very much, but I didn’t read the book,” Russell said to Cousy.
For Cousy, he said he wanted to clear his conscience, reach out to the man he’s most associated with in this world. They may never come together for coffee or to talk old times, but that short conversation on that Sunday night was enough. It brought peace.
“It did bring a tear to my eye,” Cousy said. “You feel badly about all the nasty things you did. I wrote the letter for me. I need to tell Russell my confession. Once I wrote the letter, I felt much better about myself.”
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Bob Cousy touched on a bunch of other topics during his entertaining 30-minute session that was attended by Holy Cross faculty and the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
Although they are 48 years apart, Cousy said he has developed a friendship with Celtics coach Brad Stevens and he recently met with the club, including a one-on-one session with point guard Kyrie Irving.
“Brad has been there for five years and he hasn’t won a Coach of the Year, but I think he is perhaps the best coach in the league. But officially he hasn’t won it,” Cousy said. “So at the end of each season I drop him a little note. ‘Hey Brad, bravo on the job you did with the team this year.’ My criteria for any coach on any level is to simply get the most out of the team you have to work with. He certainly has done that. Bravo on that. And before they come out with Coach of the Year, I’m officially awarding you the Bob Cousy Coach of the Year Award, so we have kind of developed a bond.”
Stevens visited Cousy at his Worcester home in 2017.
“He came a year and a half ago to the house, had a nice long discussion with my daughter about mental health,” Cousy said. “So we kind of minimally bonded. I haven’t been to a game. I’ve been the Howard Hughes of the sports world for the last 10 years. I’ve been in my cave and I’ve only come out twice.”
When asked about his experience in speaking to the current team, Cousy was realistic about their reaction to seeing a 90-year-old man talking basketball.
“Going back to when we were young, we didn’t have old players because the league wasn’t that old so I didn’t go through the experience,” he said. “I got a hunch that they had other things on their agenda. Hopefully they stayed awake and listened and paid attention and I’ll wait to find out if they remembered anything I said. It was a nice experience.”
During his one-on-one with Irving, he told the guard/actor he should have used Cousy’s cane in the “Uncle Drew” movie.
On whether his Celtics teams would have a chance against the current Golden State Warriors: “We wouldn’t beat them but we’d get their attention. We had nine Hall of Famers, so we weren’t chopped liver. I’m not an old-timer that thinks [compared to] today’s jocks, we were better or that we were as good, we’re not. Today’s jock is bigger, better, stronger, especially the big people in basketball. Our [generation of] guys were kind of like Frankenstein monsters. These guys run the floor and are as athletic as the 6-2 guys. We would not go down in four. We’d keep them awake. We’d make sure they’d shower after the game.”
On having a statue outside of the Hart Center on the Holy Cross campus.
“I made [the women’s basketball team] promise whenever they were going to go by the statue they were going to bring a towel to wipe all the pigeon poop off my nose. You shouldn’t have a statue while you’re still alive. That’s for dead people.”
And on his greatest accomplishment, his 63-year marriage to his wife, Marie, who died in 2013.
“One of the positives other than a 63-year relationship with my bride, Marie, and two wonderful daughters that I give her complete credit for because I was good to my wife. We got married on a Saturday, I played that night, and I was on the road for 35 years. She didn’t have to put up with me.”
Cavaliers’ woes extend off court
It was an eventful week for the Cavaliers, a team that has started 1-7. The Cavs will be without their best player, Kevin Love, for at least six weeks after he underwent left foot surgery on Friday. The news on Love came a few days after coach Tyronn Lue was fired after an 0-6 start, the reason cited being philosophical differences in how the organization should move forward. Lue wanted to compete for a playoff spot this season using the veterans acquired to appease star LeBron James a year ago. So, Lue was starting 32-year-old point guard George Hill over 19-year-old Collin Sexton. J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver also were in Lue’s rotation. Channing Frye, 35, was also getting quality minutes. But the 0-6 start, punctuated by blowout home losses to Atlanta and Brooklyn, changed the game plan, and Lue was fired because a. general manager Koby Altman didn’t hire him and b. the team wants to essentially tank for a high lottery pick and start over.
Lue deserved better. His coaching acumen has always been unfairly questioned because he had James on his team. He wanted a fair chance to lead the Cavaliers back to prosperity without James, but it seemed like the franchise’s direction was unclear. Did Cleveland want to compete for the eighth playoff spot and be competitive or just play a bunch of young players and go back to the pre-LeBron years?
