Most public buildings, monuments, highways, and such are named after politicians. True, we have delved from that path with the Ted Williams Tunnel, and some would say that is enough acclaim for local athletes. We can always have that discussion. But if we acknowledge that athletes are indeed worthy recipients off this type of honor, we need look no farther in our history than Cousy and Russell, teammates and friends who were at the core of an unmatched sports legacy.
Oh, we’ll always have the Patriots and their six Super Bowl triumphs in the first two decades of the 21st century, and no one will dispute that football has become America’s preferred sport of choice. We are all proud of what the Patriots have accomplished. But football remains a specifically American endeavor, and there was a time when another Boston team was recognized outside these shores as being emblematic of an entire sport. Basketball has long been the No. 2 sport on the world stage, and for a very long time the two most famous basketball entities in the universe were the Harlem Globetrotters and the Boston Celtics, winners of 11 NBA championships in a 13-year period from 1956-69.
And the two players most prominently associated with those teams were Cousy and Russell.
After leaving Holy Cross in 1950, Cousy launched a spectacular NBA career. Among his accomplishments: 13 All-Star Games; 10 first-team All-NBA selections; 8 assist titles; the 1957 MVP; and, of course, six NBA titles. But it was not just the “what” of what he did. Equally important was the “how.” Cousy played the game with an unprecedented, well, pizzazz. He pioneered behind-the-back passing and dribbling. When he wasn’t throwing tricky look-away passes he was throwing touchdown passes for sneak-away teammates. His fast-break middleman orchestration was unmatched. In every gym and playground in America, if someone threw a behind-the-back pass, he would be greeted with “Who do you think you are? Cousy?”
This added up to enormous celebrity. If in the ‘50s and early ‘60s you stopped a man on the street in Fargo, Albuquerque, or Ashtabula, and said, “Quick, name me a basketball player,” more people would have blurted out “Bob Cousy” than anyone, and it wasn’t close. He had not one but two official nicknames. He was both “Mr. Basketball” and “The Houdini of the Hardwood.”
His humanitarian credentials were in order. He famously accompanied African-American teammate Chuck Cooper back to Boston on an overnight train after the latter was denied a hotel room in Charlotte during the exhibition season. He had the back of every player in the league as the first president of the National Basketball Players Association.
Does Russell really need elaboration? He is undeniably the greatest documented winner in North American team sports history. From 1955 through 1969 he competed for 16 championships: two at the University of San Francisco, the 1956 Olympics, and 13 in the NBA. His teams won 14, and it’s safe to say there would have been another in 1958 had he not been injured during the NBA Finals.
Off the court, Russell was a crusader to ensure that everyone was treated with proper dignity. His basic philosophy can be summed up with the following declaration. “My citizenship is not a gift,” he would say, “It is a birthright.” I am proud to say I didn’t just read that. I heard it from his lips.
It is safe to say that Russell was upset that the Boston he encountered in 1956 did not love him as much when the game was over as when he was grabbing those 25 rebounds and blocking those untold number of shots on a nightly basis. There was a sensational tribute in 1999 at the Garden and there is a statue at City Hall Plaza, but I would argue Boston still owes Russell, and Costello has come up with a great idea to help rectify that situation.
Pairing Cousy and Russell makes perfect sense on several levels. They are two of the four players voted onto each of the NBA’s 25th, 50th, and 75th Anniversary teams (George Mikan and Bob Pettit are the others). They are also the only teammates to each receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Russell getting his in 2011 and Cousy is 2019.
OK, so where? My first thought was the stretch of the Southeast Expressway from downtown Boston to the Braintree split, but my understanding is that it is still the John F. Fitzgerald Expressway.
“The perfect spot,” suggests Costello, “is the stretch of the Mass. Pike from Boston to 290 in Worcester.”
That would be highly symbolic, since Cousy has lived in Worcester forever. He made a decision long ago that he and wife Missy would raise their two daughters away from the madding crowd, if you will. So you can imagine how many times The Cooz himself has made that drive.
One person who thinks there is merit to this kind of public tribute to a pair of hallowed local stars is Maura Healey, who speaks not as the Massachusetts Attorney General or Democratic gubernatorial candidate, but as a basketball aficionado whose credentials include being a Harvard team captain and a former professional player in Europe.
Those Celtics teams were special. Cousy and Russell were special. Costello and I look forward to someday driving on the Cousy-Russell Highway. We’ll happily give Maura a ride.
Bob Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.
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