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Surprising Facts About Bob Cousy, The NBA’s First Showman

Hall of Famer Bob Cousy was one of the greatest passers and playmakers in NBA history, and he played the game with a swagger uncommon in his era. Many know his story once he became a household name as a leader of the juggernaut dynasty that was the Boston Celtics of the 50s and 60s; however, few fans understand what a profound influence his unique and ground-breaking style of play had – and continues to have – on the game of basketball…

Photo: WikiMedia Commons/Sport Magazine Archives

Overcoming Early Hardships

Cousy grew up poor on Manhattan’s East Side, and did not get into basketball until his family was able to scrape together enough money for a down payment on a house in Queens. New to the sport, he was cut twice from his high school’s team. On top of that, he broke his shooting arm when he fell out of a tree. Instead of giving up altogether, Cousy learned how to dribble and shoot with his left hand. When Cousy recovered from the broken arm, the high school coach noticed he was ambidextrous and took a chance on him. It was probably the greatest coaching decision he ever made.

Making the varsity team midway through his junior year, Cousy wasted no time making a name for himself. By the time his high school career ended, he’d won the city scoring championship, and received a scholarship to play at Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

In his freshman season, Cousy split playing time on the national champion team. By the time the next season rolled around, he’d won a starting spot. However, his coach saw him as a show-boater and ended up limiting his time on the court. It upset Cousy enough that he considered transferring, but was convinced to stay.

His fate soon changed. In a game against Loyola of Chicago, Cousy once again found himself on the bench. At some point during the action, the crowd chanted for him and his coach obliged. Cousy went on to drop 11 points, including a game-winning left-handed hook shot after a smooth behind-the-back dribble, which was not a regularly used move during this time period.

He went on to lead Holy Cross to 26 straight wins, and a second place finish in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) in his senior season. When his college career was all said and done, Cousy was a three-time All-American. An NBA career was on the horizon for him.

Photo: WikiMedia Commons

America’s Team

Cousy ended up with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, and was then traded to the Chicago Stags, but the team folded before the start of the 1950-51 season. The names of three Stags players, Cousy included, were tossed into a hat. The owners of the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, and Philadelphia Warriors each got one name. They all wanted Max Zaslofsky, the league’s leading scorer. The Celtics ended up with Cousy.

Red Auerbach, the future legend, was yet another coach unimpressed with Cousy’s style of play. Even with Cousy’s unique style drawing more fans to their games, and with him leading the Celtics to a winning record, his coach was still not a fan. The team continued to add skilled players such as Ed Macauley and Bill Sharman, which made the game easier for Cousy. He averaged over 20 points and almost seven assists per game in his second year. Both averages put him near the top of the league leaders.

His career really took off by year three. Cousy won the first of eight straight assist titles, when he averaged 7.7 per game. This was even more impressive considering that the shot clock didn’t exist yet. He led the Celtics to a then-record 46 victories before carrying them through two rounds of the playoffs. The highlight of the playoffs was a multi-OT game versus the Syracuse Nationals, where he came through clutch on multiple occasions, ending the game with 50 points. Unfortunately, his team succumbed to the Knicks in the second round.

A few years later, in 1956 to be exact, the Celtics added Bill Russell. He and Cousy led the team to the best record and its first NBA title when they beat the Saint Louis Hawks in a game seven double-OT thriller. In the process, Cousy won the MVP with averages of 20.6 points and 7.5 assists.

While the Hawks got their revenge the next season and beat the Celtics to win the title, the Celtics went on a run of dominance the league had never seen. Nothing like it has been replicated since, either. Similar to when Cousy won eight straight assist titles, the team won eight straight NBA titles.

Photo: WikiMedia Commons/New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer

The Point Guard Prototype

Cousy retired in 1963, and is widely credited with bringing it all together for Boston with his style of play, which helped usher in a new era for the NBA. His athleticism and vision were leaps and bounds ahead of most players during that time. Known for skilled dribbling and shooting, no-look and behind-the-back passes, Cousy paved the way for playmakers like Magic Johnson. After retirement, he helped further develop the next generations by coaching at both the collegiate and professional levels. He even wrote a book on basketball. Throughout his lifetime, Bob Cousy has helped evolve the game into what it is today.