Altman answered that question by firing Lue. Lue was the coach who helped Cleveland come back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Warriors in 2016 to win the city’s first major professional sports title in 52 years. He also was the coach who led Cleveland back from a 2-0 deficit against the Celtics last spring and won a Game 7 in Boston without Love.
Lue deserves kudos for what he did in Cleveland because there are plenty of coaches who are regarded higher who haven’t come close to three consecutive NBA Finals appearances.
Larry Drew was named to replace Lue, but Drew fully realizes he is just a fill-in and wants to be compensated for taking the expected losses and then eventually getting fired. While Drew said he won’t quit, the Cavaliers still have not agreed to a package to keep him happy. Drew knows his head coaching days are likely over — he was once the head coach in Atlanta and Milwaukee — and he doesn’t want to soil his reputation by being a punching bag in Cleveland’s tanking process.
And finally, 63-year-old ex-assistant Jim Boylan on Thursday sued the Cavaliers for age discrimination because he was let go before this season. His representatives released a voice mail from Lue informing him of the decision not to renew his contract, pointing to Boylan’s age as one of the reasons. Boylan is a highly respected coach, and the Cavaliers on Friday issued this statement regarding the lawsuit: “The contract between the Cavaliers and Mr. Boylan ended with the completion of the 2017-2018 NBA season. Sometime over the past couple of months, Mr. Boylan hired the Cleveland, Ohio, law firm of Thorman Petrov Group.
“After Mr. Boylan hired this plaintiff firm, Christopher Thorman wrote to the Cavaliers initially to ‘informally’ resolve matters related to Mr. Boylan’s employment, only to then follow up with an outrageous written demand for $6.174 million. The demand was a precursor to a threat to file a lawsuit in the misguided hopes that embarrassing the Cavaliers by publishing Ty Lue’s voice mail would motivate a settlement. Thorman followed through with his threat yesterday.
“The outrageousness of Mr. Boylan’s claim of ‘age discrimination’ due to the Cavaliers not exercising an option in a contract both parties signed cannot be overstated.
“The only fact that exceeds the egregiousness of Mr. Boylan’s claim that he is owed any further compensation from the Cavaliers is the extortion attempts by Christopher Thorman demanding $6.174 million when, had the one-year option been exercised for the 2018-19 season, Mr. Boylan would have been paid $500,000 for his services. Mr. Thorman, as well as his law firm Thorman Petrov Group, has a pattern and practice of deploying these types of strategies.
“This frivolous lawsuit is simply an opportunistically timed effort at a shameless cash grab. The team will seek immediate dismissal of this disappointing, unwarranted, and baseless claim.”
Cleveland isn’t the place to be anymore, and if James’s departure to Los Angeles didn’t reveal that, then this past week did.
Derrick Rose drew congratulations after his career-high 50 points against the Jazz on Wednesday night, leading the Timberwolves to victory despite being without Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague. Rose is on a one-year, $2 million deal after his value dropped precipitously following a 2017-18 season in which he was limited to 25 games with the Cavaliers and Timberwolves. There are some questions that Rose can now answer following this performance: Is he close to his previous form, which would make him marketable around the trade deadline in February? And is Rose dedicated to the game again? Rose is just 30 and under normal circumstances would have five or six good years left. But considering his past leg injuries, that is likely two or three years as a rotation player. If Rose can consistently regain his form, he could become an asset to a playoff team that would need a scoring guard off the bench . . . The WNBA players association opted out of its deal with the league that is set to expire after next season, so the sides will try to hammer out a new deal, one the players hope will increase their salaries. Many prominent players complained this past season about their salaries compared to those of their NBA counterparts, especially those who are earning millions while riding the bench. It’s not that WNBA players want equal pay, but they do want better pay, especially for standout players. The sticky part is the WNBA is without a permanent commissioner after Lisa Borders’s resignation. Deputy commissioner Mark Tatum is handling negotiations with the WNBPA. A suggestion for a potential commissioner is former league MVP and all-time great Lisa Leslie. The WNBA has had issues retaining commissioners long term, having had three in the last 13 years . . . The Celtics made a somewhat surprising move this past week by picking up the third-year option on forward Guerschon Yabusele. Although Yabusele was in the same draft class as Jaylen Brown, the Celtics have another year to decide whether to sign the Frenchman to an extension because he remained overseas for a season after being drafted. If Yabusele does not sign an extension after the 2019-20 season, he will become a restricted free agent.