Editor’s note: In the first of an occasional series of interviews with Boston sports legends, Jamie Most goes one-on-one with Celtics legend Bob Cousy to discuss what it meant to win a championship (he was part of six of them in Boston), how he viewed the point guard position in his time as opposed to today and what he thinks of Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. Click the video above for the interview and follow the jump for a complete transcript of Cousy’s comments.
Jamie Most: Bob, the Celtics won their first NBA championship in the 1956-57 season. Game 7 was a double-overtime thriller that you won beating the St. Louis Hawks. Can you briefly talk about that game?
Bob Cousy: Yeah, I normally have trouble remembering what happened yesterday these days [laugh], but that one I remember somewhat vividly because there was a personal moment for me in it ... obviously, winning the championship, was the highlight, for the first time, but in terms of my own participation this was before the three point shot was in vogue, and we were up by one with five or six seconds left and I got fouled. And I went up to the line and I was a decent free throw shooter, not like [Bill] Sharman but I think I shot like 81 [percent] career and shot the first one nothing but net and Alex Hannum the opposing coach called a timeout. This was prior to freezing down the shooter, it hadn’t been done that might have been the very first time. In any event, we got back in to the huddle and everyone is already celebrating. There’s 4 seconds left we’re one point, we’re two points up, all I heard them saying, “Hey we won our first champion[ship], all you have to do is make that free throw” [Laugh]. And of course this registered for the first time and I said “oh-oh all I have to do.” I went back, my arm never got full extension my arm never went back to here, I missed the entire basket and for years after that I had letters from fans saying “Cooz, what was Arnold’s [Red Auerbach’s] strategy, why did he have you miss that free throw [laugh] on purpose [laugh].” ... I mean it was unbelievable, so it was the first time ever I remember "choking" in sports. It turned out fine because Alex Hannum put himself in the game. The plan was to throw the ball 94 feet against the backboard and hopefully have it come to Bob Pettit who had already scored 38 points and had been magnificent and it did, it worked perfectly. He hit the backboard hard, [it] came back to Pettit in front of the free throw line and poor Bobby he choked as badly [laugh] as I did. He threw that jump shot up and it hit the backboard I think it almost went to half court. Anyway, the good guys won their first championship, but it came despite [laugh] my terrible failure at the line.
JM: How did that championship rank with the five other championships that you were a part of?
BC: Well, for me it was the most significant. You know, in life whenever you set a goal for yourself and you work extremely hard to achieve it and you finally do, in my case it had been six years of mediocrity and then a guy named [Bill] Russell and [Tommy] Heinsohn joined the team and everything changed very dramatically and very quickly. As a matter of fact those two guys, thought, I think, that’s what is supposed to happen, you’re supposed to win a championship every year [laugh] because they seldom lost, if ever. And In my case, as I say, of all of the six I was involved with it was the most meaningful for me.
JM: And in that year you won the NBA MVP, correct?
JM: Was that the highlight of your career?
BC: Well, you know basketball players don’t think in terms of personal goals a lot, although, winning an MVP obviously is more significant because it‘s your peers that are choosing you as the best of what in those days, and it still is, the premier basketball league in the world so the game was not anywhere near as huge as it is today, but nevertheless, yeah in terms of personal achievements that was the most significant for me.
JM: And what about greatest moments, I always talk about greatest moments, what in your mind was your greatest moment on the court?
BC: Well, you know it was gratifying that in my last year, ’63, we won a championship in L.A. And we were able to finish, you know everybody likes to go out on top, few are able to achieve that. I was so fortunate really in that the first six years of my career in terms of team achievements was mediocre, the last seven years was very significant and the last year we were able to win it again so it was extremely meaningful to me. I suppose, you know I used to boast that in one game and four overtimes I scored what Wilt [Chamberlain] averaged one year, 50 points [laugh] and that was a playoff game and it happened in Boston and we needed it to advance to the next round and we hadn’t done that and everybody said “well they’re fine during the year, but they can’t” ... so scoring 50 points under those dramatic conditions, as I say from a personal standpoint, was I guess meaningful.
JM: That was against Syracuse?
BC: Syracuse Nats, yeah.
JM: People called you “The Houdini of the hardwood” for your excitable, energetic style of play. Can you describe your style?
