The Bob Cousy Interview
Michael D. McClellan
February 9th, 2004
As a child, you were no stranger to poverty. What was
it like growing up in Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan’s East
We lived in Yorkville, which is located on the East End of Manhattan. It’s further east than Hell’s Kitchen, and back then it was the kind of place where the roaches and cockroaches were big enough to carry away small children [laughs].
I grew up in the heart of the Depression. My family was poor, my father drove a cab for a living, but we felt normal because everybody else was in the same boat. We just didn’t realize how difficult our situation actually was, and I think that was the case with most of the children growing up on the East End during that era. We were all the same. We were happy. We hung out on the streets, played stickball, and did all of the things that other kids did.
And when I say that we were all the same, this really extended beyond the economic climate of the times.
Race wasn’t an issue. My family was French, but Yorkville was a melting pot of races and cultures. There were African American families, Jewish families, you name it. And for the most part we all got along.
At the age of 13, you fell from a tree and broke your
right arm. How did this mishap help you become a better
It forced me to become ambidextrous. Because of the break I developed the ability to use my left hand. You have to remember that coaching wasn’t sophisticated back then – you didn’t have the camps, clinics and all the technical advances that are available today – so from that standpoint, playing with a cast on my arm was a fortunate event in my life.
Please tell me about your basketball exploits at Andrew
Jackson High School.
We lived in Yorkville until 1940, at which point we moved into the St. Albans neighborhood of Queens. I didn't play varsity for Andrew Jackson until the second half of my junior year, so there wasn’t a lot to talk about up until that point – unless you want to talk about my being cut from the team twice [laughs]. I won the city scoring championship as a senior.
You were a national champion and an All-American at Holy
Cross. As a sophomore, head coach Alvin “Doggie” Julian
limited your playing time for what he perceived to be
showboating. Was there a defining moment that changed
the coach’s perception of you?
Not really. The issue really wasn’t about showboating. I came late to practice, and there was an emotional exchange between player and coach. It wasn’t that big a deal. It was more newspaper talk than anything else.
Julian wasn’t the last coach to misjudge your incredible
talent or the indelible mark that you would leave on the
game. In the 1950 NBA Draft, Red Auerbach opted for a
big man in 6’-11’ Charlie Share. Auerbach’s ‘local
yokel’ quote is as famous as Johnny Most’s ‘Havlicek
Stole the Ball!’. Was his comment to the press a source
of motivation for you?
No. I didn’t pay much attention to it one way or the other. I was more concerned with opening an automobile driving school and teaching women how to drive [laughs]. All of my attention and energy was focused on getting that business off the ground. The NBA wasn’t a big deal at that time, so it wasn’t really in my career plans. I was drafted by the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, and I had no idea where the team was based. It didn’t take me long to learn that it was named Tri-Cities because of its proximity to two towns in Illinois – Moline and Rock Island – and to the small town of Davenport, Iowa. It also didn’t take me long to decide that Tri-Cities wasn’t for me, and that I wasn’t going to go there to play basketball.
Bob Kerner owned the team, and he tried to convince me that the Blackhawks were a good fit. He said, ‘Cooz, what’s it going to take to get you to play for us?’, and I threw out a number that I knew he couldn’t match. I asked for $10,000, and Kerner countered with $6,500. I turned it down cold, because I knew I could do much better running the driving school back in Worcester [Mass.]. So we shook hands and parted ways. Kerner decided to trade my rights to the Chicago Stags, which sounded better to me than Tri-Cities, but the Stags folded up almost immediately.
So Commissioner Podoloff called a meeting in New York to divvy up the Chicago roster. All of the players were picked to play elsewhere, with the exception of three – myself, Andy Phillip, and Max Zaslofsky. Walter [Brown, team founder and owner] asked Arnold to go to New York with him for the dispersal draft. It was clear from the beginning that Arnold wanted anybody but a player named Cousy – he wanted Zaslofsky most of all, and Phillip was his second choice – but the owners couldn’t come to an agreement on who’d get whom.
The commissioner ended up putting our names into a hat and the Knicks drew Zaslofsky. Philadelphia got Phillip. That left Walter to select for Boston, which was ironic because he had had the option to select first but deferred. I wasn’t paying attention to any of this, because I was busy making plans to open the driving school. I asked Walter for $10,000, same as with Kerner, and we ended up settling on $9,000.
So the ‘local yokel’ comment didn’t really affect me one way or another. Arnold did what anyone in that position would do – he drafted Charlie Share, who had the height and the size that the Celtics needed underneath the basket.
Despite what seemed to be a shotgun marriage, you
enjoyed a long and successful relationship with Mr.
Auerbach. Is it true that you are one of the few people
who can refer to him as “Arnold”?
His wife Dorothy called him ‘Arnold’ – who, by the way, was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I can’t remember exactly when I started calling him that, but I always felt comfortable doing so. We went overseas together on a number of occasions so maybe that helped. We socialized on those trips, ate a lot of greasy food, got to know each other better. The first trip was in 1955, when we went to Landsberg, Germany and conducted a basketball clinic for the U.S. servicemen stationed there. There were always trips like that. A few years later we toured Turkey, Denmark, Belgium, France, Austria. We went to Yugoslavia as part of an NBA All-Star team the year after I retired. At some point I must have grown comfortable enough to call him ‘Arnold’. But you’re right; I’m definitely in the minority when it comes to addressing him that way.