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Bob Cousy: The Houdini of the Hardwood


ca. 1950s, Sport Magazine Archives, CC Public Domain

Bob Cousy was one of pro basketball’s first true superstars. The “Houdini of the Hardwood” was a sensational ball handler and passer, consistent scorer and one of the game’s great court generals. His leadership helped bring six NBA championships to the Boston Celtics, ushering in basketball’s greatest dynasty.


Cousy caught the attention of pro scouts while playing at Holy Cross, a small Jesuit college in Worcester, Massachusetts. The 6’1” point guard was a three-time All-American and a member of the Crusaders’ 1947 NCAA championship team.


While Cousy’s path to Boston should have been an easy one, Celtics’ Head Coach Red Auerbach chose center Charlie Share with the 1950 draft’s #1 pick rather than the popular local prospect. This made the young guard’s journey to Boston a rather circuitous one, as he was drafted by the Tri-Cities Blackhawks with the third overall pick, traded to the Chicago Stags after a contract dispute, then ultimately chosen by the Celtics in the dispersal draft after the Stags folded.


 

Regardless of how he got there, Cousy was an immediate success in Boston, averaging 15.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists while being selected as an All-Star for the first time. More importantly, the Celtics improved from 22-46 in the previous season to 39-30 in Cousy’s rookie year, making the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history.


In his second year in 1951-52, the budding superstar raised his scoring average to 21.7, while adding 6.4 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game. He was also named First Team All-NBA for the first time.


In 1952-53, the third-year guard led the NBA in assists with 7.7 per game. It would be the first of eight consecutive seasons leading the league. The season also saw one of the greatest performances in playoff history, as Cousy scored 50 points in an Eastern Division Semifinal win over the Syracuse Nationals. His 30 made free throws are still an NBA single-game postseason record.


Cousy and the Celtics remained contenders in the Eastern Division for the next three seasons, but fell short of the NBA Finals each year. Individually, Cousy was the NBA’s best point guard, being named First Team All-NBA and leading the league in assists each year. In 1954, he won All-Star Game MVP with 20 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.


 

In 1956-57, the Celtics finally made it to the NBA Finals. This was in no small part due to #1 draft pick Bill Russell, a 6’10” center from the University of San Francisco. Russell and Cousy gave Boston the best inside-outside combo in the NBA.


The addition of Russell elevated Cousy’s game to another level, as the seventh-year guard won the league’s MVP, averaging 20.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and a league-leading 7.5 assists. He also won his second All-Star Game MVP.


The Celtics defeated Bob Pettit and the St. Louis Hawks in seven games in the Finals to win their first NBA championship in franchise history. Cousy was excellent in the series, averaging 20.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and 9.3 assists.


Boston met St. Louis in the Finals again in 1957-58, but this time lost in six games. It would be the last time the Celtics would lose a playoff series under Cousy’s leadership.


 

Boston swept the Minneapolis Lakers 4-0 in the NBA Finals in 1958-59, beginning a rivalry that would span several decades. Cousy had another outstanding year, averaging 20.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 8.6 assists in the regular season, and 19.5 points, 6.9 rebounds and 10.8 assists in 11 postseason games.


Cousy set a career-high with 9.5 assists per game in 1959-60, while averaging 19.4 points and 4.7 rebounds. The Celtics finished with their best record yet at 59-16, but were put to the test in the postseason.


Boston beat the Philadelphia Warriors and their rookie sensation Wilt Chamberlain 4-2 in the Eastern Division Finals before being taken the full seven games by a familiar foe, the St. Louis Hawks. The Celtics’ dynamic duo was on full display in Game 7, as Cousy had 19 points and 14 assists, while Russell had 22 points and 35 rebounds in Boston’s 122-103 win.


The Celtics faced the Hawks in the Finals for the fourth time in 1960-61, this time winning in five games. The 60-61 season was the last of Cousy’s 10 consecutive First Team All-NBA selections, as the future Hall of Famer averaged 18.1 points and 7.7 assists.


 

In 1961-62, the Celtics became the first NBA team to win 60 games in a season, going 60-20, but they faced their biggest challenge yet in the postseason. In the Eastern Division Finals, they overcame 33.6 points and 26.9 rebounds per game from Chamberlain to beat the Warriors in seven games. Cousy had 21 points, six rebounds and eight assists in Boston’s 109-107 Game 7 win.


In the NBA Finals, Boston came back from a 3-2 series deficit to beat the recently-transplanted Los Angeles Lakers in seven games. Cousy had another strong series, averaging 16.6 points and 9.3 assists, but it was Russell who stole the show with averages of 22.9 points, 27.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists. Laker stars Elgin Baylor and Jerry West averaged 40.6 and 31.1 points, respectively, for Los Angeles in one of the signature Finals in NBA history.


The following season marked Cousy’s last with the Celtics. It was also his 13th straight All-Star selection and Boston’s fifth of eight consecutive NBA championships. The Celtics once again defeated the Lakers, this time in six games, despite the best efforts of Baylor and West. The 34-year-old Cousy averaged 12.2 points and led all players with 8.5 assists per game.


 

After retiring from the Celtics, Cousy had a successful stint as Head Coach of Boston College before returning to the NBA to coach the Cincinnati Royals/Kansas City-Omaha Kings. He made one last appearance as a player for the Royals in 1969-70, playing in seven games to generate publicity for the struggling franchise.


Cousy finished his career with averages of 18.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 7.5 assists in 924 games. In the postseason, he averaged 18.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 8.6 assists in 109 games. The Celtics’ great was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971.

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