From segregation to Black Lives Matter, the NBA on the front line of American racial tensions

Boston Celtics players Bob Cousy (left) and Bill Russell in Boston, 1957.

The house, sheltered behind a low wall, would be discreet if it weren’t for this American flag which flies on top of a mast, proudly planted in front of the entrance. Worcester, on the outskirts of Boston, in the northeast of the United States, is a peaceful city with its single-storey pavilions and its green lawns revived by the showers of this month of June. ” Good morning “, launches the owner, with the “r” which scrapes the palate, in the French way.

Bob Cousy, 94, is a delight for neurologists passionate about the mysteries of memory: arrived in New York “in the stomach” of his Burgundian mother, in 1927, the American spoke, until he was 5 years old, only the language of Maurice Chevalier, before erasing it in favor of English. Nearly a century later, his rare reminiscences of French come out without the slightest accent. “I speak like a Parisian”, have fun, in french, the old man.

Robert Joseph Cousy – his full name – invites you to sit in the office, where the feet of his walker sink into a thick pink carpet. A library full of trophies, medals and old magazine covers sits behind him. The exhibition celebrates his career: that of the first star of the National Basketball Association (NBA), the American basketball league.

He derails in front of the camera

For thirteen years, from 1950 to 1963, “Cooz”, as fans still call him, enchanted the franchise – a term used in the United States to designate a club – the Boston Celtics, winning six NBA championship titles. The press at the time adored this small white man, 1.85 meters thick as a cyclist, ambidextrous and twirling, nicknamed “Houdini” – a reference to the famous magician –, because of his unpredictable style of play. A legend, received at the White House by eight American presidents since Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961). The leader was even entitled, in 1962, to a private audience with Pope John XXIII, at the Vatican.

Forty years later, in 2001, retired Bob Cousy welcomed a team from the sports channel ESPN to his home. The latter is preparing a report devoted to her ex-teammate Bill Russell, who has become “the” unsurpassable legend of the Celtics, eleven league titles – an unmatched record – and five best player in the league. Cousy is used to tirelessly repeating the same anecdotes in front of the media.

But, that day, he derails in front of the camera. Tears well up in his eyes, preventing him from speaking. “What is happening to me? », he wonders. The following days, the question obsessed him, before a word imposed itself to describe his disorder: guilt. At the end of his life, the former sportsman regrets not having reached out, at the time, to this teammate who would have needed it. Bill Russell, who died in 2022, was black.

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