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Tuesday, April 26, 2022

From the Archives: Bob Cousy Interview, June 15, 2004

On June 15, 2004, I did a phone interview with Bob Cousy. At that time, I was working on a feature story about Cousy's teammate Sam Jones. During our conversation, Cousy provided insight and background information for not only the Jones article but many other articles as well.

Bob Cousy is a living legend and a basketball pioneer who played collegiately for Holy Cross more than 70 years ago before running the point for the Boston Celtics' first six championship teams (1957, 1959-63). Cousy led the NBA in assists for eight straight seasons (1953-60), a record that stood until John Stockton led the league in assists for nine straight seasons (1988-96).

It is unfortunate that Cousy's greatness is misunderstood by people who lack basic knowledge of basketball history. Cousy was not only inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971, but he was selected to each of the NBA's special anniversary teams: 25th, 35th, 50th, 75th. The only other players chosen for all four teams are George Mikan, Bob Pettit, and Bill Russell. 

After his playing career, Cousy was a successful college coach at Boston College (114-38, five postseason appearances in six seasons, NIT runner-up in 1969), and he coached briefly in the NBA as well. When Cousy coached the Kansas City-Omaha Kings (now known as the Sacramento Kings), Nate Archibald became the first--and still only--player to lead the NBA in scoring and assists in the same season (1972-73).

Cousy received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2019.

It was a privilege to spend so much time talking hoops with Bob Cousy, and I think that now is the perfect time to share the knowledge that he shared with me. Some of the quotes from this interview have appeared in previous articles that I wrote, but the interview has never been published in full before. I have edited it slightly for clarity, and I have embedded links to relevant articles published subsequent to the interview:

Friedman: "The genesis of this article came from an interview that I did with Slick Leonard, the Pacers broadcaster. He mentioned to me that he thought that Sam Jones is possibly the most underrated NBA guard ever. I am interested in your perspective as a teammate of Sam Jones. What was it that made him such a special player?"

Cousy: "A whole lot of God-given physical skills, obviously, with a pretty acute intensity for the game. I'm always a little startled when I hear announcers talk about this jock or that jock on a professional level and how competitive they are and how much they want to win. Hell, it's kind of a basic requirement for all professionals in any field that you have to come to it with a certain passion, but I would agree that some have it to a larger degree than others. But the point is that Sam had a very competitive attitude. I'm not sure that's not more germane to those of us who came out of the ghettoes of those years, and of course if you were black and you came out of the ghettoes that made you even more passionate and urgent about being successful at what you were doing, which in his case was (playing) a sport with a lot of God-given skills. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that Sam was in fact the most underrated guard who ever played, but I'd vote for the top three, David."

Friedman: "I noticed in researching this article that Sam Jones averaged 27 points per game in game sevens, and that Boston went 9-0 in those games. Obviously, that scoring average was even higher than his regular season average. From your perspective playing alongside him, what enabled him to be even more successful in a high pressure situation--a game seven situation--than he was in the regular season or in other playoff games?"

Cousy: "I was completely unaware of that, as is most of the world I think, and that is an interesting stat, because that is, obviously, I would say astounding really. All of us that played with the Celtics during those years benefited from having played--especially, I guess, myself in terms of being the playmaker--with six or seven other Hall of Famers. So the defenses, whether in game seven or otherwise, were not able to focus on any one individual. These days, when it was Pippen and Michael, or even L.A. now--I mean it's fine to talk about Malone and Payton, but they're almost ignoring them to focus on Shaq and Kobe--but even with two guys it's a hell of a lot easier than trying to carry the load by yourself. But when you're surrounded by six or seven other guys it's a little easier to do your thing. And I guess an explanation--as I said, I was unaware of that stat--where Sam is concerned, the fact that you just told me that Leonard said he was perhaps the most underrated guard. If in fact there is truth to this and if in fact the opponents did not give him his due respect, that also--given his talent level--could be the explanation of why he did so well in game sevens. In other words, if they were busy watching me or Heinsohn or Sharman or whoever in the seventh games, if they were more concerned about some of us than they were with Sam, then obviously they made a mistake. That stat proves it."

