Ninety-one-year-old Bob Cousy just finished his career with one last crossover dribble, one last dazzling behind-the-back pass.
The Cooz was at the White House Thursday to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Donald Trump. It is the nation’s highest civilian honor, and Cousy said, “It allows me to complete my life circle.’’
And what a life. The son of French immigrants, Cousy grew up in New York City in an apartment without running water and used his basketball skills to earn a ticket to Holy Cross and international fame with the Boston Celtics. He was the LeBron James of his era, “Mr. Basketball,’’ changing the way the game was played and winning six championships in his Hall of Fame career.
In retirement, Cousy coached, worked in television, remained in Worcester with his bride of 63 years (Missie Cousy died in 2013), and became an inveterate reader of books. Trained in the Jesuit tradition of independent thinking, the Cooz listens to all sides of every debate and makes up his own mind. He reads alone in his den for up to five hours a day, then he watches Fox News until bedtime.
In the last few years, Cousy has urged everyone he knows to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,’’ which is a letter from the author to his teenage son about feelings and realities associated with being black in the United States.
The tome provoked Cousy to reflect on his own views on race and inspired him to pen a letter of contrition to his long-ago teammate Bill Russell. Cousy mailed Russell Coates’s book along with his letter of apology. Cousy’s late-life introspection inspired a best-selling book (“The Last Pass”) by author Gary Pomerantz.
All of which explains how the Houdini of the Hardwood performed some Oval Office magic Thursday.
After graciously accepting his medal, Cousy stood at a podium in front of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and delivered a five-minute speech. The Celtics legend thanked everyone profusely, including the Holy Cross Jesuits for installing his moral compass, then concluded his remarks with, “This is special because it is being presented by the most extraordinary president in my lifetime.”
Standing behind Cousy, a little to the left of the Celtic legend, the president reached out with an encouraging pat on the back. A video clip of the exchange was quickly tweeted out by the White House.
The seemingly reverential remark infuriated some Cousy loyalists, including former Worcester Telegram columnist John Gearan, who fired off a mass e-mail, writing (in part), “My lifelong hero, Bob Cousy, has fallen from his pedestal and crashed into smithereens.”
Not so fast, everybody. The statement by Cousy was carefully crafted. Look up the word “extraordinary’’ in the dictionary. In my Google search, it comes up as “1. Very unusual or remarkable.’’
There you go. Would anyone disagree that President Trump is “very unusual”?
It was a perfectly gracious and ambiguous remark. Everybody heard what they wanted to hear. Like feathering a pass underneath to Russell for an easy dunk, the Cooz deftly made the president feel great while remaining loyal to things he believes. Masterful. The Jesuits should be proud.
I reached Cousy on the phone Friday to ask if he was intentionally vague with his remarks.
“In my mind, the word ‘extraordinary’ is in the mind of the beholder,’’ he acknowledged. “The haters can put whatever connotation to it they want and the people on the other side can also do so. That’s exactly what I had in mind, so this way everybody can put whatever connotation they want to it.
“Trust me, I did this a month ago. I practiced every day and kept making hand note revisions. My bride and I were registered independents for 63 years. I wanted to maintain my independence. I didn’t want to be a robot thinker on every issue that comes along and have to vote the way the party votes.
“I’ve been to the White House five times [Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Reagan, Trump]. I’ve been through the experience. I’m not awed, but I am respectful of the most powerful office in the world.
“So whoever’s there, in my mind, you have to be respectful, especially at 91 when they’re hanging a medal around your neck that is so meaningful.
“So I very carefully tried to broach . . . I wanted to say an appropriate thank you to the president, so that’s what I eventually came up with.’’
When I told Cousy that some of his backers felt betrayed by his characterization of the president, Cousy said, “My daughter Marie from Seattle is not a hater — she doesn’t have that emotion in her body — but she is certainly not a Trump fan and she was able to accept this graciously. So I’m not worried about anyone else.’’
Back on Bob Cousy Day at the old Boston Garden in 1963, as a teary-eyed Cousy tried to get through his retirement speech on the parquet floor, a fan in the upper deck spoke for everybody when he broke an awkward silence by bellowing, “We love you, Cooz!’’
True then. True today.