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Celtics legend Bob Cousy to receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

Bob Cousy will be the second Celtics player to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Bob Cousy will be the second Celtics player to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.(Jim Davis /Globe Staff)

Celtics legend Bob Cousy doesn’t lack for accolades or trophies. None match his latest, however.

Cousy, who turns 91 in August, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Donald Trump, Cousy told the Globe on Monday. It is the nation’s highest civilian honor.

“At 90, when someone rings your doorbell, you’re honored,” Cousy told the Globe. “Things change for you as to what is meaningful. I think it is a finish to a life circle to me.”

Cousy will receive the award after a Hall of Fame basketball career. He won NBA MVP in 1957, was a 13-time NBA All-Star, a six-time NBA champion and had his No. 14 retired by the Celtics on Oct. 16, 1963.

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He is the second Celtics player to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Former President Barack Obama awarded it to Bill Russell in 2011. Other sports figures who have received the award from President Trump include Babe Ruth and Tiger Woods.

Cousy, who received the official letter notifying him this past Wednesday, does not know any details about when he will be honored.

President Trump first called Cousy, a lifelong Worcester resident, on Dec. 3 while eating lunch with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who Cousy called a good friend.

“I was doing then what I am doing now – sitting on my fat [butt],” Cousy said.

The White House called Cousy at his Worcester home phone, but Cousy didn’t recognize the number. A frequent recipient of calls from telemarketers, Cousy usually hangs up if no one responds within two seconds of his greeting.

This time, a woman replied seeking Mr. Cousy.

“Who’s calling please?” Cousy asked.

“The President of the United States,” she replied.

At first, Cousy thought a buddy was playing a prank. Then she mentioned Manchin was having lunch with the President, signaling to Cousy that the call was from the actual President of the United States.

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Soon, President Trump was on the other end of the phone. They spoke for 15 minutes.

“I felt almost guilty about it,” Cousy said. “Toward the end of the conversation, I said, ‘Mr. President, I am flattered by your call, but I am going to have to report you for dereliction of duty.’”

The President, Cousy said, laughed before he asked what he meant. Cousy then brought up how President Trump had just canceled a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit just days before.

“Today, you just spent 15 minutes with some old bloke with one foot in the grave,” Cousy recalled telling President Trump. “He was amused by that.”

During their conversation, President Trump also asked who Cousy thought was the best between Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.

“Obviously, I took my old friend,” Cousy said.

The President had also asked how John Havlicek, Cousy’s former teammate, was doing. Havlicek, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, died this past April.

After their conversation wrapped up, Cousy called Congressman Jim McGovern, another friend of his, to tell him about the phone call with the President. He wanted to let McGovern know because the Worcester congressman had pushed for Cousy to receive the award during the Obama Administration.

Cousy just had to wait a few years more for an award he said means a lot to him because it spans more than his accomplishments on the court. It takes into consideration more than just his basketball statistics. He said the White House focused on the work he has done in relation to social justice. Cousy was a proponent of diversity in the NBA and was a supporter of his black teammates.

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The way in which he tried to help others stems from what he learned from his Jesuit mentors at Holy Cross.

“That is what life is all about — maximize your God-given skills and after you’ve done that, make sure you reach out into the community to help anyone with less skills or who is less fortunate,” Cousy said. “I think I absorbed some of that. I think that’s what hopefully this acknowledgement reflects.”


Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.