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Herbert Warren Wind
January 16, 1956
Boy and man, the Celtic star has used his skills to remedy basketball's flaws and enhance its delights
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January 16, 1956

Bob Cousy: The Man And The Game

Boy and man, the Celtic star has used his skills to remedy basketball's flaws and enhance its delights

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In a game this winter in which the league-leading Philadelphia Warriors defeated the Boston Celtics 109-108, Bob Cousy of the Celtics enjoyed what was, even by the standards an expectant public imposes on the finest all-round player in basketball today and perhaps the finest ever, a very good night. During his 40 minutes on the court Cousy scored 29 points on nine field goals and 11 foul shots. Not that this was all he did by a long shot—as usual he built the plays that set up 80% of his team's baskets, pulled off such exclusive Cousyisms as his twice-around-the-back pass, and his unquenchable will to win fired the Celtics to a furious last-quarter rally that all but overcame the Warriors' 12-point lead. But a brief recapitulation of the various ways Bob scored from the floor that evening affords as handy an avenue as any to appreciating why Cousy is held to be, in knowledgeable quarters, the essence of imaginative, exciting basketball.

Cousy scored first on a right-hand hook shot after a combination play with Bill Sharman and Ed Macauley. He scored next on a running layup with his left hand, slipping in from the left and collecting a perfect pass from Macauley, who had faked a jump shot from 10 feet in front of the basket. His third score was on a long left-hand hook (off the backboard) from the left corner after dribbling to the center of the court from the left side, finding no one to pass to and no place to go, then reversing his course and firing as he spun around. Next came on a soft one-hand push shot from just beyond the foul line. Next, a full-tilt layup after he had broken up a Warrior play at midcourt and stolen the ball. Next—a real beauty—a semiunderhand shot with his right hand which he somehow shoveled under the arm of one of two men who apparently had him completely tied up with his back to the basket to the right of the foul line. He followed this with a comparatively unpretty basket, a little two-handed jump shot from about 10 feet out after a set play from out of bounds had gone sour and the rebound from a hurried shot had been kicked around. Finally, as he directed Boston's last-ditch rally, Cousy scored twice more from the floor in addition to five times from the foul line. The first was an orthodox straight-on layup, after he had dribbled the length of the court and effected his opening through the defense by faking his patented behind-the-back pass as he hit the foul line, stuttering that split second and then driving in hard. His last one came after he had caught one of those desperation "forward passes" and, with only one defensive man to beat, feigned a drive to the left and simply dribbled around the man in a quick semicircle to the right.

Heavier scorers you will see, but a virtuosity comparable to Cousy's, no. It is all the more remarkable when you consider that at 6'1� he is one of the smallest men in the National Basketball Association and at 27, a veteran of six grueling professional seasons who by all natural laws should be gracefully entering athletic middle age.

Whenever a sports fan watches an ultra-athlete like Robert Joseph Cousy, that old speculation always crosses his mind: how much derives from sheer natural ability, how much from plain hard work? The answer in Cousy's case is 50-50. Nature endowed him with about the full complement of physical assets for basketball: peripheral vision, huge hands and long fingers, a reach two inches longer than the average man his height, sufficient height, very sturdy legs and, as one Madison Avenue type has couched it, "the equilibrium of an antelope, on the rocks, of course." On the other hand, few athletes have surrendered the hours and attention to their sport that Cousy has. At 14 he gave up baseball, since, as he now explains, "I realized that if I played two sports, I wouldn't be able to give basketball the time it needed." In St. Albans, L.I., a town on the eastern rim of the borough of Queens where he grew up, Bob practiced and played basketball straight through the four seasons and practically every moonlit night, a diurnal inhabitant of either the O'Connell playground or the schoolyard of P.S. 36. He has always been and continues to be that rarity in sports, the tireless but intelligent practicer. Three winters ago, for instance, Ed Scannell, the sports editor of the Worcester Gazette—Cousy has made his home in Worcester since graduating from Holy Cross in 1950—happened to drop into a local high school gym on one of Cousy's days off between Celtic games. There was Cousy, alone in the gym, ripping up and down the court, leaping each time he hit the foul line and tossing up a one-hander. The teams in the NBA, he explained to Scannell afterward, were playing him to pass when he reached the foul line and he was working on his jump shot, the better to keep them guessing.