BC: Well I was always a show off I guess. I was unorthodox and yet by nature, by personality I am very conservative and most of my game was bread and butter ... I would shy away, I would try to stay solid and stable. However, I had the skills in those days to do some of that unorthodox stuff and I might have been the only one doing it and that’s why I got all the attention for it. It was good because just like your dad [broadcaster Johnny Most], who had his own unique style and he certainly attracted fans to the game and to the Celtics and hopefully my play, my unorthodox play had that same affect at a time when the league needed a boost, needed something to sell. But I think frankly, what I was doing in those days every 12-year-old is doing today in every schoolyard with a hell of a lot more panache and flare than I did, but it served a purpose at the time.
JM: You were known for the no-look pass and the behind-the-back pass, very flashy style, how did Red handle that?
BC: Oh, Arnold said many times, you know, if it works I don’t care how you implement it or execute it as long as the ball gets to the target. For a while there, you know a while, a couple of days, it takes your teammates just like you adjust yourself, and accommodate yourself to their skills and their peculiarities they have to get used to the guy throwing them the ball so once that was achieved, you know, we didn’t really have any problems and Arnold, “hey if it works do it any way you want,” you know, that’s the criteria.
JM: Well, obviously, it worked. You won a lot of championships playing that way and you personally won eight straight assist titles, what was your secret in terms of being an assist man?
BC: Well, it’s more, you know, it’s more an intellectual adjustment than it is physical because the nature of the game every kid in every schoolyard is trying nowadays slam dunk and do the tricks and put the ball in the hole. So from the standpoint of a point guard you’ve gotta come over half court thinking of how can I do something wonderful and creative and establish a situation for an easy basket for one of the other four people. If the reverse is true and you come over saying "first I’m going to do my offense thing which there are a lot of point guards that do that and then if doesn’t work I still got enough time create something for the other four," in my mind my at least, you’re not a legitimate point guard and again in my mind, you’re not doing what is best to make full use of your passing skills. Seeing the floor is extremely important for a point guard, you say to someone, “boy does that guy see the floor well” and they must think for an unsophisticated fan, “don’t they all see the floor?” You know, but there’s a large difference if you have tunnel vision you’re never going to be a point guard. I used to constantly be told that I had eyes behind my head. You know, I didn’t have eyes behind [my head]. I had exceptional [peripheral vision]. I could see 90 degrees that way and that way I can’t tell you who’s standing right there I can’t identify them but I can see color or movement and that’s a tremendous advantage again, for a point guard at any level. So, in any event it’s mental you’ve got to be prepared to, not sacrifice you’re not being unselfish by doing this because when did I all those wonderful things and a guy blew the layup he’d hear from me [laugh] or he wouldn’t get the ball [laugh] again. So you create a masterpiece, a Picasso, you want it finished properly so there’s ego involved in being a point guard it’s not an unselfish exercise.
JM: Talking about point guards and assists, Rajon Rondo broke your Celtics single season assists record, which stood for fifty years. How do you feel about that?
BC: I feel great because, frankly, it called attention to the fact that I even [laugh] had an assists record. And secondly, it happened by a player that I have great admiration for. You know, I’ve been singing Rondo’s praises literally since he joined the Celtics. Tommy [Heinsohn] and I have been very high on that kid, as far as I’m concerned, he touches every base. He rebounds much stronger than he is. He’s a tenacious defender. You know they say he doesn’t shoot well, well, hell didn’t he lead the league [among point guards] from the field at [50 percent] or something? Yeah, he lacks confidence in his perimeter shot and yet when he I see him take it, you know, his form is fine he has great release, so he’s got to convince himself, really, that he’s a decent or good shooter and that’ll come, I guess, with more experience, but he does everything a good point guard should do. He creates well he penetrates and dishes well ... what more can a point guard do?
JM: When you retired in 1963 at the ceremony in the Boston Garden, that was a very emotional ceremony. A fan yelled out, “we love ya Cooz!” Did you ever find out who he was or ever talk to him?
BC: Yeah, I spoke to him once briefly on the phone and I did find out there was some communication and over the years his family kept me abreast. He died a few years ago and they let me know and so yeah, well the whole affair was an emotion moment for me and thank goodness you only have to do that once in a lifetime because you wouldn’t survive it a second time. But that was kind of the cherry on the whip cream, you know, his yelling out at that appropriate moment and it broke a tension-filled moment for me and it allowed me I think to continue a lot easier than it would have been if he hadn’t done that.
JM: Thank you very much for your time.
BC: Pleasure, Jamie.