The Last Pass (Book review published in ProJo on 11/23)

THE LAST PASS – (A BOOK REVIEW)
For seven seasons Boston Celtics teammates Bob Cousy and Bill Russell blended their disparate skills to form a devastating force on the basketball court. Two talents who appeared to share one vision of the game which almost always ended in warm celebratory embraces after another championship.

Surprisingly, historian Gary M. Pomerantz new book, “The Last Pass” portrays a post career schism between the legends which haunted Cousy for decades.
The author provides an intimate, detailed exploration into the complicated relationship between legends Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. What “The Last Pass” deftly delivers is two biographies wrapped in an examination of a nation in constant flux from Cousy’s birth year of 1928 to the present. While many colorful descriptions of their on court heroics are included they are merely subplots to the core of the story which is Cousy’s white man’s guilt for not understanding or helping to relieve the burdens his teammate, Russell, carried as a black man in the divided city of Boston and the discrimination he faced across the country.

Pomerantz conducted fifty three interviews with Cousy over a two and a half year period. Russell refused to participate. Although it is tempting to see the cooperation of Cousy and lack of cooperation by Russell as a distillation of their characters, Pomerantz shows us things were more complicated than that.

Both men began their journeys towards fame from impoverished beginnings. Cousy’s father worked on a meagre family farm in France before emigrating to New York in 1927. Russell was born in segregated Louisiana in 1934 and moved to a public housing project in Oakland, California at the age of eight.

The author provides an excellent retelling of the college exploits of these future teammates as they established their basketball credentials utilizing two opposite skills; Cousy’s innovative ball handling at Holy Cross and Russell’s intimidating defense for the University of San Francisco. The Cooz, as Cousy was known, was six years older than Russell and while he enjoyed great individual success during the early 1950’s with the Boston Celtics the team never achieved a championship. This all changed with the arrival of Russell in 1956 as the Celtics went on to win an astounding 11 of 13 championships during his tenure.

Behind the scenes of all this winning there were times of off court difficulties. In October of 1957 a coffee shop in a hotel the team was staying at in Lexington, Kentucky refused to serve two black players. All the Celtics black players decided not to play in the exhibition game they were to play in that evening. While Red Auerbach, their feisty coach, sympathized with the players he felt the problem was with the hotel and not the opposing team nor the organizers of the game who had sold 10,000 tickets. In the end the game took place with all white rosters including Cousy a decision he later deeply regretted.

Pomerantz paints the two men as, not surprisingly, sharing one common trait, fierce competitive natures which abhorred any defeats. Cousy and Russell were also prideful athletes, but Cousy was more of a loner subject often to tough self analysis while Russell was a much more confrontational and intense individual often offending Boston fans with his comments.

A wide array other characters are portrayed during the telling of these two mens’ stories, fellow Celtics: Sharman, Heinsohn, the Jones boys, Sanders…etc., competitors; Schayes, West, Chamberlain, politicians; JFK, Obama all make cameo appearances.

Cousy’s attempt, at the age of 90, to understand and rectify his perceived slight to Russell is captured by the books subtitle, “Cousy, Russell, the Celtics and What Matters in the End.”

“The Last Pass” is Pomerantz sixth book and adds to his solid reputation as a chronicler of sports, history and civil rights.

– END –

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