Celtics

Presidential Medal of Freedom honor 'very special' for Bob Cousy

Presidential Medal of Freedom honor 'very special' for Bob Cousy

WORCESTER, Mass. — As Bob Cousy sits down in his living room, relaxed as ever, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed by your surroundings. 

On one wall, there’s a collage consisting of players who rank among the greatest to ever play the game, with each having signed their name under their picture. 

Another wall is lined with books and just about every award you can think of, including the one named after him for the top collegiate point guard. 

But for a change, we’re not going to talk about the 91-year-old’s career as a player for the Boston Celtics. 

Basketball would serve not only as Cousy’s livelihood for decades, but also the vehicle by which he would help bring about the kind of subtle social change that’s rarely talked about in association with one of the all-time great Celtics. 

That’s going to change Thursday when Cousy will be honored at the White House with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed upon any civilian. 

The award is given to recognize those who make “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

“This is the cherry on top of the sundae,” Cousy told NBC Sports Boston in an interview at his Worcester home. “It is special because it doesn’t necessarily fall within the realm of sports. It is an award that’s given for work in other areas. I have tried the best I… I’ve taken the opportunities I’ve had on a Mickey Mouse-level over the years to do what I’ve been able to do in the areas of civil rights and social justice. It’s something I feel strongly about. I have been able to do a little minor things.”

CHUCK COOPER

While it didn’t get the kind of headlines that Jackie Robinson being drafted by the Dodgers received, the Boston Celtics were a racial barrier-breaker when they decided to draft Chuck Cooper out of Duquesne in 1950. 

“(Then-Celtics owner) Walter Brown gets up at the owners meeting in 1950 and says, ‘Celtics draft Chuck Cooper of Duquesne.’ I was told Philly’s Eddie Gottlieb, he gets up and he says, ‘Don’t you know he’s a negro?' "

Said Cousy, “To Walter’s credit, he (Brown) gets up and says, ‘I don’t give a shit if he’s polka-dotted. (Red) Auerbach says we need him to win. We’re taking Chuck Cooper.' ”

And his impressions of Cooper initially? 

“OK, Chuck has different colored hair; different color eyes and yeah, he’s a little tint. I saw Chuck as a 6-7 basketball player from Duquesne, not a black basketball player,” Cousy said. “I really didn’t. I guess I was naive because I hadn’t been exposed to black people. But we bonded.”

Cousy was also unfamiliar with the Jim Crow laws of the south; that is until a trip to North Carolina. 

“The only incident that deals with this is … we’re in Raleigh, North Carolina,” said Cousy, who could not recall if it were a regular-season game or not. 

The hotel would not let Cooper stay, which really set Auerbach off. 

“He wanted to raise hell,” Cousy said. 

But Cousy got wind of an overnight train that connected through New York to Boston and told Auerbach that they would take that back home and meet up with the rest of the fellas in Boston. 

They arrived at the train station two hours early, so they passed the time by doing what most professional athletes did during that time — grabbing a few drinks. 

“Two hours of that, we have to wiz,” Cousy said. ‘So we go to the boys room. Now Chuck is from Pittsburgh. He thinks he’s pretty cool. I’m from the Big Apple. I think I’m really sophisticated. First time either one of us, we go and there’s a big white sign, colored and another one, white. We had never seen that before."

Cousy’s reaction?

“I teared up,” Cousy said. “By now he and I as I say, we’re pretty good friends. I was ashamed to be white. I didn’t know how to explain it. Even now, I get emotional thinking about it.

“We’re good friends and run into this kind of overt racism; it’s unexplainable. But I came up with a solution. Twelve o’clock at night, end of the platform, nobody around. And we peed together. So it was a Rosa Parks moment that we couldn’t talk about.”

Cousy added, “It was our response to Jim Crow in those days. As I said, Chuck and I remain friends.”

"FIGHT HATE WITH LOVE"

As Cousy’s status in the NBA grew, so did his influence and contributions away from the game. 

Ditto for his circle of friends, which included tennis great and social activist Arthur Ashe. 

“I used to drop Arthur Ashe a note from time to time,” Cousy recalled. “I admired the way he fought the battle in a more muted way but still did what he could, without becoming an Uncle Tom. He maintained a respect that the Black Community and moderates like myself … he fought it that way.”

Cousy continued to talk about the fight for social justice, a battle that’s even more intense these days. 

“Arthur Ashe and Dr. King and my new hero Bryan Stevenson … they’re fighting the battle that way.

“Fight hate with love,” said Cousy, who finally met a foe he could not defeat as the tears started to form around his eyes and run down his cheeks.

