The heavy rear door of the Milwaukee Arena slammed shut, and Bob Cousy (see cover), at 41 the rookie coach of the National Basketball Association's Cincinnati Royals, stepped out onto Wisconsin Avenue. A strong wind whipped snow into his face, and Cousy shivered in the 10° below temperature as he looked around to make sure the last of his players had a ride back to the hotel. Then he stepped into the back of a cab and put his tan traveling bag on the front seat. "It's been one of those days and nights," Cousy said, "that it is just as well to forget all about. I could sense it coming. We let ourselves go 29 points behind the Bucks, and even though we got it down to nine with two minutes to play you can't do that against Milwaukee—with Alcindor—and expect to win. Lately we've been able to overcome some huge leads and win games, but that's too much to ask for all the time. The one constant in the NBA is still that you have to lose to learn how to win."
Last week, as the NBA reached the halfway point in its 80-game regular-season odyssey toward the playoffs, Cousy's Royals had been sometimes winning, sometimes losing, always learning and going through one of the most interesting transformations that any major professional franchise has ever experienced. Known for years as a team that seldom ran except when it was late for an airplane, the Royals were scampering up and down the court, applying pressure to teams much bigger, stronger and deeper than they are. And they were playing defense as it has rarely been seen in Cincinnati since the franchise was moved from Rochester, N. Y. a dozen years ago.
Just after Christmas the Royals began doing some things that sent shudders through opposing coaches. One night they scored on 57% of their shots and beat Atlanta, the Western Division leader, by 20 points, without Tom Van Arsdale in the lineup. The next evening, the fifth-largest crowd ever to see them play in Cincinnati Gardens—11,665—watched the Royals beat Milwaukee in the last seconds of an overtime period. It was Milwaukee's only loss in an 11-game streak. A week later the Royals went to Atlanta where, after being behind by 19 points at the start of the final quarter, they again beat the Hawks. Within 24 hours they were back at home for an afternoon game, were down 18 points late in the third period and rallied to defeat Eastern champion Baltimore. In their next game they made up 11 points in the fourth quarter and beat the Phoenix Suns. In every game, running and pressure turned the trick. This has been accomplished by two first-line players—Oscar Robertson and Tom Van Arsdale; two who have been journeymen for a decade—Connie Dierking and Johnny Green; and an assortment of slender, mostly undersized youngsters who as yet scarcely merit inclusion even in the second category.
Cincinnati was fifth in the Eastern Division at the end of last week, after a series of losses while either Green or Dierking was injured, but it still has a shot at a playoff berth for the first time in three seasons.
January 26, 1970
When Cousy took over the job in Cincinnati last May he had a three-year contract in his pocket and carte blanche to make all the trades and moves he wanted in order to produce an eventual contender. He announced he was going to change the Royals, and change them he certainly has. Of the 16 players who went to the Cincy training camp last September, only seven remain. Of the three best-known Cincinnati players—Robertson, Jerry Lucas and Adrian Smith—only Robertson is still a Royal. And Oscar no longer controls the team and the ball as he once did.
In the season before Cousy's arrival-the Royals got off to a .20-9 start and sagged badly, to end up at 41-41. Often the players did just about what they pleased; they took votes on what hour practice would start and moved from city to city separately or in small groups whenever the whim struck them. Sometimes men were cut from the squad and advised of it by the team trainer. Cliques developed, and the Royals' scouting and drafting procedures were laughed at throughout the NBA.
Today a mimeographed set of fines, written by Cousy, hangs from a bulletin board in the Cincinnati dressing room; if a player believes he has to go shopping instead of attending practice, it costs him $50. If Cousy doesn't like the sound of any excuse for missing practice, he doubles the fine. Robertson, one of the finest one-on-one performers ever to play basketball, is candid about the change to the Cousy Era in Cincinnati. "There's no doubt about the change," he says. "The attitude has improved. We've got quite a few new players, and most of the new guys are rookies. It's an overall new thing, with Bob coaching. And with all these trades, no one is on that solid a foundation. That will make you have a change of attitude right there."
When Cousy traded Lucas to the San Francisco Warriors late last October it came as a shock to close followers of the sport everywhere, not just to those in Cincinnati. An Ohio hero, Lucas had just completed his best shooting year as a professional (.551) and led the club in rebounding with an 18.4 average per game. But it was Cousy's belief that Lucas did not add to the team's overall speed, and speed and defense were the things that Cousy wanted to incorporate into Cincinnati's attack immediately. Some people also suggested that the Royals had been suffering from the fact that they were split into two distinct groups—a Lucas camp and a Robertson camp.
"That was probably right," says Dierking, an eight-year pro. "I can't say if there were cliques, but there were some lines of division. Now this is one of the happiest teams I've ever played on. I think one of the ways it shows up is just our attitude on the floor. Everybody pats a player on the back when he does something right and, by the same token, when you do something wrong there is no griping. Off the floor there is more camaraderie; we sit around and shoot the breeze about different things."
Cousy's return to the NBA also came as a surprise to many because he had said he would sit out this season, after six years of coaching at Boston College. "I really thought nothing could get me back this year," he says, "because I still remember all the time I spent on airplanes and didn't believe I'd get back on them so soon. But Max Jacobs [chairman of the board of the Royals and also president of Sportservice Corporation] just wouldn't take no for an answer. He offered me an excellent contract and also the right to make the trades and cuts I wanted. I would not have taken the job under any other conditions. If mistakes are going to be made, I am going to make them."
