The heavy rear door of the Milwaukee Arena slammed shut, and Bob Cousy (see cover), at 41 the rookie coach of the National Basketball Association's Cincinnati Royals, stepped out onto Wisconsin Avenue. A strong wind whipped snow into his face, and Cousy shivered in the 10° below temperature as he looked around to make sure the last of his players had a ride back to the hotel. Then he stepped into the back of a cab and put his tan traveling bag on the front seat. "It's been one of those days and nights," Cousy said, "that it is just as well to forget all about. I could sense it coming. We let ourselves go 29 points behind the Bucks, and even though we got it down to nine with two minutes to play you can't do that against Milwaukee—with Alcindor—and expect to win. Lately we've been able to overcome some huge leads and win games, but that's too much to ask for all the time. The one constant in the NBA is still that you have to lose to learn how to win."
Last week, as the NBA reached the halfway point in its 80-game regular-season odyssey toward the playoffs, Cousy's Royals had been sometimes winning, sometimes losing, always learning and going through one of the most interesting transformations that any major professional franchise has ever experienced. Known for years as a team that seldom ran except when it was late for an airplane, the Royals were scampering up and down the court, applying pressure to teams much bigger, stronger and deeper than they are. And they were playing defense as it has rarely been seen in Cincinnati since the franchise was moved from Rochester, N. Y. a dozen years ago.
Just after Christmas the Royals began doing some things that sent shudders through opposing coaches. One night they scored on 57% of their shots and beat Atlanta, the Western Division leader, by 20 points, without Tom Van Arsdale in the lineup. The next evening, the fifth-largest crowd ever to see them play in Cincinnati Gardens—11,665—watched the Royals beat Milwaukee in the last seconds of an overtime period. It was Milwaukee's only loss in an 11-game streak. A week later the Royals went to Atlanta where, after being behind by 19 points at the start of the final quarter, they again beat the Hawks. Within 24 hours they were back at home for an afternoon game, were down 18 points late in the third period and rallied to defeat Eastern champion Baltimore. In their next game they made up 11 points in the fourth quarter and beat the Phoenix Suns. In every game, running and pressure turned the trick. This has been accomplished by two first-line players—Oscar Robertson and Tom Van Arsdale; two who have been journeymen for a decade—Connie Dierking and Johnny Green; and an assortment of slender, mostly undersized youngsters who as yet scarcely merit inclusion even in the second category.
Cincinnati was fifth in the Eastern Division at the end of last week, after a series of losses while either Green or Dierking was injured, but it still has a shot at a playoff berth for the first time in three seasons.
When Cousy took over the job in Cincinnati last May he had a three-year contract in his pocket and carte blanche to make all the trades and moves he wanted in order to produce an eventual contender. He announced he was going to change the Royals, and change them he certainly has. Of the 16 players who went to the Cincy training camp last September, only seven remain. Of the three best-known Cincinnati players—Robertson, Jerry Lucas and Adrian Smith—only Robertson is still a Royal. And Oscar no longer controls the team and the ball as he once did.
In the season before Cousy's arrival-the Royals got off to a .20-9 start and sagged badly, to end up at 41-41. Often the players did just about what they pleased; they took votes on what hour practice would start and moved from city to city separately or in small groups whenever the whim struck them. Sometimes men were cut from the squad and advised of it by the team trainer. Cliques developed, and the Royals' scouting and drafting procedures were laughed at throughout the NBA.
Today a mimeographed set of fines, written by Cousy, hangs from a bulletin board in the Cincinnati dressing room; if a player believes he has to go shopping instead of attending practice, it costs him $50. If Cousy doesn't like the sound of any excuse for missing practice, he doubles the fine. Robertson, one of the finest one-on-one performers ever to play basketball, is candid about the change to the Cousy Era in Cincinnati. "There's no doubt about the change," he says. "The attitude has improved. We've got quite a few new players, and most of the new guys are rookies. It's an overall new thing, with Bob coaching. And with all these trades, no one is on that solid a foundation. That will make you have a change of attitude right there."
When Cousy traded Lucas to the San Francisco Warriors late last October it came as a shock to close followers of the sport everywhere, not just to those in Cincinnati. An Ohio hero, Lucas had just completed his best shooting year as a professional (.551) and led the club in rebounding with an 18.4 average per game. But it was Cousy's belief that Lucas did not add to the team's overall speed, and speed and defense were the things that Cousy wanted to incorporate into Cincinnati's attack immediately. Some people also suggested that the Royals had been suffering from the fact that they were split into two distinct groups—a Lucas camp and a Robertson camp.
"That was probably right," says Dierking, an eight-year pro. "I can't say if there were cliques, but there were some lines of division. Now this is one of the happiest teams I've ever played on. I think one of the ways it shows up is just our attitude on the floor. Everybody pats a player on the back when he does something right and, by the same token, when you do something wrong there is no griping. Off the floor there is more camaraderie; we sit around and shoot the breeze about different things."
Cousy's return to the NBA also came as a surprise to many because he had said he would sit out this season, after six years of coaching at Boston College. "I really thought nothing could get me back this year," he says, "because I still remember all the time I spent on airplanes and didn't believe I'd get back on them so soon. But Max Jacobs [chairman of the board of the Royals and also president of Sportservice Corporation] just wouldn't take no for an answer. He offered me an excellent contract and also the right to make the trades and cuts I wanted. I would not have taken the job under any other conditions. If mistakes are going to be made, I am going to make them."