“I don’t know if the problem will ever be solved,” Cousy said. “It’s a human problem and it exists. No matter how you fight it, I don’t know if you’ll ever alleviate it, never completely. There will always be haters out there. But I think it stands a better chance of combating it, the way Dr. King tried to, than trying to fight it.” 

Regardless, Cousy has done all he can to help, which is at the heart of why he’s being honored with the Medal of Freedom, becoming the seventh athlete associated with the game of basketball to be honored and the second Celtic (Bill Russell, 2011).

“It completes for me, a kind of a life circle,” Cousy said. “I don’t have to chase the bouncing basketball anymore. There’s nothing in terms of acknowledgments, that I dream about or think about. This is the end for me and it is very special.”

LISTEN TO THE FULL CONVERSATION WITH COUSY ON THE CELTICS TALK PODCAST:

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Enes Kanter shows big support for 7-foot-7 Tacko Fall in latest tweet

Enes Kanter shows big support for 7-foot-7 Tacko Fall in latest tweet

Enes Kanter seems to be a fan of Boston Celtics' 7-foot-7 rookie Tacko Fall.

Kanter posted a video to Twitter of Fall practicing at Auerbach Center, and he took time to praise Fall's efforts on Twitter.

The Celtics' signed Kanter to a two-year $10 million deal back in July, while Fall entered Boston's system as an undrafted free agent but he impressed in the Las Vegas Summer League. Kanter is the replacement for Al Horford, who left the Celtics over the summer for the Philadelphia 76ers.

The two should be a great duo for the Celtics, as both have the height and skill to be something special this coming season.

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Countdown to Celtics Camp: Record predictions for the 2019-20 campaign

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NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Countdown to Celtics Camp: Record predictions for the 2019-20 campaign

Entering training camp a year ago, expectations were sky-high for the Celtics. Most pundits considered them the team to beat in the East. Vegas fancied Boston as a 59-win team, the second-highest win total behind only Golden State. And a Finals matchup between those two teams was far from a pipe dream.

Fast forward a year and expectations have been tempered. The Celtics lost a pair of All-Stars this summer in Kyrie Irving and Al Horford and, despite signing another in Kemba Walker, the team finds itself widely considered a Tier 2 team in the East behind projection darlings Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

So what happens this year? Do the Celtics go back to being the sort of overachievers that have defined Brad Stevens’ coaching career? Will a younger roster struggle to simply meet even the lowered expectations of this season?

To wrap up Week 1 of our Countdown to Camp series, we asked our NBC Sports Boston panel to look into their crystal balls and predict not only Boston’s final win-loss record but how far they’d advance in the playoffs.

The  Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook projects Boston at 49.5 wins this season. The Bucks (58) and Sixers (55) top the Westgate projections and the next five teams all reside in the west. 

The Celtics went 49-33 last season, settling for the fourth seed in the East. They swept the Victor Oladipo-less Pacers in Round 1 but bowed to the top-seeded Bucks in five games in Round 2.

When you consider that Westgate’s four lowest win totals reside in the East (Knicks, Wizards, Cavaliers, Hornets) and seven East teams sit below 40 wins, it feels like the Celtics should reasonably win 50+ games despite the roster changes.

So we’ll put the Celtics at 52 wins and a spot in the East semifinals. That seeding would likely mean a second-round matchup jousting with either Giannis’ Bucks or Embiid’s Sixers and Boston’s frontcourt development might dictate just how competitive those series could be. Remember, too, Stevens tends to produce his best magic when you least expect it.

The irony, of course, is that the Celtics could win 49 games this season and get bounced in Round 2 again but if they develop chemistry and are more enjoyable to watch then last year’s gang, then Celtics fans will be far more OK with that script playing out a second time — well, so long as players make the sort of strides that suggest more is possible in the coming years.

Abby Chin: 50-32 Eastern Conference Finals

I think purely based on better chemistry and grit, this team will improve on last year’s win total. And, I’ll bank on some luck in the playoff bracket. Maybe with injuries, or regular season Al Horford, Philly and Milwaukee fall to the 2 and 3 seed so the Celtics could avoid them in the first couple rounds.

 

A. Sherrod Blakely: 50-32, East Finals

I'm gonna keep the cookies on the bottom shelf with this one. They are a better team (team not individuals) than they're going to get credit for, and they have a roster that's full of talent with a huge chip on their shoulders from the coach on down. This group will play harder, smarter and win a lot of games they probably shouldn't and by doing so, keep Celtics fans extremely happy all season.

Max Lederman: 51-31, lose in 2nd round

Before last season the Celtics have always overachieved under Brad Stevens. I expect a return to that with lowered expectations this season. The Celtics also had their worst record vs winning teams last year since Brad's 2nd season. They should put up a better fight this season.

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