He was Mr. Basketball, the Houdini of the Hardwood. He was blessed with long arms and peripheral vision. These gifts together with being ambidextrous and having extraordinary court sense, introduced a new blend of ball-handling and passing skills that revolutionized basketball. He guided Holy Cross College to a national championship in 1947 and the Boston Celtics to six National Basketball championships. He led the NBA in assists eight straight years and was voted to 13 NBA All-Star Games. He was the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1957. His #14 jersey, hung from the rafters of the Boston Garden, reminds Celtic fans of a basketball player the likes of which will never be seen again.
His autobiography, published in 1963, is titled Basketball is My Life. There can be little doubt, however, that the title is an editor’s inspiration, one that would serve the public interest. But the real Bob Cousy’s life belonged not to basketball but to his wife, Missie, who, for 63 years, was his loving partner in marriage.
Bob Cousy, the son of poor French immigrants, married his high school sweetheart, raven-haired Marie Ritterbusch, six months after he graduated from the College of Holy Cross. While Cousy was transforming the game of basketball, Missie was raising two daughters and instilling in them a passion for civil rights and the peace movement. “Our marriage was somewhat contrary to convention,” Cousy said in an interview. “Most couples have the most intensity in the beginning. But I was always working. So we had the best and most romantic part of our marriage at the end. We literally held hands for the last twenty years.”
During the last dozen years of their marriage, writes columnist Dianne Williamson, “when Missie slowly succumbed to the ravages of dementia, her husband ensured that the woman he called ‘my bride’ was always by his side as her mind wandered where he couldn’t follow” (Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Sept. 29, 2013). “She was leading a happy life,” said Cousy. “It was part of the game plan.” And what exactly was this “game plan”?
Each morning, he would lay out Missie’s pills, the newspaper, a fiber bar, and a banana. Then he would gently awaken his “bride” and lead her to the kitchen where she would read the newspaper. It would take two or three hours for her to get through the pages since she would underline each sentence in every story. She would ask her husband the same question over and over. She sometimes hallucinated, became disoriented, and struggled to retain her balance. But she always recognized her husband and bristled at any suggestion that she was suffering from dementia. Cousy did all the household chores while graciously letting her think that she did them herself. He even had her station wagon sent to their home in Florida each winter so that she could see it in the driveway and continue to believe that she could still drive.
On September 7, Bob and Missie went to an early dinner at the Worcester Country Club. On the way home and in the car, Missie suffered a massive stroke. She died peacefully two weeks later and was laid to rest in St. John’s cemetery. Loved ones aver that Bob now feels “bereft” and “inconsolable”.
When asked what he misses most about his wife, Cousy struggles for composure: “I can’t put the pills out in the morning. And I can’t care for her anymore.” Nonetheless, each night, when he goes to bed, he tells his wife that he loves her. He never felt defeated by the challenge of caring for his ailing spouse on a full time basis. “It drew us closer together,” he said. “It was never a chore, because I knew she would have done the same for me.”
As much a Bob Cousy was a hero on the court, he was a greater hero off the court. Perhaps the most important feature of his fame as a basketball player was that it served as a megaphone to let the world know how loving and dedicated a husband can be and how marriage, for better or for worse, can strengthen with age and flourish even in the face of adversity. Mr. Basketball turned 86 a few weeks ago, on August 8, 2014. May God continue to send blessings his way.