You're grateful when the telephone rings and Bob Cousy has to leave the living room of his rambling home in Worcester, Mass. A friend has phoned to ask after Cousy's wife, Marie, who is in the hospital recovering from minor surgery. As he walks off to take the call—Cousy is 63 years old now, still trim and light afoot; his preternaturally long arms describe broad arcs in the air as he takes each step—you seize the chance. You slip into the armchair he has just vacated.
Moments earlier Cousy had mentioned that he could see the lamp on the side table, the lamp positioned a good 30 to 40 degrees behind his left flank. He could see it, he said, while staring straight ahead at you. He had not mentioned this in any boastful context. He had merely been delineating matter-of-factly the skills that allowed him to rule the National Basketball Association through the '50s and '60s from his position in the backcourt of the Boston Celtics. Among those skills were his ability to see the narrow apertures in the defense and exploit them before they evanesced, and the uncanny knack for throwing those passes that led people to say that the Cooz had "eyes in the back of his head."
Seated in the armchair now, you strain to pick out that lamp, somewhere to the left. You see nothing. Cheating, you turn your head slightly to the left and try again. Still nothing. Then you realize: Most people look at something to see it. Uncommon peripheral vision allowed Cousy to glimpse something amorphous—the contours of a figure, a swatch of color—and then imagine it.
Evidently, that gift stays with a man even after he loses the proverbial step. It's a gift as rare now as it was decades ago. That's why Cousy would stand out even if he played in today's bigger, faster NBA. That, and his legs, featuring thighs which suggest that, if his parents hadn't emigrated from Alsace in 1928, the young Cousy might have ridden in the Tour de France. Then, too, there is the desire, which once propelled him into a gym on an off-day, whereupon he dashed from foul line to foul line, working on his pull-up jumper because defenders had begun playing him to pass when he ran the break.
Cousy is forever being asked the question, sometimes on behalf of the Celtics he played with, sometimes on behalf of his entire generation of NBA old-timers: Could you guys have played today? As someone who has stayed close to the game since his retirement in 1963 (he even made a seven-game return for the Cincinnati Royals during the 1969-70 season, when he was the Royals' head coach), and as a broadcaster so plainspoken that he discomfits many Celtics fans accustomed to house men, Cousy has the credibility to take up the issue.
"If you're talking about Hall of Famers, yes, we could play," he says. "There are guys today making a million dollars a year who go to applaud and miss their hands. [Bill] Russell, Oscar [Robertson], guys like that—we would function today, and quite effectively, if not actually dominate. Russ would still be effective. I would be one of the premier point guards. Point guards are at much more of a premium. I don't think there are five or six now who can really run a team."
Cousy is unusual among basketball old-timers in this regard: There is actually a current NBA player, an All-Star, no less, who reminds people of him. Watch John Stockton, the floor leader of the Utah Jazz, and it's not hard to imagine Cousy prospering in the NBA today. Indeed, Jazz forward Karl Malone calls Stockton "Bob Cousy without the accent." Stockton is virtually the same height (6'1") and weight (175) as Cousy, with the same strong legs and the same feel for his teammates. If Stockton somehow doesn't seem as sensational as Cousy once did, it's because the evolution of the game into an aerial ballet has established new standards for the sensational.
How does one determine whether other stars from the NBA's past could play today? It isn't as easy as pairing them off with contemporary counterparts. There is no latter-day equivalent for Wilt Chamberlain, for instance, yet there's no doubt that Chamberlain would be a dominant force in the NBA of any era. As for players like Robertson, Russell, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, they were all, like their forerunner Cousy, either Promethean in the way they interpreted the game or unique in the physical equipment they were blessed with—or both. They would all be stars today, even if they might no longer stand out as such singular specimens.
But what about the half generation before them, men like George Mikan, Bob Pettit and Dolph Schayes? The 6'10", 245-pound Mikan was so slow that people around the league called the Minneapolis Laker offense "waiting for Mikan," which is what the rest of the Lakers did until Mikan finally took up his position in the low post so the team could initiate its half-court set. In today's NBA, with its 24-second clock and 21st-century athlete, the only waiting around that's done is for Michael Jordan to return to earth. Could someone with Mikan's size, pluck, intelligence and coordination play out the forthcoming 1991-92 NBA season respectably?
Well, so long as the likes of the Orlando Magic's Greg Kite and the New Jersey Nets' Chris Dudley draw professional salaries, the point really isn't worth arguing. But it's safe to say that Mikan, who in 1950 was Noted the greatest player of the first half of the 20th century, is fortunate that he had a chance to earn his place in the Hall of Fame when big men were relatively scarce and coaches were so grateful to have one that they would happily overhaul their systems to accommodate him.
With such prototypes as Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, today's NBA center is so sleek and active that even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's low-post style seemed quaint by the time he retired two years ago. Guards now sometimes go 6'8" and 6'9". Forwards are similarly large, only they can jump, too. Even the curiosities, the sub-6-foot guys like Spud Webb, have mastered the art of throwing the ball downward through the hoop—the skill that in Mikan's day was known as the duffer shot.
The old-timers have noted all this with an admiration that sometimes verges on awe. But they still stick up for themselves. "Players from my era would be totally different types of athletes today," says Pettit, a two-time MVP in the late '50s as a center-forward for the St. Louis Hawks. "I didn't play until I was a junior in high school. I didn't play AAU ball or in summer leagues. My coach in high school was an assistant football coach. If I played today I'd start at 10 years old. I'd participate in weight programs, clinics, the Nike camp. I'd be much stronger and weigh about 265. [Pettit played at 215.] Who would I relate to today? Someone like Karl Malone. Strong. Pounding the boards. I'd have a three-point shot, everything. I wouldn't have any more drive or desire, though. Every second I played on the court, I was ready to play and wanted to play."
