Journalist and historian Pomerantz (Writing and Reporting/Stanford Graduate Program in Journalism; Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now, 2013, etc.) delivers a sturdy work at the intersection of sports history and race relations.
Bob Cousy, one of the best point guards ever, came up at a time when players had little representation or power. Yet he was seemingly fearless, and not just in pushing back when he disagreed with tough-as-nails coach Red Auerbach or the front office. (When Auerbach said of Cousy’s fancy dribbling and passing, “the criterion of a great passer is the completion of the pass,” Cousy’s reply was, “after a man had played with me for a few weeks…there is no excuse for his being fooled.”) As captain, Cousy built a well-oiled machine that got more powerful with the addition of Bill Russell at center. Yet this was the late 1950s, and though Cousy had organized the first successful NBA players’ union, he could do nothing about the racism Russell faced, as when he tried to buy a house in the suburbs to find that the “white neighbors there objected strenuously”—then broke into his house and “defecated in his bed.” Russell responded bitterly that he played for the Celtics but emphatically not for Boston. His emergence as a powerful voice for the civil rights movement didn’t win him any fans in Southie, especially when he said, “we have got to make the white population uncomfortable and keep it uncomfortable, because that is the only way to get their attention.” The author’s reportage and research are thoroughly up to the stuff of the standard sports biography, but the narrative acquires its greatest force when, long after the events described, Cousy expresses regret that he didn’t do more to support Russell: “I [ran] into literally my first angry black man….I think this simply scared me off.” Nor has Russell mellowed—and nor should he.
A moving, maddening look at a storied partnership that might have been a beautiful friendship as well.