The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End

The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End

by Gary M. Pomerantz

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Overview

The New York Times Bestseller

Out of the greatest dynasty in American professional sports history, an intimate story of race, mortality, and regret


About to turn ninety, Bob Cousy, the Hall of Fame Boston Celtics captain who led the team to its first six championships on an unparalleled run, has much to look back on in contentment. But he has one last piece of unfinished business. The last pass he hopes to throw is to close the circle with his great partner on those Celtic teams, fellow Hall of Famer Bill Russell, now 84. These teammates were basketball's Ruth and Gehrig, and Cooz, as everyone calls him, was famously ahead of his time as an NBA player in terms of race and civil rights. But as the decades passed, Cousy blamed himself for not having done enough, for not having understood the depth of prejudice Russell faced as an African-American star in a city with a fraught history regarding race. Cousy wishes he had defended Russell publicly, and that he had told him privately that he had his back. At this late hour, he confided to acclaimed historian Gary Pomerantz over the course of many interviews, he would like to make amends.

At the heart of the story THE LAST PASS tells is the relationship between these two iconic athletes. The book is also in a way Bob Cousy's last testament on his complex and fascinating life. As a sports story alone it has few parallels: An poor kid whose immigrant French parents suffered a dysfunctional marriage, the young Cousy escaped to the New York City playgrounds, where he became an urban legend known as the Houdini of the Hardwood. The legend exploded nationally in 1950, his first year as a Celtic: he would be an all-star all 13 of his NBA seasons. But even as Cousy's on-court imagination and daring brought new attention to the pro game, the Celtics struggled until Coach Red Auerbach landed Russell in 1956. Cooz and Russ fit beautifully together on the court, and the Celtics dynasty was born. To Boston's white sportswriters it was Cousy's team, not Russell's, and as the civil rights movement took flight, and Russell became more publicly involved in it, there were some ugly repercussions in the community, more hurtful to Russell than Cousy feels he understood at the time.

THE LAST PASS situates the Celtics dynasty against the full dramatic canvas of American life in the 50s and 60s. It is an enthralling portrait of the heart of this legendary team that throws open a window onto the wider world at a time of wrenching social change. Ultimately it is a book about the legacy of a life: what matters to us in the end, long after the arena lights have been turned off and we are alone with our memories.


On August 22, 2019, Bob Cousy was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735223615
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/23/2018
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 457,190
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Gary M. Pomerantz, historian, journalist and Stanford University lecturer, is the author of six nonfiction books on topics ranging from history to sports to civil rights. His first, Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, on Atlanta's racial conscience, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He also authored WILT, 1962, about Wilt Chamberlain's legendary 100-point game (a New York Times Editors' List selection), Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds, about an aviation crash, and The Devil's Tickets about a Jazz Age murder and trial. His most recent book, Their Life's Work, a narrative about the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, explores football's gifts and costs. For the past twelve years, he has taught reporting and writing at Stanford's Graduate Program in Journalism.

Read an Excerpt


"Sale Boche"

Even as an old man wearing a sweat suit and sitting in his favorite chair at home in Worcester, Cousy engages in conversation with intensity. He wouldn't be Bob Cousy otherwise. He laughs. He cries. He is alternately introspective, wry, philosophical, eloquent, at times snarky, and, on days when he feels an old man's aches and burdens, crotchety. He likes the attention, the intellectual stimulation. He talks about politics, the past, Kennedy and Trump, George Mikan and Kevin Durant, the latest book he's reading. One conversation ends for a sensible reason: "It's time," Cousy says, brows arched, "for my one o'clock fruit." His old stories roll like the mighty waters, and to him those waters are mighty familiar. He's been telling some of these stories for fifty years. He's refined his lines and pauses. He's played the part of Bob Cousy for so long that he has mastered it. Now, though, it seems he has an additional, higher purpose: He is piecing together his life and assigning a sense of order and context. He's earnestly attempting to understand how the world given to him helped shape the world he made. But when the topic shifts to his parents, and the tension that roiled their marriage when he was only a boy, it's as if the mighty waters evaporate and suddenly he is bound for a darker, more somber place. Conversationally, he's in unfamiliar territory. No stories come by rote. The pauses are longer and more numerous. He explains haltingly how his mother sometimes lashed out at his father and struck him. Suddenly his face draws tight. It's as if he is seeing her strike his father again, the scene running through his mind on grainy celluloid. Another pause: lengthy, uncomfortable. Finally, thinking of his father, he says, "He just sat there and took it." Cousy stares across his living room, across time.

In the glory of his time with the Boston Celtics, you saw his big hands, his supple, sloping shoulders and long arms. Those were the optics of Cousy. He wore a thirty-five-inch sleeve; his fingertips reached nearly to his knees. Small wonder he so easily transferred the ball behind his back. He looked like he weighed only about 150 pounds (actually, thanks to his thighs, he weighed 185), and at six-foot-one, if he jumped as high as he could he might reach only halfway up the net.