Friedman: "In that sense, it would almost be a little like--taking a current example with the Lakers of a couple years ago--if the opponent is keying on Shaq or Kobe then it leaves an opening for Robert Horry. Obviously, Horry is not as good of a player as Sam Jones was, but it leaves an opening for someone else to make shots if the other team is keying on someone else, and that could be a part of it."

Cousy: "I wouldn't use that analogy myself, at least where Horry is concerned, but as a general statement there might be some truth to that. If in preparation for game sevens--but, I'll tell you, I don't know how they could be overlooking Sam. Sam was as pure of a shooter--with the people I played with, he and Sharman were the purest shooters who came through that period. You can talk about Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, but Sam, in my judgment, would outshoot any of those guys. I've said for years that it was a joy playing with people like Sharman and Sam because both of them moved extremely well without the ball, and I don't think that I ever gave it to them when they didn't make the damn shot. Now that's an exaggeration, obviously, but in my mind I felt that way. 

When I was on the floor with either one they were always my first option because as a point guard you are playing percentages all the time out there. Both of them moved very well without the ball. Sharman was a little more relentless, he just kept making circles and he was a bitch to guard. In Sam's case, he was about as quick as any guard that has ever played the game. I read where Sam has said that all we had to do was find the open shot and the ball would be there waiting for us. In Sam's case, as I said, I knew when he made his move all I had to do was put the ball where he was supposed to be and the timing was such that he would get there just in time to catch it and throw the damn thing up and the defender would always be a step behind because of Sam's quickness. He was an extraordinary athlete and from the standpoint of basketball and the point guard's version of it he was a joy to play with because you knew that he could always get free."

Friedman: One of the things that is interesting about the Celtics of your era--and this has been noted by other people before--is that you basically trained your replacement. In a lot of cases you would have a Hall of Fame caliber player playing behind you, like Ramsey preparing Havlicek to be the sixth man or, in your case, as a guard, while you and Sharman were starting you had K.C. Jones and Sam Jones coming off of the bench."

Cousy: "Four Hall of Famers, not a bad lineup."

Friedman: "Right, yeah. I have a two part question: what was your role mentoring Sam Jones when you were a veteran and he came in, and then also, on the flip side of that, how did it help your career when you look at the bench and see a young guy with all this talent to realize that you have to maintain a high level of play to keep your job?'

Cousy: "I wasn't dealing with Sam in terms of how to become the point guard. K.C. became the point guard."

Friedman: "I understand that you played different positions, but just from the standpoint of being a veteran--or would you say your mentoring was more directed toward K.C.?"

Cousy: "Yeah. KC was going to replace me and become the playmaker. It was important that he and Sam be on the same page just as Sharman and I were. Most of this is instinctive, David, especially in basketball. In other sports--I don't know about hockey, but in football, for instance, a lot of people carry out assignments on each play and everything is structured and disciplined. Basketball is more of a free-flowing game of instinct and reaction to an action. It's not so much how long you play with someone--depending on how alert and acute his mental process is, you just develop little hand signals, head signals, eye signals as to what to do in the middle of the action.

In Sam's case, he was even easier to feed in an open court situation than Sharman because of his speed and quickness. Normally people associate basketball players with height, but in my judgment speed and quickness is what separates the men from the boys. In an open court situation, given Sam's ability to back door a player or change his direction or make a quick move, if the defender--if I were out there with him and we had some court to work with--made the slightest mistake, if he didn't respect Sam's quickness every minute, if he tried to overplay and keep the ball from getting to Sam, that in itself--the minute he knew he was being overplayed, the minute I saw it I knew that Sam was going to go backdoor. It was just a matter of waiting. This is not something you learn at that level. You learn this in the schoolyards of the world that we all came through. In that sense, there wasn't any kind of tutoring. 

