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.”
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."
“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.”
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