Review: The Boston Celtics’ glory and shame
When I visit my Irish Catholic parents in the house in which I grew up, two kinds of images stare at me from the walls: crucifixes and framed photographs of Celtics players. Bob Cousy and Bill Russell, team members of the original Celtics dynasty that won 11 N.B.A. titles in 13 seasons in the 1950s and 1960s, top any basketball fan’s list of the Greats. So sitting down to read The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, and What Matters in the End was nostalgic for me, even though I was born decades after Bob Cousy’s run with the Celts. It will feel that way to any fan of the Celtics, but also to readers who are fans of the sport or of personal biography or who have an interest in the history of social movements in the United States.
Gary Pomerantz’s detailed journey through Cousy’s life as a ballplayer and public figure features Bill Russell as the preeminent foil of “the Cooz.” It also chronicles Cousy’s journey from the streets of Queens to the halls of Holy Cross and to the N.B.A. draft of 1950, years before Russell arrived on the scene. From over 50 interviews with Cousy, and dozens more with teammates, colleagues and friends, the story of the quiet only child of two immigrants unfolds. Cousy’s meteoric rise to fame in the 1950s occurred in the context of a nascent National Basketball Association that struggled to sell tickets.
Bob Cousy was revered in Boston and on the road. In contrast, Bill Russell would never escape racist jeers, threats and assaults by fans of both the home and away teams.
It was his personality, his skills, his image that emerged as the face of the N.B.A. and helped its growth during the tumult of the 1950s and 1960s. Cousy was revered in Boston and on the road, and the book is riddled with amusing anecdotes about him and his pals. In contrast, when Bill Russell joined the Celtics as a rookie in 1956, he was the only African-American player on the team in an era of unspoken racial quotas in the league. Russell would never escape racist jeers, threats and assaults by fans of both the home and away teams during his tenure as a Celtic. Pomerantz says that while Russell won 11 titles for Boston, he was never beloved by Celtics fans. Russell more than once described Boston as “the most prejudiced city in America.”
It is this contrast, this difference in experiences of two of the Greats, that Cousy has reflected on in The Last Pass. What did their relationship mean? Could Cousy have changed the way the civil rights movement played out in Boston if he had spoken out against racism? Why didn’t he do more? What really passed between him and Russell?
Instead of coming off as Cousy’s guilty conscience, seeking absolution for his sins, The Last Pass is instructional concerning the way that an individual can publicly apologize. Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy, says that Cousy demonstrates for us, in his late-life soul-searching, that shame is not a deficiency, but that shame and apology can make a person strong.