But physiology didn't make him Cooz. Biography defined him. He lived and played with blast-furnace intensity. He sought to break free of his tenement-house origins and the dysfunction in his parents' marriage by winning basketball games and by defeating enemies of all kinds, including a sense of being an outsider in his own world.

At the center of this inner tumult was his mother, Juliette Corlet Cousy, a native of France, once tall and attractive. When she cooked her husband's favorite meal, pot-au-feu-beef stew with vegetables, including sliced potatoes with butter, fried to a crisp-it was as if she had transported the French countryside to a dinner table in Queens. From France she also brought a prejudice so strong it scarred her personality: She despised Germans. She trembled with rage at the mention of anything, or anyone, Germanic. If misfortune came, Juliette Cousy knew its source. It was the Germans! She had witnessed the Germans' wrath during World War I. They trampled French farms, trampled the French way of life, and she never forgot that, even after migrating to America.

As a boy, Cousy saw her scars. During World War II, he walked with his mother to see a neighborhood storekeeper in St. Albans, Queens. In the Old World she would expect a smile or warm embrace, as in Dijon or Paris. But this storekeeper drew back and said stiffly, "What can I do for you?" It didn't take much to stir her anger. Offended by his tone, Juliette jerked her young son's hand, and they left the store at once. Outside, she muttered to him, "That sale Boche!"

When her mood turned black, as it often did, she spat out those words, "Sale Boche." Dirty German. She was at war with Germany, with her husband, with herself, and with the hard times in which they lived. Anyone she disliked or who had slighted her, whether of German descent or not, she dismissed as a sale Boche. Too often to forget, the young Cousy heard his mother's voice explode from the cellar of their house: "SALE BOCHE!" On those occasions, her wrath was more personal: She had taken aim, again, at her husband, the boy's father.

Juliette's husband, little Joe Cousy, bore the brunt of her rants. He had made the mistake of being born of French parents in a German-dominated region. He came from Alsace-Lorraine, on the northeastern edge of France up against Germany's northwestern border. The region had been claimed by Germany in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War. He had been conscripted by the German army during World War I, as so many other Alsatian farm boys had. Public records show Joe Cousy's place of birth as Welschensteinbach, its German name, but Joe always used the village's French name, Eteimbes. For Juliette, that was a distinction without a difference. If in her anger she needed Joe to be a dirty German, his parentage didn't matter.

A quiet, peaceful man, five-foot-six and stout, Joe was raised on the Cousy farm. There his family struggled to raise apples, cherries, and pigs. To his way of thinking, he was no more a farmer than he was a German, and breaking away to go to America was the boldest act of his life; Juliette, accustomed to life's finer things, loved him for all of that. With his new wife and her mother, Joe boarded the ocean liner Mauretania, pride of the Cunard Line, and set sail from Cherbourg on December 21, 1927. 

For Juliette, their arrival in New York City was a homecoming of sorts. She had been born in New York and moved to Boston, where her French father, Clément Corlet, notable for his handsome, thick mustache, was ma”tre d' of the Hotel Touraine. When Juliette was five years old, Corlet and his wife, Mary, brought her to Dijon, in the Burgundy region of eastern France. She later worked as a secretary and taught language to children of affluent French families. As they boarded the Mauretania, Juliette was about six weeks pregnant with their son, the only child she would have.

Juliette's contempt for Germans intensified during the late thirties and early forties when she received letters from friends and family in France telling of the Nazis and their atrocities. Joe Cousy had begun work in America driving a taxi, his old Packard, in New York City. On July 5, 1928, he filled out papers for U.S. citizenship. But then came the Depression. Soon, with hardly anyone using taxis, Joe needed a job. Franklin Roosevelt came to his rescue: In his forties, Joe got a job with the Works Progress Administration digging ditches in New York City.

Her dreams deferred, Juliette became so high-strung that kids in the neighborhood knew her as the crazy French woman. Hard times aged her quickly, her cheekbones becoming taut and severe. Assimilation wasn't easy. Juliette and Joe did not read the New York newspapers; nor, as best their son knew, did they vote. Juliette never quite understood basketball, or even television. Years later, to watch The Ed Sullivan Show, she put on a nice dress at home. When her son asked why she dressed up, she said, "Oh, Mister Sullivan sees me. I see him and he's looking at me."

