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The Last Pass

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As a huge Celtics fan who grew up outside of Boston, I really enjoyed this book.  I am planning on adding it to my libraries collection in the near future.
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The story of Bob Cousy and Bill Russell seemed captivating, and it most definitely was. Pomerantz's "The Last Pass" is a rich and revealing sports story for basketball fans, even those of whom that hate Boston sports. Admittedly, as a non-Celtics fan, I do still think Celtics history is fertile territory for sports histories and Pomerantz's is no different. Recommended read.
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Some consider the Boston Celtics of the 1950’s and 1960’s, when the team won 11 championships in 13 seasons, to be the greatest dynasty in the history of professional sports. The two players who were most important to these Celtics teams were Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. This excellent book focuses on Cousy’s life, but the driving theme is the relationship between these two iconic Celtics, especially Cousy’s self-questioning about whether he truly had done enough to help his teammate deal with the racism Russell faced in those times.

The book starts with the thoughts of Cousy, now over 90 years old, expressing regrets over how he handled his relationship with Russell. From there, Pomerantz smoothly tells the story of Bob Cousy, from his childhood in which his father was abused by his mother, his difficulty with speaking English (his first language was French) and to his basketball career.  He achieved success at Holy Cross in college before his time in Boston, where he was the flashy point guard for the first six of the Celtics 11 titles, in which Russell was a key player for all of them.

While the book paints a terrific picture of NBA basketball, the Celtics and Cousy’s brilliance on the court, those are not what make this book one that must be read. The reader will learn about not only Cousy the player and Cousy the man, but also about his family and friendships as well. His beloved wife Missy passed away after more than fifty years of marriage. He maintained friendships with many teammates throughout the years, including with coach Red Auerbach.  But he always had troubling thoughts about Russell and whether he did enough for not only the man, but for the man’s cause and rights. 

The book will not answer those questions for either Cousy or the reader, but with the current state of racial issues in the country, it makes sense to show that there are still many unanswered questions.  Yes, this is a biography of a basketball legend – but it is also so much more.
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Well-written, easy to follow and fun. A great read for fans of basketball, history and the Boston Celtics.
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THE LAST PASS, by Gary Pomerantz, is at it's core about Bob Cousy.  The book looks at the Celtics and their winning dynasty in the 1950's and 1960's and it's unique and polarizing leader, Arnold "Red" Auerbach.  It looks at Bill Russell, the amazing athlete and passionate advocate for equality in the NBA and the turbulent sentiments of the country during that same time.  But it all comes back to Cousy, who is the through line of it all.  He is one of the most revered NBA players ever; one of the first real greats of the game, and yet he still struggles with how he could have been a better teammate, better NBA personality, and better moral leader in the emotionally charged 1950's and 1960's.
   Pomerantz clearly has an affinity for Bob Cousy, but does an admirable job of looking at both sides of him, mostly by how different people (teammates, journalists, etc) perceived him.  Some revered him, some found him aloof and self-centered, but few could say he was anything less than a talented and one-of-a-kind player.  Pomerantz goes deeper, interviewing Cousy and challenging him to talk about things he doesn't want to talk about, like his relationship with Russell and how he was perceived in the public eye.  Pomerantz also weighs heavily how race equality and the nation's shifting view of that racial equality affected the NBA, the Celtics, and each of the players.  The story of the Celtics is so much more than Cousy and the book recounts how the team came together, grew, and thrived year after year.  The stories Pomerantz has collected are wonderfully fascinating and quite informative at the same time.  He involves so many of the major components (players, coaches, executives, journalists) of those championship teams and how each of them were part of the greatness, giving as balanced of a look at that time as possible.
   As an avid sports history reader, THE LAST PASS is among the best I have ever read.  The novel tells the story of a special man, chronicles one of the greatest sports dynasties, and touches the reader with the humanity of the game, the people, and the special time in our country when this all was taking place.
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It’s safe to say that the Boston Celtics of the 1950s and 1960s were the greatest dynasty in American professional sports. One could try to make arguments for other teams in other sports, but in terms of pure extended dominance, it’s tough to argue against eight consecutive championships and 11 titles in 13 seasons.

