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BOB COUSY: BASKETBALL'S CREATIVE GENIUS
Herbert Warren Wind
January 09, 1956
All Imagination and agility, the great Celtic star is leading the youngest of the major games out of its periodic wildernesses
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January 09, 1956

Bob Cousy: Basketball's Creative Genius

All Imagination and agility, the great Celtic star is leading the youngest of the major games out of its periodic wildernesses

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Today, 27 years old, a discernibly improved player in this his sixth season as a pro, Cousy is regarded by most experts as nothing less than the greatest all-round player in the 64-year history of basketball. "I've seen many great ones since I began fooling around with a ball in 1912," Joe Lapchick, a stalwart on the famous old New York Celtics and presently the coach of the Knickerbockers, reflected recently. "I've seen Johnny Beckman, Nat Holman, that wonderful player Hank Luisetti, Bob Davies, George Mikan, the best of the big men—to name just a few. Bob Cousy, though, is the best I've ever seen. He does so many things. It's so hard to say that Cousy can think in the air or that Cousy does this or that. Cousy does everything. He's regularly one of the league's top five scorers. When a guy's a scorer, you usually don't expect him to be a leader in the other departments. One talent generally suffers from another. Bob, however, has been a top leader in assists for the last five seasons. He's become a very capable defensive player, a tremendous pass stealer."

Lapchick paused to find words to sum up his panegyric. "I was just thinking of the games we've played against Cousy," he resumed with a bittersweet look in his eyes. "He always shows you something new, something you've never seen before. Any mistake against him and you pay the full price. One step and he's past the defense. He's quick, he's smart, he's tireless, he has spirit and he is probably the best finisher in sports today."

One Celtic-Knick scrap that Lap-chick may have been musing on was their meeting on December 10, 1953. The Knicks were leading 93-90 with 30 seconds to go. Since they had possession of the ball, Boston having just scored, and no 24-second rule to contend with in those days, the game to all intents and purposes was as good as over. The Knicks knew exactly how they would handle the play coming up to keep Cousy from getting his hands on the ball again. Carl Braun, taking the ball out of bounds, would wait until Dick McGuire cut toward him, carrying Cousy, his man, along with him. Braun would then toss the ball to Harry Gallatin, well behind the spot where Cousy would then be. Braun took the ball, McGuire came tearing along with Cousy, Braun threw the ball to Gallatin—and Cousy intercepted it with a pantherlike whirl. He drove in unimpeded for a basket that cut the Knicks' lead to one point. A moment later, up front on an all-court press, he intercepted a bounce pass. Boston (Cousy) immediately called time out. When play was resumed, Cousy hooked a pass to his teammate, Ed Macauley. Macauley was fouled before he could get a shot off. He made the foul. The final buzzer sounded: 93 all. In the overtime, in what many critics adjudge the finest exhibition of dribbling they have ever seen, Cousy controlled the ball for just about four of the five minutes of play, killing the clock once Boston was ahead and drawing foul after foul when as many as three Knicks at a time tried desperately to get the ball away from him. Final score: Boston 113—New York 108.

Like any athlete, Cousy has his big nights and his bad nights, though it should be added that most players would gladly settle for a straight diet of his bad ones. As to his greatest game, there is, to be sure, a sizable difference of opinion, the fan's choice depending in the last analysis on which games he has personally seen. A good many, for example, incline to think the high point was his performance in the 1954 East-West All-Star Game where Cousy turned the overtime into a one-man show while scoring 10 of the East's 14 points. (The basketball writers, who had voted Jim Pollard the game's most valuable player at the end of the regulation four quarters, had no other course but to open the polls again and vote the award to Cousy.) Most of Cousy's New England following, however, who idolize him with a clamorous devotion which recalls the great love affair between Les Canadiens' rooters and Maurice Richard (SI, Dec. 6,1954), are certain that no basketball player ever turned in a more magnificent job than Cousy did in a first-round playoff against the Syracuse Nationals two winters ago this coming March. Briefly, the tide of battle went something like this: at the end of the regulation four 12-minute periods, the teams were tied 77-77. At the end of the first five-minute overtime, they were still tied, 86 all. At the end of the second overtime, still tied up, 90 all. Syracuse dominated the third overtime and, with time rapidly running out, was out in front by five points. With 13 seconds to go, Cousy got loose for a pretty one-hander; he was fouled on the play and added the foul shot. With five seconds to go, he got the ball at mid-court and let go a long one-handed push-shot. Swish! 99-99. In the fourth overtime Syracuse once again raced off to a five-point lead. Once again Cousy tied it up. Syracuse began to fade then, and with Cousy adding four more foul shots, Boston pulled away to ultimately win 111-105. Cousy's scoring total for the marathon was 50 points—10 field goals and 30 free-throws in 32 attempts, still an NBA playoff record. Up to that evening Boston, seven years in the pro league, had been a rather shaky basketball town. Since that game, Boston has been a rabid basketball town—Cousy's performance was as conclusive as that.