Arnold (Cousy is one of the few people who always called Red Auerbach by his actual first name, Arnold) made his big speech my first year--'I don't give a shit how Cousy throws the ball as long as it gets to the intended receiver'--because that first year they weren't quite catching all my passes. Well, that was a momentary response. I mean, this is not rocket science. By the time guys get to this level they have a lot of skills, some guys have more than others. In terms of learning to play with myself or any so-called quarterback, you are talking about a matter of weeks, you're not talking about two seasons. With a player like Sam, hell, you can almost do it from day one. So, it wasn't a question of sitting down--self interest motivates what most of us do in sports or otherwise. Sam knew that in order to get the ball from me he had to find that open spot and he knew that I would get the ball to him. I knew that Sam had the quickness to do that. So we're kind of waiting on each other to react to every situation. That's why, in my judgment, in basketball--unlike in other sports--you can't predetermine. Every time down the floor is a different situation. You can't predetermine. Your action is a reaction to what the defender is doing. Both players, after you've played with a guy for--never mind six years--six days you acclimate yourself pretty quickly. Now it's a question of utilizing your particular skills.

Where Sam and I were concerned, it was a matter of him having confidence in my passing skills and my vision to know once he made that move and that cut and got away from his defender even momentarily, as he said, the ball would be there ready to shoot. He didn't have to put it on the floor. Offense in basketball, the criteria in my judgment is to be effective with the least amount of wasted motion. Sam and I could do both. I didn't want to waste a single pass. Sam had the ability to get to that open spot and know that the ball would be there. It was kind of acclimating ourselves to each other and that did not take a long period of time."

Friedman: "What you're saying reminds me of something that Charles Barkley says sometimes on the TNT broadcasts. He says that, in a sense, basketball is an easy game--that great players make it easy, but that bad players make it difficult. What you are saying is that with the Celtics you had a lot of cerebral players, players who picked up the game quickly, and had God-given ability, and the more great players you had out there the easier the game was."

Cousy: "Plus we played in a system that lent itself to that, David. We relied primarily on transition rather than set plays. There was always constant movement. We were always trying to impose the maximum pressure on the opponent whether it was on defense or offense. We tried to ram it down their throats all the time. We always tried to have them backpedaling and trying to decide what we were going to do. When you have that kind of speed and quickness, God, you can pretty much call your own offense in that kind of situation."

Friedman: "I would say, isn't that something that is really missing from today's game?"

Cousy: "Completely."

Friedman: "What stunned me--I covered a couple of the Pistons-Pacers playoff games--you would see so many times that there would be a three-on-two or the potential of a three-on-two break and the point guard dribbles to the foul line and then circles back out."

Cousy: "There are 29 teams in the league, David, and maybe three or four of them are running in transition (the Charlotte Bobcats--later renamed as the Charlotte Hornets--became the NBA's 30th team in the 2004-05 season, after this interview took place). We could talk about this all day. I think it's a basic insecurity, I think that it's all the pressures on the coaches today, I think partially that it's ego--they want to stand up and hold up numbers. 'Look at that, he's orchestrating everything.' It's not that kind of game. Basketball, unlike the other sports, is a game of free flow."

Friedman: "At least, it should be."

Cousy: "Yeah. That's the way I learned it and I'll go to my grave believing that. I had this discussion yesterday with a successful college coach in our area who tries to coach the same way. The more you structure it, especially on a professional level--you need a basic structure and discipline, I'm not saying go out there and go schoolyard, where the critics will say, 'Oh shit, they're throwing the ball all over the lot.' You need a basic structure, but once that is put in place the rest of it has to be--the option of a play in basketball works better 90% of the time than the play itself. The more you structure yourself--that's why all of these coaches today spend so much money on film and preparation. All of them know what the other teams are going to do. It still comes down to the individual moves of the players, and when you over-structure on a professional level, in my judgment, you neutralize (your own) superior talent. Maybe on a college level, high school level, as you go down the line, sure you need more structure and discipline because you are not dealing with that level of skilled players, so they need more coaching and more structure. But on this level, to structure to the point that 24 or 25 of the 29 coaches do is missing a golden opportunity, not exploiting your skilled players to the degree that you should be, and as a result I think for the most part you get underachievement instead of overachievement. You've got to let the players on this level have confidence in their skills and their abilities."

