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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Michael Holley Podcast: Allison Feaster on playing career, role as Celtics Director of Player Development

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NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Michael Holley Podcast: Allison Feaster on playing career, role as Celtics Director of Player Development

Michael Holley is joined by Allison Feaster to discuss her Harvard playing days, her time in the WNBA, and her role as Director of Player Development for the Boston Celtics. 

1:30 — Allison Feaster discusses being valedictorian at her high school, and her path to Harvard.

4:00 — How difficult was being a student-athlete at Harvard?

8:00 — Her career as a three-time Ivy League Player of the Year at Harvard.

11:00 — Allison reflects on her #16 seed Harvard upsetting the #1 seed Stanford in 1998.

14:00 — Being drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks as the fifth overall selection in the 1998 WNBA Draft.

20:00 — Goals of continuing to inspire young women.

27:00 — Playing basketball overseas.

32:00 — Meeting Danny Ainge for the first time and becoming the Boston Celtics' Director of Player Development.

LISTEN & SUBSCRIBE TO THE MICHAEL HOLLEY PODCAST:

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Four things you need to know about tonight's Celtics-Suns matchup

Four things you need to know about tonight's Celtics-Suns matchup

Coming off their first loss since the season opener nearly a month ago, all eyes will be on the Boston Celtics as they try to get back to their winning ways tonight in Phoenix. 

A major headline going into the game is the reunion that Celtics players from last season's squad will have with their former teammate and now current Phoenix center, Aron Baynes. 

But there’s a lot more to this game than just that.

With that said, here are four things you need to know about tonight’s matchup. 

1. DEVIN BOOKER

We all remember how he absolutely torched the Celtics a couple years ago for a career-high 70 points. But that’s just one of several games in which Booker has dominated the Celtics like no one has. 

In his last four games against Boston, Booker has averaged an eye-popping 42.8 points per game while shooting 50 percent from the field (61-for-122), 87.5 percent (35-for-40) from the free throw line and 35 percent (14-for-40) from 3-point range. 

Forget about limiting him from scoring. 

How about keeping him under 50 points?

2. NO PASSING FANCY

The Suns have done a good job all season of keeping teams on the move defensively with all their ball movement. Through the first 11 games, the Suns are averaging a league-best 28.8 assists per game. 

Phoenix’s ability to effectively probe defenses has allowed them to work the shot clock and get good, quality looks with little time left to shoot. 

This season, NBA.com/stats show that the Suns are shooting 33.3 percent from 3-point range when there’s four seconds or less on the shot clock which is the fourth-best mark in the league this season. The Celtics are at the opposite end of that category, connecting on just 20 percent of their shots with four seconds or less on the shot clock, which ranks 21st in the NBA. Boston has been at its best shooting with 15-18 seconds on the shot clock, connecting on a league-best 52.4 percent of its shots within that time frame. 

That ball movement has a way of wearing teams down over the course of a game, which makes tonight’s matchup for the Celtics even more daunting when you factor in it coming on the second night of a back-to-back. 

3. RICKY RUBIO

In what’s turning out to be one of the sneaky-good offseason signings, Ricky Rubio seems to have finally found a basketball home and success with it. The veteran guard, who signed a three-year, $51 million deal after leaving Utah, has had a solid career in Minnesota as well as the last two years with the Jazz, but he never displayed the kind of consistency we have seen thus far with the Suns both in terms of his own individual play and that play fitting in with the team’s success. 

The 29-year-old Rubio is averaging a career-high 13.6 points per game as well as 6.3 rebounds (also a career high) and 8.7 assists while shooting a career-best 37.5 percent from 3-point range. 

Rubio’s ability to be that savvy, veteran playmaker has taken a good chunk of the running of the offense off the shoulders of Devin Booker, who can instead focus on what he needs to do in order to help the Suns win — which is score the ball and be a solid defender. 

And with Rubio’s 6-foot-3 frame with defensive skills that seem to keep getting better with time, the Suns also reap the benefits of having a solid defender in the backcourt with Booker, too. 

4. OFFENSIVE/DEFENSIVE KEYS

Boston’s defense has shown some slippage lately, something they will have to clean up against a Phoenix team with lots of high-impact, difference-makers on offense. And when you look at these two teams, it’s clear that three specific categories will go far in determining who wins tonight’s game.

Points off turnovers: Phoenix averages a league-best 22.2 points off of turnovers this season. They’ll look to continue along those lines against a Celtics defense that allows a league-low 13.1 points off of turnovers this season.

Fast break points: Phoenix is one of the best fast-break teams in the NBA, evident by them averaging 16.3 fast-break points which ranks fourth in the league. Meanwhile, Boston allows opponents to score 12.3 fast-break points per game, which ranks eighth in the NBA.

Points in the paint: And when it comes to points in the paint, the Suns once again score high marks with a 49.6 points in the paint per game average, which ranks 10th in the league. And once again, Boston’s defense may be the answer to limiting those points in the paint. Teams are averaging 42.8 points in the paint against Boston, which is the third-fewest mark of any team in the league now. 

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Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Suns, which tips off Monday at 8 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.