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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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With the score tied 57-57 and about 10 seconds to go in the Holy Cross- Loyola of Chicago game in 1949, Bob Cousy of Holy Cross was fed the ball and drove hard for the basket, hoping to get a half step ahead of his man and get off a fairly close-in shot, preferably a lay-up, with his right hand. He never got that half step ahead. The man guarding him, Ralph Klaerich, had held Cousy scoreless from the floor during the entire second half and was right with him again this time. If anything, Klaerich was a fraction of a step in front of Cousy, overplaying him to his right side as he had been doing with remarkable success, ready to block any shot Cousy might try to make as he finished his dribble.

This time, however, Cousy finished his dribble somewhat differently than Klaerich—or, for that matter, Cousy—was expecting. Realizing that the only way he could get free for a shot was somehow to get to Klaerich's right (his left), Cousy, hearkening to some distant drum, reached behind his back with his right hand and slapped the ball to the floor, found the ball with his left hand as it came up on the bounce to his left side, and then, without a break in his stride or dribble, drove to the left (yards away from the flabbergasted Klaerich), leaped into the air and sank a florid left-hander that won the game. "There was some talk at the time that I had been practicing that behind-the-back dribble and had only been waiting for the proper occasion to use it," Cousy recently recalled. "The fact of the matter is that I had never even thought of such a maneuver until the moment the situation forced me into it. It was purely and simply one of those cases when necessity is the mother of invention. I was absolutely amazed myself at what I had done. It was only much later that I began to practice it so that I could make it a reliable part of my repertoire."

A person of abundant imagination, Cousy over the years has enlarged and refined his ball-handling techniques to the point where today no oldtimer remembers his equal and no contemporary player can touch him. To begin with, he is unanimously regarded as the game's most accomplished dribbler. The one man who might be compared with him, the old Globetrotter alumnus, Marques Haynes, honestly cannot be, since Cousy works against—and confounds—bona fide opposition in the National Basketball Association while Haynes operates on an exhibition tour with a well-drilled "opponent" helping him to display his remarkable wares. Much the same difference applies to any comparison of Cousy and Goose Tatum, whose humor and ball handling made the Globetrotters one of the most gratifying vaudeville acts since Singer's Midgets and Fink's Mules. Performed at the breakneck speed with which the pro game is played, Cousy's thesaurus now includes (along with his behind-the-back dribble, the pass-off-the-dribble, the reverse dribble and other plain and fancy locomotion) such exclusive Cousyisms as the behind-the-back transfer (in which he shifts the ball from his right hand to his left and then lays up a left-hander, all this while afloat in the air), the twice-around pass (in which he swings the ball around his back once and then passes it off to a teammate as he takes it around a second time, all this, of course, while in the air) and several variations on these themes which he resorts to when the situation calls for them. This virtuosity has won for Cousy such sobriquets as "The Mobile Magician" and "The Houdini of the Hardwood" as well as the highest salary of any player in the NBA. He receives about $20,000 a year from the Boston Celtics, and in a world where few basketball players as yet get a slurp of the subsidiary gravy, he has been able to augment his income considerably by running clinics and by endorsing a chewing gum, a breakfast food, a toothpaste, a seamless basketball and a Canadian sneaker. Far from resenting Cousy's fiscal eminence, his teammates and rivals are extremely happy about it for there is absolute agreement that, since the retirement of George Mikan, Cousy, as pro basketball's greatest attraction, has almost singlehandedly been carrying the league to a prosperity it could never otherwise enjoy.

It is always a little misleading to talk about the astonishing things Bob Cousy can do with a basketball because it tends to distort a true appreciation of his genius for the game. Though you are apt to forget it some nights when a poorly played contest seems to consist almost entirely of tall men shooting from outside and taller men battling lugubriously under the basket, basketball, good basketball, is a game of movement. As in hockey, Rugby, soccer, polo, lacrosse, and other kindred games where two opposing teams try to gain possession of the ball and advance it toward the enemy's goal for a scoring shot, the really gifted players are not necessarily the high-scoring specialists but the men with an instinctive sense of how to build a play—the man without the ball who knows how to cut free from the opponent covering him, and, even more important, the man with the ball who can "feel" how an offensive maneuver can develop, who can instantly spot a man who breaks free, and who can zip the ball over to him at the right split second. Without this latter breed—the play-makers—basketball, or any other goal-to-goal game, can degenerate into a rather ragged race up and down the playing field.

Cousy's greatness lies in the fact that he is fundamentally a play-maker and that his legerdemain, far from being empty show-boating, is functional, solid basketball. Equipped with a fine sense of pattern, superb reflexes, he also has peripheral vision which enables him to see not only the men in front of him but a full 180� angle of the action. Thus, like nobody else in the game—unless it be Dick McGuire of the Knicks on one of his outlandish hot nights—Cousy can open up a seemingly clogged court by appearing to focus in one direction, simultaneously spotting a seemingly unreachable teammate in another area, and quickly turning him into a scoring threat with a whiplash pass. There is implicit deception in Cousy's straight basketball, which is the secret of any great player's success, and it is only in those exceptional circumstances when extra measures pay off soundly that he resorts to his really fancy stuff.

Well aware that his feats of manipulation draw the crowds and help to keep the league healthy, Cousy will flash a few of his special effects near the end of a game in which the outcome is already surely decided, if he previously has not had a chance to use them. Aside from this, he is all function. There has been only one occasion, for example, when he has deliberately trotted out a little of the old razzle-dazzle to show up an opposing player.

This occurred a few years back in one of those high-pitched battles between the Celtics and the Knicks. Sweetwater Clifton of the Knicks, who can handle the ball with his enormous hands as if it were the size of a grapefruit, had been, as Cousy saw it, indulging himself far too prodigally in exhibiting his artistry and appeared much more concerned with making the Celtics look foolish than in playing basketball. This aroused Cousy's French. The next time he got the ball, he dribbled straight up to Clifton. Looking Sweets right in the eye, he wound up as if he were going to boom a big overhand pass directly at him. As he brought the ball over his shoulder, however, Cousy let it roll down his back, where he caught it with his left hand, and, completing that big windmill thrust with his empty right hand, stuck it out towards Sweets in the gesture of "shake hands." It brought down the house.

"It was an old Globetrotter trick I'd seen them use and had practiced for my own benefit a couple of times," Cousy explained not long ago. "I shouldn't have done it but I was awfully sore at the time. Naturally the newspapers played it up that there was a feud between me and Clifton. The next time we played New York I looked Clifton up and told him I was sorry about the incident, for I was. Clifton isn't a wise guy. He's a helluva nice guy. I should have taken that into account at the time."

Even when he was a collegian, Robert Joseph Cousy's ability was so conspicuous that Adolph Rupp, the unquiet coach of Kentucky, acclaimed him "the greatest offensive player in the country." This is a tribute indeed when you consider that Rupp views it as only a little short of treason to find anything or anybody worthy of his praise except Happy Chandler, bourbon whisky, his own basketball teams and other strictly Bluegrass products.


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