LILLIPUTIAN IN A FOREST

In the Brobdingnagian world in which he operates, where a man 6 foot 5 has to look up to a good many of his teammates, Cousy, who stands 6 foot 1�, is one of the few surviving Lilliputians. On the floor, as he darts in and out of the forest of young oaks populating the court, spectators unconsciously begin to think of him as a much smaller man, a mere whippet of say 5 foot 8, or 5 foot 9. It is a shock to them, when they meet him off the court, to find that by conventional or nonbasketball standards their hero is a big fellow who towers over most hockey players and who must slide the front seat of an auto way back to gain sufficient leg room. (In this connection—how environment changes a fellow's height—Cousy's running-mate, Bill Sharman, offers a very amusing case. During the winter, those who watch him tend to peg him in their minds as "Little Bill" Sharman. Comes spring, Sharman switches to baseball—last year he batted .292 with St. Paul in the American Association—and instantly undergoes a metamorphosis. For the next six months he is "Big Bill" Sharman, at 6 foot 2, one of the largest third basemen in organized ball.)

Cousy's weight is as deceptive as his height. Taking in his unobtrusive chest, his sloping shoulders and his long, lean neck, most people guess him at 160 or 165 pounds. He weighs 185. Most of it is in his heavy, powerful thighs and legs, which, as Cousy sees it, are the key to a natural endurance that makes it possible for him to drive up and down a court long after other players in the pink of condition have retreated to the bench for a breather. But, of course, his most valuable physical asset is his hands, with their very large palms and extraordinarily long fingers, both far out of proportion to the rest of his body. Besides permitting Bob to manipulate a basketball more facilely than most giants can, his hands, when added to his average-length arm for a 6-footer—he takes a 35 shirt sleeve—give him a reach some two inches longer than most men his size and enable him, among other things, to perform that old back magic. One look at Cousy's hands and enthusiasts of other professions, from pianists to golfers, while not arguing that he was wrong to choose a career in basketball, invariably try to persuade him that he could have achieved as much in theirs. Baseball men are particularly saddened when they learn that Cousy played their game until he was 14 and then gave it up to concentrate on basketball. They see in him, when they add his speed, his eye and his catlike reflexes to these enormous mitts, a great shortstop who got away.

When Cousy occasionally succumbs to blandishments that his hands and timing give him the ideal equipment for this or that other sport, the results often exceed the expectation. Two years ago he took up tennis as an off-season conditioner and now plays it so well that he can provide suitable rallying if not playing opposition for Jack Kramer. When he decided to learn how to fish last May, he needed only two hours of practice before he was shooting 30 yards of D-weight line the full 90 feet with the ease of a master caster.

While enjoying his ever-enlarging sphere of proficiencies, Cousy has no regrets whatsoever that the hospitality of circumstances in St. Albans, Long Island, where he grew up, led him to a life of basketball. He loves the game and thinks of it as a great game, well worth anyone's dedication. "To me," he once confided to a friend, "practice was never work. It was and is time spent at the thing I love the best. It gives me a chance to improvise, to create. Maybe I shouldn't put it on such a high plane," Cousy interrupted himself with a grin. "Anyhow, it does give you a chance to dream up new things and to polish them, and that is one of the reasons why the game has always had such a tremendous appeal for me."

Cousy pours so much of himself into basketball that when he is playing a game his absorption in the business at hand temporarily suffuses the rest of his personality. In the dressing room before a game, his normally expressive dark brown eyes begin to lose their animation and a sort of glaze settles over and begins to tighten his mobile face. He becomes quiet and solemn, and, in fact, somewhat drowsy. Part of this is natural—he has an indecent capacity to relax at hard moments. Part of it is calculated. He wants to play each game up to the hilt and he knows that he is expected to cut loose with some sensational stuff, and a spot of pregame torpor helps him to collect his energy and to shape his concentration. Once on the floor, he changes considerably. A tremendous, burning will to win comes over him. His eyes become narrowed with dour-ness and his Gallic features take on a Velazquezian gauntness. Except for those moments when he is arguing a point with the referee, Cousy's set poker face never alters for a moment, whether the Celtics are winning or losing, whether he is "hot" or "off," regardless of the score and the period. Coupled with the assurance and the audacity of his style of play, this facial immobility is often misread by anti-Celtic fans as hauteur, and they watch his moves with the grudging admiration that Ben Hogan with his ice-cold, unshatterable poise used to extract from the followers of Snead, Nelson and other golfers.

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