Waiting for the Train with Bob Cousy and Chuck Cooper

nolifebeforecoffee (flickr)
nolifebeforecoffee (flickr)

Over at Grantland there is the depressing story of Greg Oden’s heart-wrenching personal journey through emotional and basketball rehab. It’s well worth reading and is a reminder that NBA players are persons. Like all of us, they have particular struggles to battle in their lives. Some struggles we foolishly put on ourselves, others we put upon other people. But unlike them, we have the anonymity to privately deal with the issues. Having a close friend die and then being booed by thousands of people a day later is an experience few of us will ever have to face.

As it so happens, I’m reading Rise of a Dynasty: the ’57 Celtics, the First Banner, and the Dawning of a New America. Within this book is a powerful story recalling an exhibition game the Boston Celtics played in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1950. Like Oden’s story, it’s a reminder of our frail and withering, strong and resilient humanity.

Exhibition games in the early NBA were played far more often than today since the league used it as a means to raise both revenue and interest in their sport. Well, being North Carolina in the 1950s, the supposedly public accommodations of Charlotte were not available for use by “colored” persons, including the Celtics’ lone black player, Charles Cooper. The forward was not allowed to eat with his teammates, watch a movie with them at the theater, or even spend the night with them after the game in a hotel. All because of segregation.

Thanks to these dehumanizing conditions, Cooper (the first black player drafted by the NBA) was scheduled to take a train back the night of the game instead of waiting until the morning and flying back with the team to Boston. Symbolic of the lonely, solitary existence early black players faced.

This plan was initially unknown to Cooper’s road roommate, the tender-hearted Bob Cousy. After learning about it from coach Red Auerbach, Cousy insisted on riding all the way back to Boston via Syracuse on the train with Cooper. The train back to Boston wouldn’t arrive until the wee hours of the morning, so Cooper and Cousy just walked the streets, passing the time. Eventually, nature’s call arrived and the two men searched for a restroom at the station. Finally finding one, Cousy was embarrassed to see the clean toilets marked “WHITE” and the decrepit one “COLORED”.

Tears filled his eyes as he felt not only ashamed for this moment he and Cooper had to endure, but perhaps also for the teasing he absorbed as a child in New York.

Cousy was the son of immigrants from Alsace and spoke with a French accent. Called “Flenchy” for his accented rolling of r’s by peers, his existence was made even more wretched by the indifference his parents showed to their only child. It was a loveless home he hastily abandoned after turning 18. The stoic guard would always be guarded and yet sympathetic with his teammates. Particularly showing this passion when he broke down crying in an interview years later talking about what more he could have done to aid Bill Russell against virulent racism in the late 1950s.

But on this night, waiting together at the station, Cooper and Cousy ignored discussing the solemn moment they came upon the separate but unequal stalls. Finally, Cousy broached the topic by relating to Cooper all the horrors done to Jews in Europe just a few years earlier in World War II and the recent terrorist bombings of Catholic Churches in Louisiana. Cooper absorbed Cousy’s sincere attempt to tackle the issue of prejudice, but his slow retort revealed the enormous burdon borne by the lone black Celtic who couldn’t escape or evade the prejudice if he tried…

“That’s all right, but you can’t tell a Jew or a Catholic by looking at him.”

Cousy, again embarrassed, dropped the topic. And the two men continued their wait…

A painful reminder that we all deal with demons, whether personal or social, self-made or imposed by others. All we can do is gird ourselves and aid others in that battle like Cousy did (however timidly and flailingly) with Cooper. It ain’t easy, but considering the other self-destructive and callous options, it’s the best one available.

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