Friedman: "I definitely agree with that. Getting back to Sam Jones, for a lot of my readers who would not have had the opportunity to see Sam Jones play, what current or recent guard reminds you most of him either in terms of shooting ability or performance in the clutch? What recent guard would be reminiscent of Sam in some way?"

Cousy: "David, I've been asked that about myself over the years. I don't know. If you are talking about Hall of Famers or great athletes in any sport, I think that we all develop our own signature. I momentarily identified with Ernie D (Ernie DiGregorio), in terms of a small portion of his game. We used to like to do a few things the same way. Other than that, I was never able to say. Everyone says John Stockton--"

Friedman: "Of course."

Cousy: "But we didn't play the same. Our styles were completely different, even though we utilized some of the same weapons. 

Sam's signature was that backboard shot, but Sam could hurt you in every way imaginable. The only other one you would say that about would be Michael Jordan, but I wouldn't compare them, not so much because of skills, but Sam and Michael didn't play the same even though they utilized some of the same--they covered the board the same way. The point is that Sam was an absolute scoring machine. You might say Jerry West, he liked to use the backboard shot from time to time, but they weren't the same. I don't know. When I think of various centers who played the game--no one played like Kareem, certainly no one played like Russell, no one to this point plays like Shaq. No one springs to mind when you ask who reminds me of Sam. He was a great one and I haven't seen anyone who was able to score with the kind of proficiency that Sam did."

Friedman: "I asked the same question of Tommy Heinsohn when I interviewed him a couple days ago for this article and the name he threw out there--in terms of a guy who, like Sam, has the long distance game, the mid-range game, and the ability to drive, and that very few guards have a complete game like that--was Rip Hamilton from Detroit. Do you see any similarity there in terms of having all of the shots?"

Cousy: "As usual, I disagree with everything that Tommy says, including that (Cousy laughs). Number one, I don't think that Hamilton is going to be a Hall of Famer. He may--he has already played better in this series (the 2004 NBA Finals) than I thought he was capable of playing, and I hope that he continues tonight (game five) but I don't see any similarity other than the fact that they are both good shooters. Especially at this stage of the game. God, I think that is vastly underrating Sam."

Friedman: "I think that he meant it more from the standpoint of style, not necessarily skill. I didn't understand him to mean that Rip Hamilton is as good as Sam Jones--he made it pretty clear that he did not think that--but from the standpoint of style, because my question was not just about skill, but about style, the idea of someone who can shoot a variety of shots, not just a three point shooter or a driver."

Cousy: "I guess Tommy is more of a visionary than I am. I don't see anything of Sam's in Hamilton's game."

Friedman: "Well, I'll make sure to put it in there that you two completely disagreed on that (Cousy laughs)--I'll give you both equal time on that. I thought that it was an interesting comparison, but I see your point as well. 

Back to what you said about Stockton for a minute, I guess obviously people make that comparison because your physical size is similar and you both accumulated high assist totals, but I guess a big difference people overlook is that in your day you were a big time scorer. You were in the top 10 or 15 in scoring for several years, whereas Stockton was not that type of scorer. Wouldn't that be another difference between the two of you?"

Cousy: "I made the reference earlier that in my judgment a good point guard is primarily concerned with accomplishing whatever he has to accomplish with the least amount of wasted motion. I never tried to throw an unnecessary pass or a meaningless pass if I could avoid it. This is what I saw in Stockton's game. I think that Stockton did the same thing and I had great respect for that, but we did it in different ways, and other than that our games were not similar. Stockton could score when he had to score--I didn't have to because I was surrounded by a bunch of scorers, so I knew what my role was, but when it came time to shoot--the effectiveness of a good point guard is obviously affected by how he can generate offense when necessary to gain the respect of the opponent. If the defender feels you are not a legitimate offensive threat then he is going to play you accordingly and make it much more difficult for you to be a playmaker, so one complements the other. The minute that a guard disrespects your shooting it's going to be tougher to do your passing game, so you've got to be enough of an offensive threat to keep the defense honest--which both Stockton and I were--and keep them playing and reacting to the faking that you are doing so that you can make your plays."

