It’s seldom thought about now, but back when Bill Russell — the greatest winner in major sports history — was leading the Boston Celtics to a still-unmatched level of sustained success, the public didn’t think of them as “his” team.
That honor instead belonged to Bob Cousy.
While that’s not necessarily Cousy’s fault, the Hall of Fame point guard who was famously private and guarded during his playing years has become less reticent in recent decades about how Boston’s institutional racism influenced how he, Russell and the team were perceived by the public.
“Russ was the angry black man,” Cousy said, via CNN.com. “Frankly, I don’t blame him one bit.”
Cousy’s candid quote is one of several that are garnering new attention as a result of biographer Gary M. Pomerantz’s new book, “Last Pass,” about the relationship between Cousy, arguably the NBA’s first superstar, and Russell, now widely regarded as one of the most influential athletes of all time.
The Celtics’ perennial success and Red Auerbach’s progressive approach to building his team — Boston was the first franchise to draft an African-American player and the first to hire a black coach — masked the difficulties black players experienced in their daily lives. Russell was subjected to death threats, home invasions and more, even as he was being cheered on at Boston Garden.
Another Cousy comment deals with a letter he wrote to Russell in 2016. Amid the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, Cousy’s thoughts swung to his old teammate, according to Pomerantz, and his own failure to stand up against the indignities suffered by Russell and other black players at the time.
“It was a selfish act on my part,” Cousy is quoted as saying of the letter. “It was, ‘I gotta get this out of my way so I can cross it off my list.’ ”
Although it’s clear that “Last Pass” isn’t solely a treatise on Cousy’s reflections on race in America — a task he seems to freely admit he’s underqualified for, anyway — he addresses the topic with admirable honesty in the book and with CNN, even saying that while he doesn’t agree with the act of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, “I agree with the cause.”
The first Celtics dynasty has produced no shortage of great books chronicling the Russell era, which produced 11 championships total and six while Cousy was paired with Russell. But from early returns, it sounds like “Last Pass” could soon have a place alongside “Red And Me,” “King Of The Court” and “Second Wind” as must-have books for any Celtics fan’s library.
Thumbnail photo via Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports Images