This winter the maestro has been practicing a two-hand set, a shot he hasn't used since his sophomore year in college. "You can get the one-hander off quicker," he was recently explaining to a high school inquisitor, "but you can't count on being too accurate with it from more than 22 or 23 feet out. Now that the teams are using the 'sagging defense,' I think a player will need to have a shot in his repertoire that he can rely on from 30 feet out. That means the old two-handed set."


St. Albans, where Bob Cousy first caught the basketball bug, was a hard place to escape it. The local high school, Andrew Jackson, had built up a reputation for winning teams, and it became the ambition of every boy in the district to make the team. Basketball was the game in St. Albans, no question about it. Bob's parents, Joseph and Juliette Cousy, had moved to that community from Manhattan when their son, their only child, was about 11 years old. They are extremely interesting and appealing people, the Cousys. Joseph Cousy—a short man of about 5 feet 6 inches, by the way—was born in Belfort near the eastern border of France, the son of a farmer who raised cherries, apples, pigs and some cattle. None of the earlier Cousys had possessed any extraordinary gifts, athletic or otherwise, aside from the family's traditional ability for running one of the most prosperous farms in Alsace-Lorraine. Joseph Cousy's only fling at athletics, if it can be called that, was a short career in automobile racing before World War I, when he competed in a local event, Le Ballon d' Alsace, a road race to the top of one of the highest peaks (3,000 feet) in Les Vosges. He fought in the war, was captured and returned after the armistice to see how the old Cousy farm had fared. Like all border property, it had been trampled into nothing. He looked at it, and the feeling went through him that no efforts could ever restore it and he turned away from it forever. He went into the auto repair business, and when he had saved up enough to buy an auto, he rented his car and his services out to rich families who wanted to tour Europe that way. In 1927 he married Juliette Corlet, the daughter of a maitre d'hotel, who had been born in the United States while M. Corlet was with the Touraine Hotel in Boston. When she was 5, she had gone back with her father to his hometown Dijon, and had in time become a teacher of languages, tutoring the children of well-to-do families. A very French woman, animated, intense and excitable, Mrs. Cousy, a fairly tall woman, was, as she recalls with pleasure when questioned by people seeking clues to her son's exceptional coordination, not a bad tennis player.

The Cousys emigrated to New York, and their son Robert Joseph was born about a month after their arrival. The best job Mr. Cousy could find in the city was driving a taxi. The best home he could afford was a couple of rooms on 83rd street in Manhattan's roughneck Yorkville section ("The games there were stickball and breaking windows," Bob recalls). Mr. Cousy stood it until he could stand no longer to see his son growing up on the streets. Then, mortgaging himself up to his ears, he bought himself a small house in St. Albans, a neighborhood in those days of trees, spaces, some air and some quiet. Mr. and Mrs. Cousy—he presently works at Idlewild Airport as an administrator in Pan American's maintenance department—still live in that same house in St. Albans, along with a small aviary of 25 canaries and parakeets which Mrs. Cousy keeps. They are basketball fans, and you can see them at most games when the Celtics come to New York to play the Knickerbockers: a small, neat, bespectacled, self-contained gentleman and a tallish, slim, quite handsome and emotional lady, both of them still a little dazed that their son now derives an income of well over $30,000 a year through his proficiency at a game which they long viewed with alarm as a passion that might prejudice his chances for learning a profession or a trade and finding a secure living.


The ideal temperament for a competitive athlete to have inherited from such a set of parents would have been a fusion of his mother's exuberant spirit and his father's rational self-control. Cousy did. During a game he gets so overcome by his desire to win that, beneath his sheath of coolness, he is almost as Gallicly aboil as that other great athlete of French descent, Rocket Richard. The moment a game is over, however, that solid base of placid practicality, present all the time if not conspicuous, takes over in force. It stills his emotion instantly, almost with a thud, and he begins to speak with his customary slowness which is almost a drawl. These days Cousy rarely speaks French, except when he is visiting his parents, but his bilinguality has on occasion proved an oddly serviceable asset. This last summer, for illustration, Cousy and Coaches Red Auerbach and Adolph Rupp of Kentucky were invited by General Garland of SHAPE to conduct a basketball clinic in Landsberg, Germany which was attended by representatives from American military units stationed in Europe and also by delegates from seven basketball-playing European countries. Cousy found that things worked out best for this complex audience when he conducted the lecture portion of his classes in English and the question-and-answer part in both English and French.

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