Friedman: "One last question I wanted to ask you about Sam Jones. I appreciate the time you have taken and the thoughtful answers you have given. This question is similar to one that was asked to Bill Russell. After he had retired, he was asked about playing against Kareem, and he responded, 'Young man, you have the question backwards.' So in asking this question I don't mean it as disrespect or that I am presuming the answer. I'm interested in your analysis of this. Picture Sam Jones in his prime playing against Kobe Bryant or Tracy McGrady in their primes. What would these matchups be like?"

Cousy: "They'd have a bitch of a time guarding each other, if that's the question. I'm asked all the time, 'Could you play in today's game?' and my reaction is the same as Russell's--a lot of guys playing today couldn't have played in our day, simply because there were less teams and the talent was more concentrated. If you are talking about Hall of Fame athletes in any sport, it transcends the time period. Baseball players that I have spoken to--Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio--Joe and Ted went to their deathbeds swearing that yesteryear's players were better than today's players. I don't know enough about it to make that judgment. I know that in all the other sports, like track and field, the records have fallen. Basketball, I look at the All-Star Game now and say, 'God, that is not the game that we played many years ago.' When I jumped as high as I could I got the bottom of the net and when Michael jumps as high as he can he jumps over the damn backboard. Yes, they've gotten bigger, better, stronger in basketball. Whether they execute the skills as well as we did, I would argue that point--the passing, dribbling, how to play the game skills, I think we could hold our own. When you are talking about Hall of Famers, Sam could easily play in today's era and give Kobe and Tracy and whoever all they could handle. When you are talking about McGrady, Kobe, Sam Jones--I mean, nobody could stop these guys. They have so many offensive weapons, unless you commit two or even three people to them you are not going to slow them down a lot. Sometimes they slow themselves down, like Kobe in this series (2004 NBA Finals), I don't know whether the business in Colorado has finally gotten to him or what, but he is not only ineffective in terms of being Kobe Bryant but he is losing his cool as well and he's not passing the ball the way he should. A lot of things go into the equation. Sam transcends the ages as well."

Friedman: "Right. I believe that. The point that I was getting at--as I indicated when I prefaced the question--I didn't mean that he couldn't (play well today). From an analytical standpoint--Sam went about 6-4 right?"

Cousy: "Yes."

Friedman: "Kobe and McGrady are 6-7 or 6-8. I was wondering, in one's mind's eye, picturing the matchup--Sam would bring the superior shooting, they would bring the superior size, what would the matchup actually look like or how would it go? I guess you would say that Sam would use his speed and quickness to get his shot off--"

Cousy: "Yeah, but these guys aren't slow either, David. As I said earlier, in my mind that's what separates the men from the boys. Both Tracy and Kobe, for their size, have speed in abundance as well, so what Sam would be giving up in height and maybe a little in strength he would make up by maybe being a little quicker and faster than these guys, but he wouldn't be blowing by anybody. All of us would be competitive, whether Sam is as good as Kobe, let someone else decide that. In our day at that point in time, God, there was no one who could create offensively as effectively as Sam could."

Friedman: "I've always thought--I wonder if you agree with this, I think that it is along the lines of what you are saying--that in looking at the players over the years that the top players from any era could compete with the top players from any other era, but what about the players who were 8-9-10 on the rosters in the 1950s or 1960s, do you think that they could compete?"

Cousy: "Well, if you are talking 8-9 as opposed to 11-12, the chances are that they would make the team simply because back then we only had eight teams or 10 teams but now there are 29 teams and there will be 30 next year. There are 29 teams but you only have about four centers in the league, David. How many point guards do you have? We have less than four. There are a lot of people who play that position, but I've been asked recently to name the top point guards. I get to Jason Kidd and Tony Parker and then I have to stop and think. You know what I'm saying? The chances are that (players) eight and nine could play today simply because there are so many more teams. Eleven and twelve I doubt."

Friedman: "The speed and quickness might become too big of a factor, right?"