The nightly highlight packages confront old-timers with videotaped evidence that they didn't have the same tangibles as today's NBA players. So it's only natural for them to insist that they would have trumped the present-day stars on the intangibles. But we should take them at their word. Playing under tough conditions, they became tough themselves (box, page 35). And scores of good-but-not-great players, asked to fill specific roles, filled them with no muss, no fuss.
Perhaps because the old-timer wasn't as versatile an athlete as today's NBA player, he was content to learn a single skill and practice it well, he knew he couldn't score, defend and rebound for 48 minutes. "In the '50s a guy might play because he was the cop on the beat, the defensive stopper," says Schayes, a forward from 1948 to '64, mostly for the Syracuse Nationals. "Every time Dick McGuire drove to the basket, you knew he would pass the ball. Earl Lloyd was known for his rebounding. Today's better athletes aren't going to be asked to do only one or two things."
For what ever reason, the specialist is increasingly rare in today's game. (Is it not a telling fact that the few players who fit that description—defensive stopper Dennis Rodman of Detroit, for instance, or Chicago's Cliff Livingston, a rebounding demon—play for championship teams?) If New York forward Charles Oakley had been born 20 years earlier, he would have been content being Paul Silas, a rebounder esteemed for his board work alone. Today Oakley rebounds prodigiously, to be sure. But he can also be counted on to bitch from time to time about not having a larger role in the offense.
The point here is that, if asked to be more than a role player, many of the players of yore might have blossomed into all-arounders. The same knack around the basket that made Silas a peerless rebounder at 6'7", for instance, might have served him as a scorer, a la Adrian Dantley. Says Schayes's son Danny, a 6'11" center with the Milwaukee Bucks, "A lot of players from that era could have adjusted. Even my dad at six-foot-eight—he was very strong and a good rebounder. The biggest problem would be that the guys were slower, and overall they weren't that big. The guys who would have trouble today would be the six-foot-eight centers."
We will resist the temptation to settle this matter by summoning Dolph and Danny out to the driveway for a little one-on-one and instead take up Danny's point. As recently as the '70s, teams not only started and won with centers in the 6'8" range (such as Boston's Dave Cowens and Washington's Wes Unseld) but also started and won with 6'4" small forwards (for instance, Jim McMillian of the 1971-72 NBA champion Lakers) and 6'6" power forwards (e.g., Dave DeBusschere of the 1969-70 and 1972-73 NBA champion Knicks). Now players of any enormous dimension can cover the distance between points A and B in an instant, even with the ball. "The skill that has made the biggest jump is the ball handling," says West, who's now general manager of the Lakers. "There are just more kinds of players who can handle the ball."
Yet we're not asking the old-timers to go one-on-one against today's best. Rather, we're trying to imagine one of our early-era idols bringing his skills to a modern team, which would in turn flatter him.
For example, Danny Schayes's dad watches Magic Johnson play, watches him draw a double team and again and again whip the ball expertly to the open man for a basket. That gets ol' Dolph wishing lie were active again, on Magic's team. "Don't give me the ball right away," he says, allowing himself a moment's reverie. "After I've set a pick, then give me the ball. My style was to play without the ball and keep freeing myself. Anybody who would get the double team and then pass it—that was my ideal teammate." Dolph Schayes most likely wouldn't be a Hall of Famer playing with today's Lakers. But Magic wouldn't consider it a waste of time to set up an ambidextrous, hardworking and resourceful scorer like Schayes, either.
However, toss an entire team of yore into today's NBA and.... Well, even the 1961 Celtics—the team Cousy considers the best he played on, the one that featured the Cooz, Bill Sharman, K.C. Jones and Sam Jones (all of whom wound up in the Hall of Fame, and that was just the backcourt)—couldn't hope to replicate their 57-22 record and NBA title in the '90s. Says Cousy, "Only fools could look at basketball and not say that, physically at least, the jock today is far superior. We shot 40, 41 percent. That wouldn't get you by in a Division III college game today. Shooting skills have gone through the ceiling. I watch the All-Star Came and don't recognize the sport we played 20 or 25 years ago."
But if you tuned in during the festivities at the 1987 All-Star Came in Seattle and caught the Schick Legends Game, you would have seen a pretty persuasive argument for at least one of those stars of the old NBA. Cousy wants it known that he doesn't make a habit of dusting off his skills for old-timers events. "I don't live in the past," he declares. But Cousy has grandchildren in Seattle, and, as he puts it, "Grandpa had to show off One more time."
Among the assembled superannuated superstars, Cousy was riveting. The crowd in the King-dome responded to the first couple of passes he threw. Then, each time he touched the ball, the appreciation of the fans intensified. So it was that, late in the game, Cousy found himself heading upcourt, eyes straight ahead as always. Ninety feet later, knowing full well that Sam Jones was in the lane beside him, trailing, he left the ball blindly for his old teammate. Jones made the easy layup, and the crowd went nuts.
Cousy was so winded after that foray that he had to leave the game for a hit of oxygen. Still, the recollection of his full-court rush exhilarates him even now. It's not proof positive that a Cousy again in his 20's could go coast-to-coast at will in today's NBA, where he might have to slalom past a Rodman or a Jordan only to encounter a Robinson or a Ewing protecting the basket. But it does get you to thinking.
"It's the eternal argument in all of sports," says Cousy. "I guess they have computers now to determine these things. Only they miss the human part. That's what has to be judged."
Probably the safest and happiest solution, one that would allow us to honor the pioneers of the past while showing respect for the acrobats of the present, would be to answer the hypothetical question by resorting to the old gag line. Could yesterday's players play in today's NBA? No way. They'd be 65 years old.