It’s also tough to argue against any two players being more vital to those victories than Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. But despite their brilliant dynamic on the court, their relationship beyond basketball is something a little more complicated.

Both aspects of the Cousy/Russell link are explored in Gary Pomerantz’s new book “The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, and What Matters in the End.” Built around a years-long series of interviews with Cousy, the book explores the history of that dynastic time in Celtics history and examines an NBA that might have disappeared forever had Cousy and Russell not come along, all while also looking at issues of race in a particularly tumultuous time in our society.

Bob Cousy is 90 years old. He lives alone in the same house in Worcester that he’s occupied for decades. His wife has passed away, his kids are grown – he’s left to live a largely solitary life, one in which he looks back at his hardwood past. There are awards and trophies, plaudits and championships – he has few regrets.

Just one, really. Bill Russell.

Cousy was a superstar before he set foot on the floor at the Boston Garden. His flashy, improvisational style of play helped propel his collegiate team at Holy Cross to unprecedented heights, with NCAA tournament berths and three All-American nods.

But it was when he landed in the still-nascent NBA in 1950 that he truly carved his name into the history books. Quickly dubbed “The Houdini of the Hardwood,” Cousy became one of the biggest stars in the league. Over the course of his 13-year career, he led the league in assists eight times and was named MVP in 1957. He was named All-NBA a dozen times and was voted an All-Star every year of his career.

However, it was only when a defensive dynamo from the University of San Francisco arrived that the titles started coming.

Cousy would win six titles alongside Russell, who would in turn win five more following Cousy’s departure. Between Cousy’s energetic offensive skills and Russell’s unmatched rebounding and defense, the Celtics of that era were simply unstoppable.

But it was only in the years after they parted ways – many years, really – that Cousy began to wonder why his relationship with his old teammate wasn’t what it was with some of the other guys from those days. After some soul-searching and self-examination, Cousy started questioning whether he had done enough to help Russell deal with the societal racism that confronted him every single day.

To many, those Celtics teams belonged to Cousy, not Russell. And while one could make an informed argument, the truth was that that opinion sprang from one simple fact: Cousy was white, Russell black. While they were mostly equals on the court, they were far from it anywhere else. As the civil rights movement gained steam – and Russell became more involved – Cousy never truly grasped just how much the country’s ugliness hurt his teammate.

As both men approach the end, Cousy seeks to make amends, or at least to acknowledge to his old friend that he regrets not doing more.

“The Last Pass” offers a compelling portrait of one of the greatest players in NBA history. The early days of the league bear only a passing resemblance to the multi-billion-dollar industry we see today, but Cousy’s place in the game’s history remains unassailable. Getting a sense of those differences – brawls on the court, cigarettes at halftime, teams in isolated small-town outposts – makes for fascinating reading.

What Pomerantz has done is mine Cousy’s story thoroughly and meticulously; these interviews unfolded over the course of years, allowing for a degree of detail and nuance that borders on the staggering. The reader genuinely gets to know Cousy – both the player and the man. That’s a real rarity in any book, let alone what is ostensibly a sports biography.

But of course, it’s more than your standard sports book. No hagiography, “The Last Pass” uses Cousy’s story to reach deep into the fabric of the culture itself. The nascent NBA is used as a lens to view larger truths about mid-century American society. Cousy’s desperate yearning to set things right with Russell is a reflection of a country that still struggles to come to terms with the sins of years gone by.

Cousy was known for his ability to get his teammates the ball, but in “The Last Pass,” it’s Pomerantz who dishes the assist, allowing the Houdini of the Hardwood to score once again.
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What a beautiful trip down Memory Lane! Gary Pomerantz' book on Bob Cousy and Bill Russell takes me back to the days where I first discovered basketball. I fell in love with the Celtics, even though I lived 1,000 miles from Boston. They were frequently seen on television and every viewing was jaw dropping to see the talent and teamwork on display. They appeared to enjoy themselves and had great joy in the game.

The research done by Mr. Pomerantz is outstanding. It was obviously a labor of love. I can highly recommend this book to anyone wishing to relive the glory days of the Boston Celtics.
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A case could be made that Bob Cousy might be the most underrated great player in basketball history at this point in time.

