Pride?" asked Bob Cousy last Saturday evening just minutes before his Celtics were to play the Cincinnati Royals in the gloomy green Garden in Boston. "Of course it's pride. I've thought about it all week long and talked to myself about it. 'Better get yourself up, Bob. Better be at your best, Bob. Oscar's coming to town to play in your arena before your crowd for the first time.' '
For 10 seasons Bob Cousy has been the player, the one picked by spectators, the press and his fellow athletes as Mr. Basketball. He does not have the height of a Wilt Chamberlain or even a Cliff Hagan, but he has grace and finesse and supreme skill in shooting, ball handling and team leadership. The man Cousy was concerned with was Oscar Robertson, who, many feel, may one day replace Cousy as the best all-round player in the game.
Ever since Robertson, the 6-foot-5, three-time All-America from the University of Cincinnati, first wiggled into the blue-and-white uniform of the professional Royals four weeks ago, he has been on the minds and in the conversations of those who follow basketball devotedly and even of some who only follow it casually.
In his first eight games of the NBA season Robertson apparently had transformed the Royals, a last-place team for the past two years, into an aggressive, cohesive unit. His presence also has raised the Royals' attendance figures to a height unknown since the franchise was shifted from Rochester to Cincinnati four years ago. Last season, for instance, Cincinnati's home attendance for 31 games was 58,244. In just five home appearances this fall the club has attracted 35,241, and most of these people have been attracted by Oscar.
He had averaged 25 points and 9 assists in his eight games. Still, before he played against Boston the other evening, a claque of doubters remained. All pro basketball players have to be tested in Boston against the champion Celtics, much as all topflight vaudevillians used to be tested at the Palace. And, when a man plays in the backcourt as Robertson does, he must be tried on the same floor with Cousy. For Robertson, this was a supreme test. He would be playing in Cousy's "town," and Cousy was an All-America when Robertson was 10 years old. Cousy was an NBA All-Star before Robertson got out of junior high school.
Six hours before game time people were lined up for tickets. The Boston Garden's capacity is listed as 13,909, and 13,258 showed up—a remarkable number this early in the season.
The two main participants came by different routes. Cousy drove from his suburban home in a gray 1960 Cadillac and entered the arena by a "secret" entrance, which keeps him from being trampled by admirers. Robertson walked to the Garden from his hotel, gingerly swinging his gym bag. In the warmups, Robertson concentrated on his jump shot, taking his time and keeping his eye on the basket. Cousy warmed up in his usual nonchalant manner, which makes him look like a small boy tossing pebbles at a window.
As soon as the game got under way each man took control of his team. Both Boston and Cincinnati missed close shots at the basket near the beginning, and then Bill Russell yanked a rebound from the Royals' backboard and passed to Cousy. Cousy started dribbling the ball up the left side of the court, stopped short and tossed a one-hander, and Boston led 2-0. Bill Sharman, who was guarding Robertson, pushed Oscar, and Robertson made a foul shot. A few seconds later he made another. After six minutes of sloppy play by both teams, but very good play by Cousy and Robertson, the teams were tied 6-6. Aside from the performances of Cousy and Robertson, it was clear at this point, and it remained so all evening, that the Celtics were far off form. Indeed, the champions have seldom played so poorly as a team. (Cousy himself said later, "We haven't played well so far this season. We didn't deserve the two games we won.") Russell rebounded and blocked shots, Sharman shot with his usual brilliance, but there was little unity of attack or defense. Always a running team, the Celtics appeared lead-footed and unprepared for Cincinnati's determined attack. Perhaps, at this stage of the season, they are complacent and sure of their ability to win over a long season. In any event, in the second quarter Cincinnati pulled far ahead, and though Boston drew to within four points late in the game, no one ever doubted the outcome. The Royals won 113-104. It was their first victory in the Boston Garden in six years.
Statistically, Robertson held his own with Cousy. Cousy played 45 minutes, scored 27 points, had seven rebounds, seven assists. Robertson played 46 minutes, scored 25 points, had six rebounds, seven assists.
Still the child
In his first meeting with Cousy, Robertson demonstrated that he is every bit as good a pro as his college career gave promise he would be. This does not mean, however, that Cincinnati is ready to challenge Boston for the championship of the NBA. Cousy is still the better player, still runs his team with a surer hand. As he did in college, Oscar loses his temper easily, reacts to adverse calls by officials with childish petulance. But he has the eye of a squirrel hunter, the sleight-of-hand dexterity of a magician, the speed of a sprinter. The question is not whether he can make it among the pros. It is, rather—how big can he make it? Unquestionably, he has the ability, if not the temperament, to be "the next Cousy."
When the game was over, Oscar Robertson was a tired young man. His left ankle, which he had sprained a week earlier, bothered him, and the teen-agers clamoring outside the locker-room door also bothered him. Cousy sat on a bench in the Celtics' dressing room, physically exhausted and near tears.
Bill Sharman, who played a fine game for Boston and split the guarding assignment on Robertson, perhaps summed up Oscar best. "I had never seen him play before," said Sharman. "He has three or four fakes all in the same move. He's bigger than most men you usually have to guard in the backcourt. He is a big man with the moves of a really tremendous little man, and he is always ready to whip off a pass that will lead to a basket if a teammate gets free."
For the rest of the season and for years to come, people will be comparing Robertson and Cousy, much as the new music is compared to the old. After their first meeting, there was still one clear difference between the two. Twenty minutes after Robertson had pushed his way through a group of imploring youngsters on the way back to his hotel, Bob Cousy stood in the light drizzle that was falling on the midnight streets of Boston and signed autographs.