HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — When you think of Bob Cousy, a man celebrating his 85th birthday on Friday, you think of black & white photos, grainy film clips and a “Leave It to Beaver” world. Cousy’s Hall of Fame career largely played out in shades of gray — he led the Boston Celtics to six NBA championships and appeared in 13 consecutive All-Star Games, all before retiring after the 1962-63 season.
But on the occasion of Cousy’s 85th birthday Friday, it was worth remembering that the legendary point guard made himself relevant again as a player — for a brief time — in living color, in the age of Aquarius, with “Laugh-In” on the tube and space junk on the moon.
On Nov. 21, 1969, at age 41, the rookie head coach of the Cincinnati Royals stepped on the floor against the visiting Chicago Bulls. Cousy scored three points, his first in more than six years, in a 133-119 victory, before a crowd of 3,450.
Two nights later, he would play again, making a scoreless cameo appearance against Phoenix in another 14-point Royals victory. This time, 2,866 fans were on hand at the Cincinnati Gardens. He would play five more times as the Royals’ player-coach that season, scoring only two more free throws, partly as backup to the great Oscar Robertson, partly as an intended gate attraction.
The Royals finished last in the league in home attendance in 1969-70 — for the third of five straight seasons — averaging 3,800 per game. Cousy’s bosses were paying him more than $100,000 a season, so the novelty of selling a few tickets to see the old “Houdini of the Hardwood” made marketing sense. Cincinnati GM Joe Axelson, after four months of negotiation that began in the summer, finally pried Cousy’s playing rights from Boston’s Red Auerbach by sending injured forward Bill Dinwiddie to the Celtics.
But the brainstorm didn’t work. Of Cousy’s five “home” appearances, only New York’s visit on Nov. 28 generated much buzz — and that game was played in pre-Cavaliers Cleveland, where 10,438 showed up to see the championship-bound Knicks of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and the rest go to 23-1 that day.
Still, Cousy’s return to action — after six seasons coaching at Boston College, with a team other than the Celtics, as the latest in a considerable line [at the time] of NBA player-coaches — made headlines.
He scored only five points in his seven token appearances, none in the last four. He added 10 assists to his Boston total of 6,945, which stood as the NBA record until Robertson passed him in 1968-69. And he remains the only player-coach to step back onto the court after such an extended gap from his legit playing days.
The NBA had a rich history of player-coaches in its first three decades or so, with something like 40 men handling both jobs at one time or another.
Richie Guerin, one of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013 inductees, logged 372 regular-season games and 43 more in the playoffs in that dual capacity for the St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks from 1964-1970. Bill Russell, Cousy’s great Boston teammate, took over for Auerbach in 1966 while still playing, and became the NBA’s first African-American coach. By the end of the 1968-69 season, he was the only player-coach to win multiple championships.
Lenny Wilkens, who won 1,332 games as a coach, got 159 of them as player-coach for Seattle [1969-72] and Portland [1974-75]. Dave Cowens was NBA’s the last player-coach, guiding Boston in 1978-79 late in his player career. And of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players chosen in 1996 to commemorate the league’s 50th anniversary, seven — Cousy, Russell, Wilkens, Cowens, Dave DeBusschere, Bob Pettit and Dolph Schayes — pulled double-duty for some period of time.
Since the arrival of the salary cap, the NBA’s collective bargaining agreements between the league and the players association have not allowed for player-coaches. But Jason Kidd’s hiring by the Brooklyn Nets this summer generated some chatter on the topic, not so much involving coaches returning to the court but veteran players who might be capable of steering their teams through an NBA season.
Kobe Bryant? LeBron James? Kevin Garnett? In a league driven by stars, some might argue that the best and biggest-name players already run their teams. But what has Chris Paul been, if not a “coach on the floor” for the Clippers [beyond any snide remarks about former boss Vinny Del Negro]?
Kidd, for as much as he played for the Knicks last season, might have been able to handle both jobs, especially on a team with more modest ambitions. Some would say the same thing about Chauncey Billups at this stage of his playing career, which takes him back to Detroit this season before, should he want it, a coaching role in the near future.
What Cousy did nearly 44 years ago, though, remains special — one of his many magical accomplishments in lifetime 85 years young now. Happy birthday, Cooz!