Billy Fitzpatrick ’20
Chief Sports Editor
The Holy Cross community welcomed home Basketball Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, Class of 1950, last Friday night at Seelos Theater on the campus of the College of the Holy Cross. Making the short journey to Mount Saint James from his home of 55 years on Salisbury Street in Worcester, Cousy spoke in front of a capacity crowd with Gary Pomerantz, author of The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End, released last Tuesday.
When Pomerantz, historian, author, and lecturer in the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University, set out to write his sixth book, he planned on telling the story of the most dominant basketball dynasty to ever reign: the Boston Celtics of the 1950s and ‘60s. However, after his first interview with Cousy, a four-hour conversation that was never really about X’s and O’s, Pomerantz knew that there was a more important story to be told. After four years and 53 interviews all said and done, Pomerantz has painted a portrait in The Last Pass of a man who, in facing his own mortality, wrestles with regret of the things he wish he had done but didn’t.
Cousy spoke candidly last Friday about the biggest regret of his life: his relationship with teammate Bill Russell. While the two connected beautifully on the court (to the tune of six NBA titles together), what most sticks with “Cooz” in this final stage of his life is not the litany of achievements the duo amassed. Rather, Cousy’s decision to watch idly as Russell, an outspoken figure in civil rights advocacy, endured years of racial prejudice and abuse has left a wound in his soul that no basketball feat could heal. Having starred for the Celtics for six years before Russell joined the team as a rookie for the 1956-1957 campaign, Cousy was well aware that he had the media’s ear. “I was the man,” Cousy joked, the fading laughter giving way to an underlying sense of remorse.
Cousy, who has never moved from Worcester since enrolling at Holy Cross in the fall of 1946, credits the Jesuits with instilling a sense of right and wrong in him. Indeed, his views on race relations were progressive for his time and place. He roomed with teammate and close friend Chuck Cooper, the first African-American player drafted in the NBA. Therefore, his inaction when it came to the case of supporting Russell was not ideologically-driven. Cousy, known as a quiet and introverted man in his playing days, said that he preferred to lead by actions rather than words, which made him uncomfortable with offering a public defense of Russell. Years later, he would come to regret “not feeling his pain more.”
Pomerantz details in beautiful fashion how Cooz’s unselfish playing style (he is the only player to lead the NBA in assists eight different times) mirrors his approach to his personal life: living for and with others, as the Jesuits would say. In her final years, Cousy’s wife Missie struggled with dementia before passing away in 2013. During this time, Cousy took care of her every need (which, he says in typical reductive fashion, was basically just “take-out and pills”). He still communicates with her every day, filling her in on his now quiet life. In 2003, he sold off his plentiful memorabilia for about $450,000, which he then gave to his two daughters.
But Cousy still had one thing left to give: an apology to his old teammate, Bill Russell. So in February 2016, moved by the process of working on the book, Cousy penned a mea culpa letter to Russell, offering up a belated apology. While the note went unanswered for two and a half years, Cousy rest assured that he acted on a deep-seated regret, by both writing the letter and giving himself to this book. Two months ago, Russell called Cousy up for the first time in years, “just to check in,” which Cousy took as acceptance of his apology.
This is the story of The Last Pass. Pomerantz sums up what this journey has meant for Cousy: “When we’re young, we aspire to be a great man. And then we grow older, as Cousy has, and we develop context, and we realize that life is not eternal, and we aspire to be a good man. And I think this has been part of Cousy’s journey.” The greatness of Bob Cousy was established long ago, even before his arrival at Holy Cross. Now, after righting a 70-year-old wrong through The Last Pass, nobody can dispute his goodness, either.
Photo by Hui Li ’21