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Publisher's Summary

Out of the greatest dynasty in American professional sports history, an intimate story of race, mortality, and regret.

About to turn 90, Bob Cousy, the Hall of Fame Boston Celtics captain who led the team to its first six championships on an unparalleled run, has much to look back on in contentment. But he has one last piece of unfinished business. The last pass he hopes to throw is to close the circle with his great partner on those Celtic teams, fellow Hall of Famer Bill Russell, now 84. 

These teammates were basketball's Ruth and Gehrig, and Cooz, as everyone calls him, was famously ahead of his time as an NBA player in terms of race and civil rights. But as the decades passed, Cousy blamed himself for not having done enough, for not having understood the depth of prejudice Russell faced as an African American star in a city with a fraught history regarding race. Cousy wishes he had defended Russell publicly and that he had told him privately that he had his back. At this late hour, he confided to acclaimed historian Gary Pomerantz over the course of many interviews that he would like to make amends.

At the heart of the story The Last Pass tells is the relationship between these two iconic athletes. The audiobook is also in a way Bob Cousy's last testament on his complex and fascinating life. As a sports story alone, it has few parallels: A poor kid whose immigrant French parents suffered a dysfunctional marriage, the young Cousy escaped to the New York City playgrounds, where he became an urban legend known as the Houdini of the Hardwood. The legend exploded nationally in 1950, his first year as a Celtic: He would be an All-Star all 13 of his NBA seasons.  

But even as Cousy's on-court imagination and daring brought new attention to the pro game, the Celtics struggled until Coach Red Auerbach landed Russell in 1956. Cooz and Russ fit beautifully together on the court, and the Celtics dynasty was born.  

To Boston's white sportswriters, it was Cousy's team, not Russell's, and as the civil rights movement took flight and Russell became more publicly involved in it, there were some ugly repercussions in the community, more hurtful to Russell than Cousy feels he understood at the time.

The Last Pass situates the Celtics dynasty against the full dramatic canvas of American life in the '50s and '60s. It is an enthralling portrait of the heart of this legendary team that throws open a window onto the wider world at a time of wrenching social change. Ultimately, it is an audiobook about the legacy of a life: what matters to us in the end, long after the arena lights have been turned off, when we are alone with our memories.

©2018 Gary M. Pomerantz (P)2018 Penguin Audio

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  • Joe Kraus
  • Kingston, PA, United States
  • 11-06-18

Great Premise, Not Quite Fulfilled in Good Book

I picked this one up because I read a great excerpt of it in Time. As Pomerantz describes it, this is basketball great Bob Cousy doing something remarkable, let alone for a 91-year-old who’s lived most of his life as a celebrity: reflecting on his own role in race as it played out in his lifetime.

I don’t regret picking up the whole book, but I do feel marginally misled by that excerpt. This book does deal with Cousy as he reflects on his friendship with Bill Russell; the two of them were the twin stars – Russell clearly the greater one – of the first NBA dynasty, one electric and one rock steady, one white and one black. It deals with that friendship, or strange lack thereof, in a beautifully written opening section, and then somewhat less satisfying at the end.

In between this is a different book altogether, also a good one, but not quite what I’d been sold on.

The heart of this is a biography of Cousy, and it’s certainly well done. Pomerantz has great admiration for the man, and he certainly persuades me to share it. Cousy himself felt like an immigrant, felt like a child of the ghetto who experienced a fraction of the native distrust that so haunted Russell.

I had no idea Cousy was, essentially, French, that he was the child of two French immigrants and that English was his second language. (I got to thinking that, alongside Tony Parker and, maybe someday, Frank Nkitlina, the French have a lot to boast about in their point guards.) I’d taken his name for Irish and that, of course, would have made him royalty in Boston. Instead, he could never quite overcome a combination of accent and speech impediment, and he could never quite be home in the world of celebrity athlete that he had a real hand in creating.

Pomerantz has a number of fine passages where he gives a sense of what it must have been like to watch Cousy play in his early days. He was, after George Mikan, the second inventor of modern play. And, where Mikan brought a combination of low-post precision and brute size, Cousy brought flair and creativity. Cousy is the forerunner of the basketball wizard – the Houdini of the hardwood. I think his Youtube clips probably don’t show the great panache of his original moves. Next to the greats of today, to Step Curry to take the exemplar, he must seem drab. In context, though, as Pomerantz describes it, he was a revolution.

This does begin to drag a little in the second half. Pomerantz has some great material, but he recycles the best of it. I think, in the end, the book would have been just as effective, and a little sharper, if it were about 20 percent shorter.

But the culmination here is the profile of Cousy in his waning years. Pomerantz lets us see him as a man unafraid to ask himself a difficult question: how was it possible he could have enjoyed such spectacular on-court chemistry with Russell yet not known the extent of what he endured as an African-American in Boston. (In one harrowing scene – one we get at least three times – vandals broke into Russell’s home, painted racist graffiti, and defecated in his bed.) Cousy seems to have been well ahead of most of his contemporaries when it came to race – he roomed with the Celtics first black player, and he served as a Big Brother to a handful of adolescent African-American boys – so he could easily plead his own documented good works. Instead, he probes his conscience for times he failed to ask the necessary question, for times he might have been even braver than he was and put his hard-earned reputation at risk.

And, while there is a lot to chew on in those culminating reflections, the somewhat disappointing truth is that they’re unresolved. Outside of a powerful scene in which Cousy, in a live television interview, began crying when asked about his relationship with Russell (another scene repeated multiple times) Pomerantz isn’t able to show us too much detail in Cousy’s reflections. I’m persuaded to admire the basketball player, admire the dignified way he’s aging in a world slowly forgetting the magnitude of his innovations, but I don’t quite have a sense of how I should admire him.

Cousy, that is, deserves admiration for his intention to ask himself deep questions at a time most of his contemporaries have faded or died. Pomerantz deserves credit for laying out those intentions as clearly as he does (and for the loving and attentive biography he works around that project). In the end, though, we see only the first half of the play – the pass as it’s leaving the hands of thoughtful man Cousy and careful writer Pomerantz. Good as this is, I’d like to see the second half of the play, the part where we see the pass get caught, the part where we see the reconciliation with Russell. And that, I’m afraid – both in life and in this otherwise fine book – we do not get to see.