Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, and Race in America On and Off the Court

By Eric Segall

It is a rare event to read a book that combines two great passions. But Gary Pomerantz's "The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, The Celtics, and What Matters in the End," is just such a book.
Pomerantz (disclaimer, a long-time friend) previously wrote about race relations in Atlanta and Wilt Chamberlin's 100 point game, among other topics. In his latest, he takes on both the NBA and race, two of my favorite topics to think about (one personal, one professional). It is a must-read for anyone interested in either subject.
First, and obviously the less important passion of the two, the NBA. Before there was Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, before Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan, and before LeBron James and Kevin Durant, there was Bob Cousy. Magic made his famous no-look passes from the attic at six- foot-nine looking over the hapless and much shorter guards who had to defend him. Cousy, more than a half-a foot-shorter, made the same no-look passes from the basement, a much more difficult feat. An all-star before Russell arrived, Cousy consistently led the league in assists and revolutionized the game with his flair, competitiveness, and ability to make everyone around him better. Cousy gave Pomerantz fifty-three interviews and by the end of the book the reader feels as if he was in the room for those interviews. For NBA fans that is enough to recommend this book.

There is however, for those who follow basketball, so much more. Sports fans debate these days whether the modern Golden State Warriors or the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippin-led Chicago Bulls is the greatest team ever. Ridiculous. Until a team wins 11 of 13 Championships, as the Celtics did during the fifties and sixties, there is no debate (and for the record, a native New Yorker, I detest everything Celtics). Folks will respond but the league was different then, there were fewer African American players, and fewer teams. All true but there is a slam dunk response. Those Celtic teams won championships over Wilt Chamberlin (averaging 50 points a game one season)-led squads and the Lakers who had Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, not to mention the Oscar Robertson-led Cincinnati Royals. Those are four of the greatest 10 or 15 players of all time. Yet, with two exceptions the Celtics came out on top every year for thirteen years. And the talent was much less dispersed at the time with far fewer teams. I'll take the Celtics (to my great disgust).

Probably because Russell, who is having serious health issues, didn't return Pomerantz's requests for interviews, the book is to a great extent told from Cousy's (and Pomerantz's) perspectives. Nevertheless, the depictions of the old NBA, the ancient, musty Boston Garden, and all the Celtic characters from Tommy Heinshon to Satch Sanders to their coach Red Auerbach, are magnificent and make the reader understand the teamwork, skills, abilities, and smarts of those old teams. And, as a bonus, Pomerantz doesn't pull any punches describing Auerbach as a stodgy, moody, loner type basketball genius whose best, maybe only good qualities, involved the hardwoods. Winning is all that mattered to him, and everything else, including his marriage and his relationships with his players, were means to that end. It is not a flattering portrait, but it rings true.

Despite the book's main basketball focus being Cousy, the reader still understands that it was Russell who was the most pivotal element of the Celtics' success. The basketball stories are compelling and remind us of a different era, when the crowds were sparse, the media mostly uninterested, but the game still magnificent.

Now, as to race. As an old man and somewhat of a recluse, Cousy makes clear his regrets for not being more helpful to Russell off the Court on matters of race. Russell, an outspoken and angry critic of race relations while he was playing (and after) had to suffer, along with his black teammates, indignity after indignity and not just in the Mid-West (there were no southern teams at the time) but in their native city of Boston. Loved and honored on the court, they were still to many people just n-words off the court. When Russell bought a house in a white neighborhood in suburban Boston, vandals broke into his house three times in an effort to get him to leave, and the police had to routinely follow him as he drove through his own town. His relationships with many Boston sportswriters were frosty at best, unlike Cousy, who was treated as a God. And when the team traveled, Russell encountered the segregation and racism that so defined 1960's America.

In St. Louis, Russell was turned away at segregated diners and heard racist chants of "BABOON! BLACK GORILLA!" In 1961, the Celtics agreed to play an exhibition game at the University of Kentucky because two of their  players (obviously white) had graduated from that school. The coffee shop in the hotel they were staying in refused to serve the black players even though there were empty tables in the restaurant. Pomerantz's telling of this story, and what happened next, is an important reminder of what America was like not so very long ago. Pomerantz knows how to talk about race, and he lets the scene carry its enormous weight without getting in the way.

There is no minimizing how important Russell was to race relations in 1960's America. A fiercely proud, articulate, and imposing figure, well-read, and completely unwilling to compromise his firmly-held beliefs about racism and segregation, he rarely held his tongue even though that posture alienated many fans and sportswriters during his playing days. At the time he and Cousy played together (for seven of Russell's eleven championships), Boston sportswriters and fans favored the white favorite son over the outspoken but certainly more important to the team African-American. Russell's reactions to that dynamic during those days make for fascinating reading.

There are many compelling stories in the book implicating the intersection of race and sports. One involves a high school basketball player in rural Georgia in the early 1960's whose name was Clarence Thomas but who was known to his friends as the "Cooz." That Thomas picked Cousy rather than Russell to emulate is quite a foreshadowing of Thomas' political and judicial career to come.

Reading this book puts into sharp focus the disconnect between race on the court and race off the court.  As teammates, there was no black and white, just passing, shooting, blocking shots and winning. The Celtics were the quintessential sports team. But off the court, the two superstars and main characters in the book lived in completely different worlds. One can't help wonder if that has really changed.

The book is not perfect (none are). There are maybe a few too many details about Cousy's family and of course it would have been nice to have Russell's present day voice in the story. But these are quibbles, and Russell's abilities, athletic and intellectual, come through the narrative with the force of one of his mighty blocked shots.

I left the book with two compelling images. There is a photograph of Cousy in Russell's arms after winning a championship, their faces showing pure joy. The integrated image is powerful. But the two men did not have a friendship after their playing days, though there were no hard feelings between them. The "Last Pass" refers to a letter written by Cousy to Russell in the recent past suggesting remorse for not doing more to support Russell off the court and recognizing how hard it must have been for African-American players during that era. I won't give away the ending other than to say what happens to that "last pass" is still a powerful, and unfortunate, symbol for race relations in the United States today.