There are a few reasons for that. After an outstanding college career at Holy Cross, Cousy landed with the Boston Celtics in 1950. There he became one of the best players in the league, earning such nicknames as "Mr. Basketball" and "Houdini of the Hardwood." Cousy usually averaged a little less than 20 points per game and usually led the league in assists once he got the hang of the pro game. I would guess that he replaced George Mikan as the face of the NBA when Mikan retired.

But early in his career, he didn't win many games. Cousy played on some Celtics teams that weren't quite good enough. That changed in 1956, when a center named Bill Russell arrived. Russell was really, really good, and meshed well with Boston's fast-break offense. The Celtics won six titles in Cousy's final seven years. His retirement ceremony at the Boston Garden was one of the all-time great tear-fests as these go.

After one last title in 1963, Cousy went off to coach at Boston College. And the Celtics kept winning, and winning. Russell and his talented teammates won five more titles in six years, and everyone realized that the center was the biggest winner in team sports. It could be argued that he still has that title; there's a reason the MVP award of The NBA Finals is named for him. As for Cousy, basketball changed quickly over the years, and his stats such as shooting percentage don't hold up too well when put up to today's light.

But that's no reason to diminish Cousy in the process. He remains an interesting character today, and he's the centerpiece of Gary M. Pomerantz's book, "The Last Pass." In fact, he's the reason it works so well. Cousy obviously opened up his life to the author, doing more than 50 interviews and allowing Pomerantz to have access to all sorts of material - like letters to and from his late wife - for the book.

Cousy brought a little baggage with him when he arrived in the NBA. The New York City guard of French ancestry was an only child whose parents didn't get along too well. That can cause all sorts of problems, but he pointed his competitive drive toward the basketball court. He's was happy and comfortable with the ball, at his best if you will.

Cousy also arrived in pro basketball just as African Americans were arriving in the NBA. He quickly befriended the blacks on the Celtics, as the abuse and prejudice that they faced upset the New Yorker greatly. Cousy also was a flashy player when it wasn't popular. He tried to make the correct play at all times, but sometimes that play was an unorthodox one. If an African American had done some of those moves in the early 1950s, he would have been called a showboat and told to tone it down or be gone. Cousy could make it acceptable, and led the way for everyone else to add style to substance. Go watch some videos.

Then Russell came along, and there was never anyone like him. He eventually became the first black player in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and he was picked not because he was great statistically (although he was a great rebounder) but because he was a winner. Russell did it at a time when African Americans were demanding respect and rights in all areas of society, and was unwilling to back down on those aspects of life. That made him a legend on the court, but somewhat unpopular for those off the court who weren't ready to handle change.

Relationships with Russell were always complicated, and Cousy still plays the "what if?" game about his time with Russell - at the age of 90. Could he have done more to help Russell gain acceptance? Should he have done more? Those questions are really at the heart of the book, and Cousy explores them at length - perhaps surprisingly so.

Pomerantz has done a couple of fine books on days gone by, reviewing the Steelers of the 1970s and Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in 1962. This stacks up with them nicely, and may even be my favorite of the three.

Complaints about this book are minor. You obviously need to be receiving social security checks to remember Cousy well; I'm 62 and can barely picture him playing at Boston Garden when I was about seven. It's about my earliest basketball memory. The book also given a slightly vague sense of needing one more edit; some of the material is repeated at times.

No matter. "The Last Pass" works well because Cousy remains an interesting, even fascinating character - even past the age of 90. I'm underrated the book a little at four stars, and it certainly will be on my ten favorite reads of the year.
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What a fascinating book. An elegy to Bob Cousy, the Houdini of the Hardwood and a seminal figure in basketball history. Cousy comes across as a multi-dimensional person, not just an ex-jock.  An he allowed Pomerania to interview him at length and insinuate him in his life primarily to explore Cousy’s relationship with his team mate Bill Russell, perhaps one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. Cousy laments and questions his support of Russell as Russell faced racism in the 1950’s and particularly in Boston, home of the Celtics. In addition to the introspective parts of this book is a fascinating history of the early days of the NBA.  I have never read a book quite like this and it is highly recommended.
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