They are proud old men with canes: Cooz and Russ, Boston basketball treasures, at 90 and 84. During the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, they shared glory as the atomic forces of the Celtics dynasty. In their dominance, they earned our appreciation even as both looked at the world, and for a time each other, through wary eyes.
Bob Cousy and Bill Russell had the staying power that other N.B.A. star pairings lost. Shaq and Kobe, after three N.B.A. titles, imploded in Los Angeles. Kyrie Irving left LeBron James in Cleveland two seasons ago for his own spotlight in Boston. Now, among stars in Golden State, there are rumblings of discontent between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green.
Celtics Coach Red Auerbach never had that trouble with his stars, Russell at center, Cousy at point guard. Together they won six N.B.A. championships during their seven seasons before Cousy retired. “Both have pride; both love to win and both know that it takes a team to win championships, not one man,” Auerbach said. “Men such as these need no handling. They took care of themselves.”
Cousy and Russell were interlocking pieces in the Celtics’ transition game. They blended passing and shot blocking, dribbling and rebounding, offense and defense. As a passer, Cooz brought theatricality to the game; as a defender, Russ revolutionized it.
Off the court, they were cordial but never truly friends. They had risen from poverty and in them stirred an outsider’s hunger, Cousy scrambling against the New York City ghetto, Russell against the white world he knew as a child in segregated Louisiana. During their time, from December 1956 until 1963 — on the civil rights timeline from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the March on Washington — Cooz and Russ never discussed politics, civil rights or their personal lives; they settled for locker room banter.
Both men were murderously competitive and self-analytical deep thinkers. Both had egos; even as they became basketball’s Ruth and Gehrig, both wanted to be Ruth. It didn’t help their relationship that the white sportswriters in Boston, a city with a fraught racial history, referred to the Celtics as “Cooz’s team.” It wasn’t … unless it was Cooz’s team and Russ’s sport. As if to prove that point, after Cousy retired, Russell led the Celtics to five more N.B.A. titles over the next six seasons. That made for 11 titles in 13 seasons (and five MVP awards for Russell), making these Celtics the most prolific American professional sports dynasty of the 20th century.
Barack Obama provided the capstone to Russell’s epic life, awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011; with it, Russell had won the historical narrative of the Celtics dynasty. Now it is known as Russell’s team. Cousy knows what happened: “Reality happened,” he says.
“A small thing,” Plutarch, the Greek biographer, suggested, “often makes a greater revelation of character than battles where thousands die.”
And so it has been with Cooz and Russ, character revealed by two small things: a clock and a letter. Though they live 3,000 miles apart and rarely interact, Cousy and Russell have created a respect and appreciation for the other’s humanity — as poignantly defined in moments 53 years apart.
When Cousy retired in April 1963, Russell wanted to give him a personal gift. He had just honored him at the Celtics’ annual Breakup Dinner, an intimate gathering for the team’s inner circle. Russell spread his hands an inch apart and said, “If Bob Cousy were this much less a man than he is, I would have resented him. There is such a thing as professional jealousy. A fellow reads about Cousy, sees his picture often, but I can honestly say I never resented Cousy.”
Russell became emotional: “Cousy is outstanding. We see each other as brothers, not as great athletes. We can never find words to say what Cousy has done just by being himself. You meet a Cousy not once a month but once in a lifetime. Bob Cousy has made playing with the Celtics one of the most gratifying things in my life.” Soon after, Russell bought a handsome desk clock for Cooz, the only gift he received from teammates. Russell included an engraved inscription: “May The Next Seventy Be As Pleasant As The Last Seven. From The Russells To The Cousys.” Today that clock sits in Cousy’s dining room in Worcester, Mass.
Cousy doesn’t recall Russell’s words at the dinner. Hearing them now, he wonders why he didn’t hug Russell. “Maybe that’s an indictment of my sensitivities in those days,” he says.
Cousy, a widower, lives alone in the 6,300-square-foot house that he and his wife, Missie, bought in 1963. It’s filled with memories. He reads for four hours every day. Occasionally, he watches the Celtics on TV, but usually turns in at halftime.
His mind remains sharp, like a basketball Library of Congress. He’s been closing circles in his life with people who matter most to him: First, Missie, who died in 2013 after nearly 63 years of marriage, and their two daughters. In 2003, Cousy sold his memorabilia for $450,000 —— trophies, plaques, scrapbooks — and gave the proceeds to the daughters.
That left one more circle for Cooz to close on his End of Life To-Do List — with his greatest teammate, Russell.
Cousy was viewed as one of the good guys by the N.B.A.’s early African-American players. He roomed as a rookie in 1950 with Chuck Cooper, the first black player drafted by an N.B.A. team, and they became lifelong friends. Yet he harbors regrets about his time with Russell.
Racists targeted Russell in St. Louis, where at games they screamed “Baboon!” and “Black Gorilla!” In the Boston suburb of Reading, Mass., vandals once broke into Russell’s home, spray-painted racist graffiti on walls and defecated on his bed.
Auerbach encouraged players to avoid controversy. Cousy remained silent. Now he regrets that. He wishes he had spoken out publicly against the racism that enveloped Russell. “I might have been able to neutralize some of this,” he said, “if I had been more outspoken.” He wishes, too, that, as Celtics captain, he had told Russell privately, “Russ, I’ve got your back.” But he did not say or do that.
It is rare in America for a white man approaching 90 to reconsider race and how it played out in his life. But that’s what Cousy has done. Most great athletes embellish and burnish stories about their past. Cousy is only trying to set the record straight. This is who I was. This is his final declaration: I wish I had done more.
One morning in February 2016, Cooz pulled out paper and pen and wrote a one-and-a-half-page mea culpa letter to Russ. He apologized for not having reached out to him as a teammate. He said he was sorry they hadn’t shared a more meaningful relationship in the decades since, and he accepted full responsibility for that.
This was Cooz’s confessional, his last pass to Russ. He wrote his letter in answer to his conscience. They had been teammates for only seven years. But the captain knows those were not just any seven years for the Boston Celtics. He knows, too, that Russell was not just any teammate.