Three thousand people were on their feet last Friday evening in the Boston College gymnasium as the basketball team prepared to open its season. The band oompah-pahed with feeling, and the crowd sang For Boston. Stepping through a green door at the end of the arena, a handsome, well-dressed, 35-year-old man took a final backslap, shook the last extended hand, turned an apprehensive look toward his wife and embarked on a new career. Bob Cousy, after 13 seasons as an All-Star in the National Basketball Association, was ready for his first game as a college coach.
A few years from now, when the movie is finally made, it will close with all those marvelous Hollywood touches that everyone has come to expect and love. Naturally, the big gymnasium will be packed; naturally, the crowd will be standing, and the band will play as it has never played before. The hero (Tony Curtis, of course) will be handsome, immaculately dressed and sure of himself, and as he leaves the court after a thrilling victory he will be unable to fight his way to the dressing room.
In Boston last Friday the ending was a bit different. If you begin to follow Boston College right now, however, you will be able to skip that movie. The American Dream is abuilding at BC now, scene by scene and, before long, Bob Cousy will have one of the nation's top college basketball teams. This season Boston College will arouse little more than long-distance curiosity in most basketball fans, since the team plays all of its 19 games plus tournaments within a radius of 350 miles of Boston. Next year that radius will reach 5,000 miles and will include Hawaii, Los Angeles and some other stops that Cousy plans to include in his team's schedule.
Twenty months ago BC, a Jesuit school with an enrollment of 4,200, clearly indicated that it was going to go big time in basketball when it signed Cousy to a three-year contract at $10,000 per season. After much soul-searching and considerable speculation in the press, he had decided to quit as a player but stay in the sport. "I didn't tire of the game of basketball itself," he says. "I got tired of 50,000 miles of traveling a year, sick of suitcases and cab drivers and restaurants, tired of being away from Missie and the kids. I wanted to try coaching, and when Boston College asked me I said yes."
December 16, 1963
When Cousy said yes the Boston Celtics were shocked. He had at least three, maybe four, good years left in him as a player. As he played his final season he was bombarded with an outpouring of genuine affection seldom accorded an athlete. He got plaques, trophies, watches and scrolls, and in Philadelphia one promoter gave him a large salami, "so you shouldn't go hungry." On St. Patrick's Day, Cousy stammered and cried through a thank-you speech to a full house in Boston Garden. As he hesitated once a voice came from the upper gallery: "We love you, Cooz."
It was true, for Cousy is to Boston what Maurice Richard is to Montreal, what Stan Musial is to St. Louis. Boston not only believes that Bob Cousy invented the game of basketball, it believes, too, that he is eminently Boston Irish even though he is truly 83rd Street, New York French.
Before Cousy, basketball had relatively few fans at Boston College. Hockey and football were the big sports, but when Cousy signed interest began to grow. The freshman team of last season, part of which Cousy helped recruit, drew well and, more important, went undefeated. The varsity had a record of 10-16. Letters appeared from high school players all over the country who wanted to play for Cousy. Alumni started to buy season tickets for basketball, something unheard of in New England.
Throughout last summer Cousy had been browsing in a huge collection of books and magazines on coaching that he had gathered over the years. "I only got a little help," he says. "Then I threw them all aside and decided that my teams should play the kind of basketball that I know, the running game. I had the kids run, run, run in practice because I truly do not have any height."
When practice began, however, Cousy found he was having other difficulties. "I think," he says, "that quite a few of the kids were awed by me and by my reputation. At night I'd talk to myself and worry about it. Was I really responsible for this? Then gradually I believe they started to come around."
Cousy also encountered some difficulties with the ethics of recruiting. "I made up my mind," he says,, "that I would not prostitute myself. I would not and I will not stand outside some high school gym and try to steal a kid from someone else. I'll talk to a boy, sure, and try to get him to go to Boston College, but no wild rat races—everything right on the table."
During BC's first scrimmage games Cousy had trouble with the actual mechanics of coaching. "For 13 years," he says, "I was used to the pros. You know how everyone parts his hair in the pros, and you don't have to worry about changing defenses and changing offenses as much as you do in college. It is tough, but I think I'm beginning to adapt."
A few days before BC's opening game against Fairfield, Cousy drove home from practice and assessed his chances. "We have scouted Fairfield," he said, "and we don't believe that they are in as good physical shape as we are. I don't think we will have an awful lot of trouble with their height, and I think we can stop their big man, [Pat] Burke." As he looked ahead at the dark highway a terrible thought entered his mind. "Nuts!" he said. "I forgot to use one of the kids in scrimmage today. Not at all. Not on offense and not on defense. That kid is going to go back to the dormitory and wonder if I'm mad at him or something. He's going to wonder if he's a bad player. I know how he feels. Nuts!"
On Wednesday afternoon Cousy held a closed scrimmage, and the team constantly fumbled and threw the ball away. Cousy stood at midcourt following a horrendous series of mistakes, buried his head in his hands and said, "Terrible, terrible." Then he walked over to John Austin, his fine sophomore starter, took the ball and began to show the team how to pass, when to hand the ball to a player and when to leave it hanging in mid-air for a teammate to pick off. His moves were simple yet beautiful, and Austin immediately picked them up. "When he teaches you something," said Austin later, "there is no one like him, because he does it so smoothly; he can explain it first and then demonstrate it perfectly." After practice Cousy remarked that it was the worst session BC had had all year. "I hope they'll come out of it before Friday," he said.
Sadly, they did not. Fairfield's players proved to be in the same excellent condition as BC's. They were all well drilled, they jumped like kangaroos and they seemed inspired by facing a Cousy-coached squad. Cousy's men made too many mistakes, possibly still feeling the pressure of playing for the game's most famous individual. They were so tense they missed 14 of 21 foul shots. John Ezell, the tallest player, was so poor on defense that Cousy swiftly took him out. Playmaker Jerry Power kept losing the ball on errors. BC failed to stop Burke, and lost 69-63.
Bob Cousy is going to have many such unhappy evenings before the quality of his players and his ability to transmit his own skills reach a peak simultaneously. That may occur next year, when the current fine crop of BC freshmen become eligible for the varsity. Then the crowds will be on their feet, the band will play and Tony Curtis can start putting on his makeup.