The Bob Cousy Series: Part 3
Though Worcester had a basketball tradition, Boston was a dribbling desert. The Midwest was the hotbed of basketball. Everybody knew that. Strange stories of Hoosier high school hoop hysteria seeped out of Indiana. Every backyard had a net. The bigtime coach was Adolph Rupp of Kentucky. The bigtime player was George Mikan, a myopic, broad-beamed, wide-shouldered hook-shooting hulk at DePaul University in Chicago.
Holy Cross didn't even have a gym good enough for its home games. They were played in Worcester Municipal Auditorium, an ark of a dusty downtown building that was, as its name implied, not a place to play basketball, but a meeting place, with a stage at one end and a balcony at the other.
In this improbable setting, better suited for "Our Town" and high-school graduations, the Fancy Pants AC put on basketball shows the likes of which have not been seen since.
That's what the sports pages called the Holy Cross varsity of those years - the Fancy Pants AC. The team relied more on guile than power. They passed the basketball as though it were on fire. Each player was also adept at moving without the ball, an expression that became a tired cliche in the '70s but which was a breath of fresh air in the stand-still '40s.
As a freshman, Cousy was on the second platoon of the Holy Cross team that won the 1946-47 NCAA championship.
Big games were moved out of the auditorium and into Boston Garden. Through the Cousy years, into the Togo Palazzi years and ending with the Tom Heinsohn years, the city that cared only about ice hockey during the winter flocked to the building on Causeway street to see some of the best college basketball in America.
Cousy became a sometime starter in his sophomore season but ran into difficulties with coach Julian. Early in the season, communication between the two was at a minimum. Cousy thought he wasn't playing enough, and Julian thought Cousy was too much of a freelancer and a showboat when he did play.
"I was 90 percent wrong," Cousy would say later. But at the time, he thought he was 100 percent right, and so he wrote to Joe Lapchick, the coach at St. John's, saying he wanted to get out of Holy Cross and asking for a transfer. Lapchick advised Cousy to stick it out.
The breakthrough came after Julian benched Cousy for a game against Chicago-Loyola at the Garden. With five minutes to go and Holy Cross trailing, the Garden crowd began chanting "We want Cousy, we want Cousy," and Julian sent him in. Cousy scored 11 points, including the winning basket at the buzzer.
He was the star in his junior and senior seasons. Buster Sheary had replaced Julian as coach, and he and his fancy playmaker hit it off from the start. However, though Holy Cross was rated as one of the best teams in the nation - in 1949-50 it had a 26-game winning streak - it didn't win the National Invitational Tournament in New York either season.
However, by his senior year, Cousy was the best-known collegian in the country. He didn't captivate every fan. Some basketball purists were offended by what they considered an overly flamboyant style. They didn't like the sudden passes that could handcuff a teammate, or the keep-away dribbling that made him a one-man show, or the look-one-way, pass-another flashiness that occasionally resulted in a pass into the third row.
The purists were looking into the forests but seeing only the trees. They were looking at the final score and overlooking the fun that led to the final score. A basket is only two points, they insisted, so what difference does it make how the baskets come? On an excitement scale, merely all the difference in the world.
Cousy brought basketball into the 20th century and made it a bigtime spectator sport.
"There are a lot of great players," said Lapchick, an original Celtic and a respected coach for many years, "but no one does it the way he does, and that's what they come to see. And that's what they talk about when they go home."