 

Her son saw more than the eccentricities. He knew her softer, loving side, the way she had gently coaxed him out of his boyhood nightmares and sleepwalking expeditions; she found him once sitting on the third-story ledge of their Manhattan tenement, where he had awakened screaming in French. She waved a white handkerchief from their window when it was time for dinner, and his buddies would say, ''Hey, Frenchy, the handkerchief is out!" When the young Cousy opened drawers at home, cockroaches scurried for cover, but his mother assured him that one day she would get him out of the noise and stench and poverty of their Manhattan neighborhood. Of course, as a boy, he assumed that everyone was poor. Despite their own ethnic differences and prejudices, Juliette and Joe Cousy quickly had won the privileges of whiteness. They lived in the big-city melting pot or, as their son would later call it, "the mélange." His closest friends during childhood had last names like Gannon, Field, Kennedy, Blake, and Hackford, all of them white. There were no people of color in his neighborhood that he knew of, no blacks or Hispanics or Asian Americans, and only a few Jews. During the Depression, with hard times and soup lines in Fiorello La Guardia's city, Cousy played stoopball and boxball and pilfered bananas from pushcarts. He never felt threatened in his roughneck neighborhood, though once he saw someone shot dead.

 

During the late thirties, as the Cousys searched in less crowded areas for a new place to live, Juliette said to her son, "Roby, look at all the green grass! Someday you'll live where there is plenty of it." And once, touring St. Albans in Queens, she said, as if in a dream state, "Roby, breathe deep."

 

Joe and Juliette spoke French at home and German if they didn't want their young son to know what they were saying. As a boy, Cooz spoke French, thought in French, dreamed in French, and talked French in his sleep. But he wanted to be an American. It didn't help that he had a speech impediment: his Rs sounded like Ls. His schoolmates began to call him Flenchy, and a speech teacher made him try to say, over and over, "Around the rugged rock, the ragged rascal ran." His Ls poured forth; "Alound the lugged lock . . ."

 

The tension of his parents' marriage traumatized him. Juliette loomed over the household. His grandmother, Marie Corlet, lived with them and became his safety net. She made sure he went to church and didn't stray from Catholicism. She made him promise that one day he would attend a Catholic college.

 

Joe Cousy put his taxi in hock in 1940 as a down payment for a $4,500 house in St. Albans. He and Juliette proved resourceful. They lived, and cooked, in the bare-walled cellar, and with their son climbed three flights up the back staircase each night to sleep in the attic, leaving the rest of the house for renters, whose payments helped cover their mortgage. They rented out a five-room apartment on the first floor, a two-room apartment on the second, and a single room on the third. Juliette kept the place clean, and Joe fixed anything that broke. They brought a radio into the cellar to lighten their spirits. Their house in St. Albans was better than their Manhattan tenement, but that wasn't saying much. On summer nights, the attic became an oven. At times when Cousy awoke screaming from a nightmare, his mother would turn on the light to see welts on his back, the work of bedbugs.

 

Joe never said much. With his boy, he shared no profound father-son conversations about his war experience, or in fact any experience. He had been married to another woman who died during the first war, but Juliette decreed the subject of Joe's late wife off limits. Many years later, when his son was a basketball celebrity, Joe told a sportswriter that he had raced automobiles before the first war and that, in the 1920s, with his family's farm reduced by war to mud, he fixed cars and rented one of his own to drive rich families on tours across Europe.

 

Joe wasn't home much. He drove his taxi at all hours, no doubt to escape his wife's wrath. They were in the cellar the first time Bob Cousy saw his mother strike his father. Joe was an easy target: one big room, no place to hide. Juliette smacked his head. Joe did not defend himself. He did not react at all.

 

"Sale Boche!" Juliette screamed.

 

She would never let him forget that he had once been in the German army even though he thought of himself as French. Cowering in a corner, the young Cousy watched his mother come undone. It happened this way more than once, Juliette calling Joe a dirty German and striking him. Her blows struck with force. Sometimes Joe threw up his hands in defense, other times not.

 

My poor father, Cousy thought. He wondered how his father could say nothing. He didn't want him to strike back. But sit there and take it? Even as a boy, Cousy understood there was more to it than a wife's anger at her husband.

Table of Contents

Preface: April 9, 1957 xv

Section I Becoming Cooz 1

1 "Sale Boche" 3

2 Houdini 10

3 New Beginnings 15

4 The Celtics 29

5 Rough and Tumble 39

6 Courting Fame 52

7 Auerbach's Secret 62

Section II Dynasty 69

8 Russell's Arrival 71

9 Ack-Ack 82

10 Being Cousy 93

11 Wives Row 106

12 Bush-League Impression 110

13 Being Russell 115

14 Locker Room Pulse 131

15 Aristocrats 141

Section III Bob Cousy Day, 1963 151

16 La Ferme des Cousy 153

17 High-Strung 157

18 "Take It Easy, Baby" 166

19 Anticipating His Day 174

20 The Boston Tear Party 180

21 A Dreamy Sunset 194

Section IV Cooz In Winter 203

22 Salisbury Street 205

23 Russ 216

24 Thursday Nights 230

25 Auerbach 236

26 Missie 247

27 Legacy 256

28 Russ Redux 274

29 Versailles, Books 282

30 Mea Culpa 286

31 In the House of Russell 297

32 Serenaded 301

Acknowledgments 305

Note on Sources 311

Bibliography 315

Notes 319

Photography Credits 347

Index 349

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