Cousy: "Simply because of numbers. The situation in basketball today, it's sad when you see what the Celtics are going to have to go through--when you get to the bottom of the heap or close to the bottom, it can take you 20 years to rebuild because the demand is so much greater than the supply. I have no explanation for that. Basketball is the number two sport in the world in terms of participation. We have millions of kids playing it. I don't know why we don't produce more quality point guards and big people to play on the NBA level, but most teams in the NBA--even teams that have a center-type player--are utilizing the two power forward format. Look at Dallas, they have a 7-7 guy sitting on the bench for the most part--"

Friedman: "Shawn Bradley."

Cousy: "Yeah, Shawn Bradley. The point is, I have no explanation why (we aren't developing more point guards and centers) with all these kids (in America)--that's why we're looking for talent in China, Yugoslavia, Asia, and all these places. We're (America) just not producing enough talent to stock 29 teams--you can put bodies out there, but what you have--maybe that's the game plan for the NBA, in order to reach parity let's go to complete mediocrity. But the problem with that, as we've seen in the last eight or 10 years, is that creates two or three excellent teams, a half dozen good teams, and then the rest is just some degree of mediocrity. When you are shelling out 70, 80, 100 bucks--1000 bucks in some places--for a ticket to see L.A. play Milwaukee or Memphis--well, Memphis was fairly competitive this year--but that's not going to draw a lot of fans when you have that kind of differential between the teams, and that's what we've had in the NBA for quite a while now."

Friedman: "The lack of point guards is somewhat of a mystery, but I think that at least part of what happened with the lack of centers is that players who in the past would have been told, 'You're a center, get on the block,' are now called power forwards. Like Garnett or Duncan, in the past those guys would have been centers and the coach would have said, 'Look, you're a center, go on the block and play defense.' Now, they're called power forwards and they play facing the basket and they do all these other things."

Cousy: "That's a good point. The Hall of Fame just created this Bob Cousy point guard award. Jameer Nelson won it this year, the first year."

Friedman: "Right."

Cousy: "We created it because as players are coming through the schoolyards--even the point guards--they are getting bigger and stronger and they don't have to rely as much upon finesse. So they are not thinking about setting up (other players) as much as they are thinking about dunking. So the emphasis in the schoolyards as these guys are coming through maybe is having something to do with their mindset. They are not simply focusing on being point guards. There was some kind of disconnect, I thought, in the 1970s, and then Magic and Bird came along and reinvigorated the schoolyard kids in terms of the passing game because both of them did it so effectively. I think we are at a point where we need that kind of boost or impetus right now."

Friedman: "That brings up a natural question. What do you think of LeBron James? Can he have that kind of impact?"

Cousy: "Oh yes. I saw him only once, but this kid is the real McCoy. He can be whatever he wants to be. Maravich could have been the best point guard that ever played, but he was always with a team that needed him to score 35 points to be competitive, so despite his massive playmaking skills and what he could do with the ball and his vision he is remembered more as a scoring guard than as a creative guard--but that was because of his circumstances. LeBron is with a middle of the road team right now, but he could go either way--he could become a great scoring guard but in my judgment he has the skills to be a great point guard as well."

Friedman: "He seems to have tremendous court vision."

Cousy: "Absolutely. Absolutely. I saw him once, his first game in Boston earlier this year. We did the game (as local broadcasters). He didn't have a particularly effective game scoring--I think he scored 14, or whatever, but after the first quarter I was saying, 'This kid is the real McCoy.' I think he's going to be a great one in the Magic Johnson mold."

Friedman: "He sees the open man even when that man might not even realize that he is open and he delivers the ball."

Cousy: "Absolutely. He's going to be a great one."

Friedman: "Thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it. It was a great honor to speak with you."

Cousy: "Have a good day."

Friedman: "Thanks, you too."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:04 PM



At Wednesday, April 27, 2022 9:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

interesting; he seems a lot more down-to-earth relatable than most of today's stars (maybe has something to do with salary levels, celebrityhood)


At Wednesday, April 27, 2022 10:05:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, and those traits make him a great interview subject.


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