The Bob Cousy Interview
Michael D. McClellan
February 9th, 2004
Very early in your professional career, the Celtics were
scheduled to play a game in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Chuck Cooper, an African-American teammate, would have
been denied a hotel room on the basis of his color.
What did you do in that situation?
We got out of town. Cooper was my road roommate, and also happened to be the first African American player drafted by a National Basketball Association team. The Celtics selected Cooper in the second round following an All-American career at Duquesne University. Earl Lloyd held the distinction of being the first African American to take the court in an NBA game, playing in a game with the Washington Capitols one day before Cooper saw action with us.
Chuck was bright and sensitive. I’m sure the racial stuff really bothered him, much more than he ever let on, and on this trip I couldn’t believe that he was going to be forced to sleep in another hotel, apart from his teammates, just because of his color. So I said, ‘Hey Arnold, there’s an overnight train going out of town to Syracuse. We can catch that and then make a connection back to Boston.’ Arnold didn’t have a problem with that. He understood the situation, and he let us take the train back home.
We were standing on the train-station platform when we decided to hit the bathroom before we left. Then we were confronted by two signs. One said, "colored" and the other said "white." It was a traumatic moment for me. I didn't know what to say to Chuck, because there were no words that could make racism go away. Tears came to my eyes. I was ashamed to be white.
The Celtics used to barnstorm throughout New England to
capture the imagination of fans who had grown up loving
hockey. Please share some of the things that stand out
in your mind about those trips.
It was barnstorming in the purest sense of the word. We played every night. Sometimes we’d stay overnight after a game, but we’d usually drive on to our next destination. We spent a lot of time in Maine. Indiana gets credit for having the most rabid basketball fans in the union, but Maine is a very, very active basketball state. Back then every small town had a gym, and if it seated more than 2,000 then we’d be interested in playing in it. We’d travel with the same team and play them every night – it might be the Minneapolis Lakers one year, and the Rochester Royals the next. When you play 17 games against the same team, by the end of the trip you could always count on short tempers and fights breaking out. It was a lot of fun as a young man, but today I can’t imagine going through something like that. It was a requirement of the times.
A reliable source tells me that, during one trip, the
team faked running out of gas on the Maine Turnpike.
Were you the brains behind this conspiracy, and did Red
ever find out what really happened?
I take full responsibility, and I’m proud to say that it was one of the best practical jokes anyone has ever played on Arnold [laughs]. We used to call him ‘Mario Andretti’ because he drove so damned fast – the stories of Arnold speeding all over New England to get to exhibition games are legendary. I learned about it firsthand because I drove with him that first year and he scared the hell out of me. No one wanted to ride with Arnold. He’d drive 75 to 80 miles per hour on those narrow back roads of Maine, barely missing guardrails, scaring the devil out of whoever was in the car with him. It got to the point where I was the only one brave enough – or foolish enough, take your pick – to ride shotgun on those trips.
On one occasion the team was on its way to Bangor for an exhibition. As usual, Arnold was behind the wheel and determined to get there first. A bunch of us piled into another car and left early. We were on the road a while when nature called, so we pulled over on the side of the road and headed for one of those Maine potato fields. In the distance we could see a car approaching – it was cloud of dust, really – and we knew that it could only be Arnold. He pulled over and screamed, ‘What the hell are you guys doing?” I told him that we’d ran out of gas, and everyone played along. Arnold cursed some more before jumping back in his car and racing off in a cloud of dust. We gave him a few minutes and then followed him to a one-pump station where he was getting gas. We went by that station blowing our horn and screaming, the car going full throttle. The expression on his face said it all; Arnold knew he’d been taken and he had a pretty good idea who was behind it [laughs].
We live in an age of guaranteed contracts and
mega-salaries, and many current players are unaware that
the league struggled in the early days. There was a
time when Celtic players accepted IOUs from owner Walter
Brown instead of the agreed upon playoff shares. Please
tell me about this sacrifice, and what it says about the
relationship between Mr. Brown and those who played for
We had a strong relationship with Walter Brown, and felt that he was the best owner in the league. He had invested his life savings into the Boston Celtics, so a little sacrifice on our part was no big deal. Hell, we all felt we were getting overpaid anyway.
Walter approached Ed Macauley and myself about the situation. He said that he would hate to take another mortgage out on his house, and that he thought things were going to ease up in the fall. Guys were getting good wages, so there wasn’t a lot of discussion about it. It was more of a hardship on Walter than it was on us. We decided to give him a break and it worked out well for everyone.