SI Vault
Alexander Wolff
October 16, 1991
Bob Cousy was brilliant in his day. But would he and his peers succeed in the game of the '90s?
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October 16, 1991

Could Cousy Play In Today's Nba?

Bob Cousy was brilliant in his day. But would he and his peers succeed in the game of the '90s?

You're grateful when the telephone rings and Bob Cousy has to leave the living room of his rambling home in Worcester, Mass. A friend has phoned to ask after Cousy's wife, Marie, who is in the hospital recovering from minor surgery. As he walks off to take the call—Cousy is 63 years old now, still trim and light afoot; his preternaturally long arms describe broad arcs in the air as he takes each step—you seize the chance. You slip into the armchair he has just vacated.

Moments earlier Cousy had mentioned that he could see the lamp on the side table, the lamp positioned a good 30 to 40 degrees behind his left flank. He could see it, he said, while staring straight ahead at you. He had not mentioned this in any boastful context. He had merely been delineating matter-of-factly the skills that allowed him to rule the National Basketball Association through the '50s and '60s from his position in the backcourt of the Boston Celtics. Among those skills were his ability to see the narrow apertures in the defense and exploit them before they evanesced, and the uncanny knack for throwing those passes that led people to say that the Cooz had "eyes in the back of his head."

Seated in the armchair now, you strain to pick out that lamp, somewhere to the left. You see nothing. Cheating, you turn your head slightly to the left and try again. Still nothing. Then you realize: Most people look at something to see it. Uncommon peripheral vision allowed Cousy to glimpse something amorphous—the contours of a figure, a swatch of color—and then imagine it.

Evidently, that gift stays with a man even after he loses the proverbial step. It's a gift as rare now as it was decades ago. That's why Cousy would stand out even if he played in today's bigger, faster NBA. That, and his legs, featuring thighs which suggest that, if his parents hadn't emigrated from Alsace in 1928, the young Cousy might have ridden in the Tour de France. Then, too, there is the desire, which once propelled him into a gym on an off-day, whereupon he dashed from foul line to foul line, working on his pull-up jumper because defenders had begun playing him to pass when he ran the break.

Cousy is forever being asked the question, sometimes on behalf of the Celtics he played with, sometimes on behalf of his entire generation of NBA old-timers: Could you guys have played today? As someone who has stayed close to the game since his retirement in 1963 (he even made a seven-game return for the Cincinnati Royals during the 1969-70 season, when he was the Royals' head coach), and as a broadcaster so plainspoken that he discomfits many Celtics fans accustomed to house men, Cousy has the credibility to take up the issue.

"If you're talking about Hall of Famers, yes, we could play," he says. "There are guys today making a million dollars a year who go to applaud and miss their hands. [Bill] Russell, Oscar [Robertson], guys like that—we would function today, and quite effectively, if not actually dominate. Russ would still be effective. I would be one of the premier point guards. Point guards are at much more of a premium. I don't think there are five or six now who can really run a team."

Cousy is unusual among basketball old-timers in this regard: There is actually a current NBA player, an All-Star, no less, who reminds people of him. Watch John Stockton, the floor leader of the Utah Jazz, and it's not hard to imagine Cousy prospering in the NBA today. Indeed, Jazz forward Karl Malone calls Stockton "Bob Cousy without the accent." Stockton is virtually the same height (6'1") and weight (175) as Cousy, with the same strong legs and the same feel for his teammates. If Stockton somehow doesn't seem as sensational as Cousy once did, it's because the evolution of the game into an aerial ballet has established new standards for the sensational.

How does one determine whether other stars from the NBA's past could play today? It isn't as easy as pairing them off with contemporary counterparts. There is no latter-day equivalent for Wilt Chamberlain, for instance, yet there's no doubt that Chamberlain would be a dominant force in the NBA of any era. As for players like Robertson, Russell, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, they were all, like their forerunner Cousy, either Promethean in the way they interpreted the game or unique in the physical equipment they were blessed with—or both. They would all be stars today, even if they might no longer stand out as such singular specimens.

But what about the half generation before them, men like George Mikan, Bob Pettit and Dolph Schayes? The 6'10", 245-pound Mikan was so slow that people around the league called the Minneapolis Laker offense "waiting for Mikan," which is what the rest of the Lakers did until Mikan finally took up his position in the low post so the team could initiate its half-court set. In today's NBA, with its 24-second clock and 21st-century athlete, the only waiting around that's done is for Michael Jordan to return to earth. Could someone with Mikan's size, pluck, intelligence and coordination play out the forthcoming 1991-92 NBA season respectably?

Well, so long as the likes of the Orlando Magic's Greg Kite and the New Jersey Nets' Chris Dudley draw professional salaries, the point really isn't worth arguing. But it's safe to say that Mikan, who in 1950 was Noted the greatest player of the first half of the 20th century, is fortunate that he had a chance to earn his place in the Hall of Fame when big men were relatively scarce and coaches were so grateful to have one that they would happily overhaul their systems to accommodate him.

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