SI Vault
 
BOB COUSY: THE MAN AND THE GAME
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

It took Cousy about a season and a half to find himself in pro ball. In his first year with the Celtics, 1950-51, he finished ninth in the league in scoring and was chosen rookie of the year, but, in truth, his overall play was not really impressive. Too often when he tried his fancy stuff, he fooled his teammates as badly as the rival team. When an unexpected pass from Cousy ripped by a teammate completely unprepared to receive it, it would have been inaccurate to have attributed the mixup to the fact that Cousy was just too fast for his colleagues. Like many freshmen in the pro ranks, he was prone to force openings where none existed, and his defensive play was shown to be extremely spotty. Midway through his sophomore year, he suddenly blossomed into a different ballplayer, a commanding figure in every game he played. The major credit for this quick maturity belongs, to be sure, to Cousy himself, but a sizable share should go to Arnold (Red) Auerbach, the brown-haired coach of the Celtics. Though he has often succeeded in disguising his ability as a coach by carrying on as if the atrical referee baiting was his first love, Auerbach knows the game. His big move in helping Cousy to release his bottled-up potential was to develop an offense based on the fast break, with Cousy as lead man. Auerbach also diagnosed that a key reason why Cousy had been getting himself tied up by the defense had been his predilection for trying to work the ball in too close to the basket. The foul line, he pointed out acutely, was the point where, in the large majority of situations, Cousy should make his decisions.

Then it all began to come. Familiarization with the styles of his teammates did the rest. "Bob is a wonderful team man, let me make that as clear as a crystal in case you might have picked up some erroneous ideas to the contrary," Auerbach said this winter. "The only kick I have with Cousy is that he makes practice sessions hard on a coach. All the other players just want to stand still and watch him."

In spite of what Cousy has done for basketball by his personal magnificence and his influence on other players, the game, as both its harshest critics and staunchest supporters agree, has quite a distance to go, in certain areas which even a Cousy cannot affect, if it hopes to develop into a better and not a worse game.

The difficulties which beset basketball as it tries to deal with its now chronic problem—how to keep from becoming a game dominated by taller and taller men with room only for occasional superlative "small men"—is epitomized by the changing attitudes of Forrest (Phog) Allen, the very vocal coach of Kansas. For years Phog was the loudest exponent of controlling the tall man's advantages by raising the basket higher off the ground. Now that Kansas has acquired Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain and his 7 feet 2 inches of ability, Phog sees no reason in the world for raising the baskets. Ten feet is perfect for Chamberlain and for Allen. In the opinion of not a few veteran observers, one possible solution of the tall-man peril would be to enlarge the court both in width and in length. Their feeling is that this larger court, by placing a greater premium on speed, quickness, maneuverability, stamina and basic basketball sense, might restore the stature of athletes of average height, and make it essential for the giants to be truly first-rate athletes like Mel Hutchins and Maurice Stokes. It might also serve to bring back that almost lost art: skillful defensive play. In this connection the other principal area in which many of the outstanding coaches and players think that basketball has gone astray from its best expression has been the evolution of a type of game in which the action is stopped far too frequently by the calling of fouls. It would appear that piecemeal revisions have no effect in the long run and that a whole new study of what is permissible body contact and what is a foul is needed. Too many referees today seem to forget that a man effecting a clean block of a layup, to cite one example, will necessarily establish some body contact with the shooter; while this body contact really hasn't interfered with the shooter's chances of scoring, today the calling of a foul approaches the automatic. One thing is certain: when you have seen a game in which more foul shots are made than field goals—frequently the case these days—you have not seen enjoyable or genuine basketball.

THE NOMADIC LIFE

The hardest part of the life of a pro athlete is learning how to adjust to the fact that he will never quite adjust to the plexus of eternal travel and topsyturvy hours. Cousy is luckier than most of his brethren inasmuch as he can fall asleep in 10 minutes on any reasonably soft horizontal surface. Furthermore, as every outstanding athlete must, he has acquired the hardy mental stamina that enables him to play his usual game after snagging only a couple of hours sleep or when he is burdened by physical miseries that would render the average person hors de combat for pinochle. On the other hand, some aspects of the nomadic life are harder on Cousy than on some others. As anyone would be who was brought up on pot-au-feu, he has discriminating taste buds, and this makes things a little tough on him when a game finishes at 11 and the only eating places still open specialize in fishburgers and papaya juice. Moreover, his active mind requires something more stimulating than that favorite time-killing pastime of traveling athletes: sitting in a hotel lobby hours on end, watching everything and nothing. If it happens that he has caught up on his sleep and extra hours are still hanging awkwardly around, Bob usually takes in a movie with his roommate Sharman and some of the other players. "I've seen as many as four in one day," he remarked ruefully this winter. "I probably see more movies in a year than Louella Parsons." For all these reasons—plus the pleasure he takes in his home, his wife Missie and their children, Marie Colette, 4, and Mary Pat, 3—Cousy's spirits always rise when a road trip is ending.

The pro season is a long enervating grind. Practice starts around the first of October and the play offs linger on into April some years. During the off-season Cousy is able to lead a relatively normal life, but the only period in which he is able to get away from basketball completely is the two months between the end of a season and mid-June. Then he goes up to New Hampshire to ready Camp Graylag, of which he is one of the three co-owners, for the influx of the campers. Graylag offers a wide range of activities but, as you might expect, its heart is a large central area paved with concrete, lined for two basketball courts, encircled with other baskets set at heights suitable for younger players, and equipped with floodlighting. The ball is bouncing practically all of the time. After the camp season comes the clinic season and sometimes, if there is room, a little missionary work. (Cousy has a standing offer to visit Finland, a country in which basketball is now giving middle-distance running a run for its money.) "I suppose it's a good thing I love my work," he said the afternoon before a game this winter when he was lolling about his living room with some friends, listening to some Nat Cole records and watching his very cute daughters turning handsprings over the furniture and unconsciously exhibiting a coordination and balance that would bring a gleam to the eye of a scout for a high-wire aerial act. "Maybe we'll let them play tennis," Cousy said with a wink as he looked away from his daughters. "Thank goodness they look like their mother. The poor kids, they've got my feet and my hands."

1 2 3 4