Cousy, of course, is as famous in Boston as the light in the Old North Church; people there have little doubt that while Dr. Naismith may have invented the game, Cousy made it as close to an art form as is possible. He had everything he wanted there or in the area, including most of his friends and a magnificent 13-room, 11-bath home in the outskirts of Worcester. Although he was born in New York City, he was adopted by Boston while still playing at Holy Cross, long before his 13 years as a Celtic. The year before he arrived from the Holy Cross campus there were pro franchises in places like Sheboygan, Waterloo, Anderson, Fort Wayne and Tri-Cities, and Boston was a last-place team in the Eastern Division. Everyone in New England was sure that Cousy would be an automatic territorial draft pick of the Celtics, but he got to them only after great bickering, the folding of the Tri-Cities franchise and having his name picked out of a hat by the then owner of the team, Walter Brown.
Neither Brown nor his rookie coach, Red Auerbach, really wanted Cousy, despite his local popularity. At that time they were more interested in a big man. In a memorable press conference during which Auerbach was asked repeatedly about drafting Cousy, Red turned to Brown and said, "What am I supposed to do, win games or please the local yokels?"
Starting in his rookie season 20 years ago, Cousy was the player every kid who ever shot a cheap ball up against a garage backboard dreamed of being. Even today the youngster trying his first behind-the-back dribble or blind pass is apt to be asked—at least, by his elders—"Who do you think you are, Cousy?" He set the mark of his style on the game long before Russell came along and made it possible for the Celtics to win all those championships. During that long reign, they rarely had a player in the top 10 in scoring. They won playing the game Cousy is installing in Cincinnati.
"The reason the Celtics were so successful," Cousy says, "is that we ran and played defense. I still believe that is what must be done to win, and the more basketball I see the more I become convinced of it. I also believe that the players have to know how much the coach hates to lose—and pick up some of that attitude. It was true of Auerbach in Boston. All of his players knew that he was a terrible loser. Whenever the Celtics lost two games in a row we all knew we were in serious trouble both with ourselves and with Auerbach."
Cousy and Auerbach were close, or at least as close as Red ever allowed himself to be with a player, and Cousy obviously borrowed many of Auerbach's ideas—but added some flourishes of his own—when he took his first coaching job at Boston College in 1963. When he arrived BC had a dreadful reputation in basketball, but during his six years there the Eagles won 117 games, lost only 34 and played in five major tournaments. It took a full year—his first season's record was a poor 10-11—for college players to adapt to his fast-break, ball-stealing style, to getting down the floor before the opponent could convert from offense to defense. That has come more quickly with pros.
"Coaching is so different today than it once was," he says. "The day of the Knute Rockne speech is past. You can't lump all your players together, treat them all the same. Each has to be treated as an individual. But the basic ideas still have to get through to all. When I came to Cincinnati I took Oscar and Jerry aside and explained to them that individually they had accomplished about all a man can do in pro basketball, but that the Royals as a team had never won anything. For six or seven years as pros they did things their own way, and I now wanted them to try mine."
Cousy's way has had a remarkable effect on 36-year-old Johnny Green, now playing perhaps the best ball of his career. He picked up Green, who had played for 10 seasons in the NBA, after he was cut by the Philadelphia 76ers. "I had always liked Johnny's attitude," Cousy says, "because he was a team man who often put out more than he seemed capable of. We had to assume the pension responsibilities owed to Green, but he has been worth all of that."
Green has played more this season than any of the Royals except Robertson and rookie Norm Van Lier. Despite a succession of injuries, he has contributed mightily to the running game by getting the ball to start the break. Only 6'6", he is 10th in the league in rebounds.
On the bench Cousy's behavior is different from that of many NBA coaches. He does not rant or rave or constantly harass the officials. Minutes before the start of a game he rolls up a program and uses it as a baton to direct the action and to slam into his palms to relieve his frustration at missed plays and the simple failures that many of the younger Royals often commit. He has no illusions about how long it takes to put together a winner in this league, but he is determined to establish a tradition of team play—a solid base—with the material at hand. And next May, with one of the best college crops available, he will be ready for the second stage in his revamping of the old order in Cincinnati. He will have one first-round pick and two in the second.
"When we draft," he says, "I will have seen the kids that we are interested in play five or six games apiece. My assistant, Draff Young, will have seen them, too. I want to know how they react to pressure, how they handle coaching and what type of team players they are or can be. You certainly can't put yourself in a kid's skin and really be sure what he will do when he gets into the pros, but if you see him enough times in tough situations you should have a pretty good idea. I'm willing to make a few mistakes—but not too many."
One evening recently he was pacing the hallway outside the team's dressing room in Baltimore's Civic Center. His wounded players—the Royals have had more than their share of injuries—were inside wrapped in tape and bandages and quietly getting themselves into the proper frame of mind to meet the Bullets. As he walked up and down he kept shaking his wrists at his sides—a pre-game exercise he invariably followed as a player and still does, unconsciously, though he has no intention of playing for the Royals now except in an emergency. "I'm enjoying coaching more now than I ever thought I would," he said. "By this point in the season I thought I might be just a little bit tired of it, but I'm not. This team can come around, pride can be developed. Then I'll really enjoy coaching."