Before there were Oscar and Isiah and Magic, there was Cooz. Before there were $100 million endorsements for high schoolers, before the NBA turned into a smackdown in short pants, there was Bob Cousy, the Houdini of the Hardwood.
''He was the first modern player, the flashy playmaker, the first improviser, the first player to look inside the boundaries of a basketball court and see endless possibilities, jazz musician as point guard," Bill Reynolds writes in ''Cousy," his revealing retrospective of the man who changed the rhythms of a game that once was played inside a cage.
Cousy and Bill Russell, the cackling, goateed wizard, were the founding fathers of the Celtic dynasty of the '50s and '60s. Russell, the angular center, turned defense and rebounding into an aggressive art form, jump-starting Boston's devastating fast break. Cousy was the artiste, the man who invented the behind-the-back pass, who ''spread the sugar" to his sharpshooting teammates.
''You want to know why Cousy was the greatest?" Russell said. ''Two reasons. First was his imagination. No matter what the situation was, he'd think of something new to try . . . And he'd make it work for the second reason -- his confidence. He just knew it was going to work."
Yet Cousy was driven by insecurity and fear. He was the only child of French immigrants who settled in a tenement on New York's Upper East Side. Playmates, who dubbed him ''Flenchy," made fun of his accent. Cousy was cut twice from his high school team, Andrew Jackson in Queens. Though he was a national star at Holy Cross, Red Auerbach, the Celtics' skeptical coach, wouldn't draft him. ''Am I supposed to win, or please the local yokels?" Auerbach asked owner Walter Brown.
When Cousy turned up after his Chicago team folded before the season, Auerbach still had his doubts. ''I hope you make the team, but if you don't, don't blame me," Auerbach told him. ''It's a big man's game."
But Cousy was the little man with the ball in his hands, the man who was setting the fast-forward tempo (''Rapid Robert," radio announcer Johnny Most dubbed him), the man with 180-degree vision who saw everyone on the court, the man who made everyone around him better.
Yet Cousy paid a fearful price for his genius. During his Celtic years, he would sleepwalk around his hotel room speaking French and would be jolted awake by nightmares.
''I always have been afraid that I would not be good enough," Cousy said after his 13-year career was over. ''There was always the fear, before every game, that this would be the night it would all desert me, that this would be the game that everything would go bad and I would be out there, exposed and helpless."
It never happened, because Cousy made sure he retired before his skills eroded, leaving the game at 34, after a sixth league championship, to coach Boston College.
Cousy later made almost as much for one autograph session ($30,000) as he did in his final year as a player.
It was never about the money, though, or about the rings and trophies, some of which Cousy later sold as an endowment for his two daughters.
Cousy's legacy was the championship banners and the memory of a magician whose props were a rubber ball and a patchwork parquet floor. ''Who do you think you are, anyway?," New Yorker writer Herbert Warren Wind imagined backyard players telling their showboating colleagues. ''Cousy?"