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One on one with Bob Cousy

By Clark Booth '61

to speak, of basketball. Reese was famous for having paved the way for Jackie Robinson’s acceptance by the Dodgers and for having played a very important role in the very sensitive desegregation of the game of baseball. You played a comparable role, as I see it, in basketball with the way you came to support Chuck Cooper, the first black player drafted by a national basketball team, the Celtics, in 1951.

Cousy: I lived with Chuck that first year, and he and I were close friends until he died in 1984. I’d love to take credit for that—and I was sensitive to it at the time—but, in fairness, the truth is that the baseball situation was ugly and got worldwide attention. And Jackie, as I’m sure you know, suffered through all of this greatly. Chuck did not. Nobody really noticed it, and I think one of the reasons for that was that the game itself was so Mickey Mouse that no one was paying attention to us. So Arnold drafting the first black player was significant, but, honestly, Clark, I don’t even remember reading anything in the paper about it. I really don’t. The only negative thing I remember was going to places like St. Louis, where they’d scream a few things from the stands. There were a few isolated ugly things. We couldn’t eat in St. Louis in the dirty spoon across from the hotel when we got back after the game. They wouldn’t serve us because we were with black players. That type of thing. We couldn’t stay in the same hotel—you know that story about North Carolina, when Chuck and I got on the train—

Booth: A very important story.

Cousy: Yes, it is. Chuck wasn’t allowed to stay at the hotel with us, so he decided to take the sleeper train out of town. And I decided that I had to go with him. I’ll be honest with you, I just didn’t understand that kind of mass hatred. I understood specific hatred quite well. But I just have never understood mass hatred. I didn’t understand it 50 years ago, and I still can’t explain it today. And yet we’re killing each other all around the globe for some nonsensical reason of color, or culture, or religion. At 80 years old, the only explanation I find is the basic insecurity of the beast, you know? Someone is a little different and, therefore, they’re going to take something we’ve got. That type of primal fear. I understand prejudice in the ignorant, in the person who doesn’t know any better. But for an educated person, it’s incomprehensible.

Booth: I want to read something that Chuck Cooper said about you: “Bob Cousy is the highest kind of individual. Bob is as free of racism as any white person that I’ve ever known. He is just a beautiful person.” So the first black player drafted into the NBA obviously felt that Bob Cousy helped him to survive.

Cousy: But, honestly, Clark, all we did was treat Chuck normally. That’s it. And I give Arnold the credit for handling that integration over those years so smoothly and so effectively. But all he did was treat everyone the same.

Booth: Wasn’t your senior thesis at Holy Cross on the persecution of minorities?

Cousy: Yes. In my mind it’s the most basic principle, and yet we see it violated every day all over the place. I mean, we just can’t get along in this country. I know we’ve made strides but I don’t know that we’re anywhere near where we should be for an educated, civilized nation. As I say, I think it’s just the insecurity of the beast. People who study this, I suppose, have more profound explanations for racism. But to look at Darfur, you know, that’s incredible. All the things that have gone on. I don’t think we’ve scratched the intellectual surface of knowing simply how to get along with each other.

Booth: The second issue, Bob, that I’d like to discuss is your role as the dominant force in the creation of the NBA Players Union. You were a star at that time. I believe you were the highest-paid player in the league. You were on top of the game, a matinee idol. You had everything to lose and nothing to gain, and you stuck your neck out and spent three years working to create the NBA Players Association. At the time, you said something to the effect of, “You know, I’m not a radical, I don’t like to toss bombs, but I simply want something to be fair for these guys.”

Cousy: Well, we needed representation. It was that simple. I was the only one that had the profile to do it without fear of retaliation. Every year, attorney and fellow Crusader Connie Hurley and I would go down to New York and sit in the office of NBA President Maurice Podoloff. He’d keep us waiting for 45 minutes. We’d go in with our little laundry list, and he’d say, “Fine, I’ll bring it to the attention of the owners at the next meeting.” And, of course, he never would. The owners knew we didn’t have much leverage and they would basically stall us.

I laugh now when I think about trying to get 10 bucks out of these guys for dues just to pay for the stationery and stuff—it was like pulling teeth. Now they pay $10,000 apiece for dues—and I’m sure they’re happy to do so.

But our only major concession over those years was when we got the meal money raised from five dollars a day to seven dollars a day. It was literally an extra 200 bucks in the players’ pockets. Man, I became a hero.

Booth: And 50 years later you remain active, I believe, trying to get adequate pensions and adequate services for the NBA players who played in your era and after who didn’t make 15 million dollars a year. Here you are 80 years old and you’re still tossing bombs, so maybe you are a Bolshevik at heart.

Cousy: (Laughing) Maybe I am. I suppose that the way I grew up, in a place where I had to fight for everything, just created certain values, fostered certain principles that have played out throughout the rest of my life. 

Booth: You and your wife, Missie, have certainly maintained a very stable life. Unlike most athletes, you were not drawn to the fast lane. You camped out here in Worcester.