Oval Office

4:52 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, this is a very exciting day because he’s a great champion and we love champions.  It’s wonderful to have you in the Oval Office with your family and your friends.

MR. COUSY:  Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you very much.

And thank you all for being here in the Oval Office on this very joyous occasion.  Today, it is my privilege to present our nation’s highest civilian honor to a beloved basketball legend and a true American original, Robert Cousy — commonly known as “Bob” Cousy.  Bob, congratulations on receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award you can receive.  We have the Presidential Medal of Freedom and we have the Congressional Medal of Honor for the military.  And it’s great to be with you.

We’re grateful to be joined by Senator Joe Manchin and his wife Gayle.  And Joe called me up quite a while ago and suggested this idea.  And, Joe, I’d like to — maybe if you could just go to the mic, say a few words about your relationship with Bob.

SENATOR MANCHIN:  Mr. President, thank you.  I had the great pleasure of meeting this legend many years ago through my dear friend Andy and Joan Pradella, and the Pradella family.  And we were — (inaudible) and I have been friends for a long time.  We were talking and he started talking about this Bob Cousy — about “Cous.”  He kept saying, “Cous.”

And I said, “Are you talking about the Bob Cousy?”  He said, “Yeah.”  He said, “I grew up with him.”  He said, “I was a young person and friends of the family.  We knew each other forever.”  And then he then introduced me to him and I met him.  And we start talking and — not — Bob didn’t say anything, but some of his friends said this is something that, basically, he aspired for.

So you called me and you were having a meeting on something else.  We were back having lunch, and we were talking, and you — in your personable fashion.  I said, “There’s a gentleman I think you ought to consider for this high award.”  And you said, “And who would that be?”  And I said, “Bob Cousy.”  And you said, “I remember him very well.”  Remember we were sitting back there?

THE PRESIDENT:  Certainly.

SENATOR MANCHIN:  You said, “Give us a number and we’ll call him.”  You made the phone call back there.  He wasn’t going to take the phone call because he thought — someone said “This is the White House calling.  The President wants to speak to you.”  He said that, “They’re joshing me.”  So they took the call and he says, “It was unbelievable.”

So to all the friends, this is a team effort.  It was this whole family — and all these people who grew up with Bob and Cous know it’s been a team effort to make this happen.  And I was just happen — happy that I could be a part of this.  And thank you, Mr. President, for recognizing —

THE PRESIDENT:  You were a big part of this.

SENATOR MANCHIN: — a true American hero.

THE PRESIDENT:  Yeah, thank you very much, Joe.

SENATOR MANCHIN:  Thank you, sir.

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you, Gayle, very much for being here.  Appreciate it.

Also with us are many members of the Cousy family, including Bob’s daughters — Mary, Cindy, and Marie.  Where are you now?  Where are you?  Hello.  Congratulations.  It’s a big deal.

And his grandchildren, Zachary and Nicole.  Thank you.  Congratulations.  And his sons-in-law — Randy, Bruce, and Joseph.  And they’re good sons-in-law, I assume, Bob.  Right?  No complaints?

MR. COUSY:  They stay in line.  Yeah.  (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT:  I’ll bet they are.

Bob grew up during the Great Depression on Manhattan’s East 83rd Street in an apartment without running water.  In 1941, at the age of 13, Bob picked up a basketball for the very first time.  He devoted himself to the sport, and soon honed a unique ability to play equally well with both hands.  He had a very unique talent.  He had equal ability with both hands, they say.  I won’t ask you whether or not that’s true.  Is it true?

MR. COUSY:  So so.  (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT:  That’s pretty — pretty unique.

And Bob never forgot the lesson his first mentor taught him: Don’t ever be predictable.  Hey, I’ve heard that lesson, too.  (Laughter.)  Not for basketball, for other things.

By his senior year of high school, Bob was named captain of the Journal-American’s All-Scholastic team, and people started calling him the “Houdini of the Hardwood.” It started very early.  It’s called talent.  You either you have it or you don’t.

In 1946, Bob enrolled at College of the Holy Cross and joined the Crusaders, where he quickly built a large following of fans. In one of the biggest games of his sophomore year, his coach, for whatever reason, benched him.  I’ll bet that’s the only time that ever happened.  The team was behind by seven points with only five minutes left to play — it was a very, very important game — when the fans started going crazy.  “We want Cousy! We want Cousy!”  A lot of fans, too — 8,000.  That’s a lot, at that time.

The coach had no choice but to put Bob in the game.  And Bob immediately went on to score 12 quick points, leading his team to a epic, come-from-behind victory.  And I don’t know if the coach kept his job or not, but — (laughter).  I don’t know, why do you think, Joe?  I think I would have gotten rid of the coach.

By the end of his collegiate career, “The Wizard of Worcester” was a three-time All-American, and was on his way to being drafted into the NBA.  Everybody was talking about him.  They were talking about him all over the country.

Joining the Boston Celtics in 1950, Bob quickly established himself as the preeminent point guard of his day.  He was ranked number one in assists for 8 of his 13 NBA seasons, all of which were spent with a team known as the Boston Celtics.  Great team.  By his second season, he was the third-highest scorer in the league.

In a legendary 1953 playoff game between the Celtics and the Syracuse Nationals, Bob demonstrated exceptional grit in one of the roughest games in the history of basketball, including 107 fouls.  That’s a lot of fouls.  (Laughter.)

Bob forced the game into its first of four overtimes that propelled the way to victory, scoring a record 50 points.  And Boston won by quite a bit because he just went wild in that last overtime.

In 1954, Bob organized the NBA Players Association, a first-of-its-kind union for major American sports.  He was elected the association’s first President and fought for better working conditions and a more reasonable schedule for players.
Bob’s activism helped him produce many notable reforms, including a pension plan for NBA players.

Bob was also a passionate advocate for equality and justice.  At Holy Cross, he wrote his senior thesis on the persecution faced by minorities.  While playing for the Celtics, Bob heard that his friend Chuck Cooper, the first African American drafted into the NBA, could not stay in the same hotel as the rest of the team in the segregated South.  Bob responded by leaving the state with his teammate, and he wasn’t a happy person.  And he became very happy because what happened after that is very legendary.  Bob was right at the forefront.  Throughout his long career, Bob was a voice against prejudice, racism, and bigotry.

After 1,026 games for the Celtics, Bob retired from the team in 1963.  He had scored 18,973 points and made 7,882 assists.  They were records at the time.  He was a six-time NBA champion, a 13-time NBA All Star — wow — and he was also league MVP.  He was the first NBA player to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Bob went on to coach the Boston College basketball team to a 117-38 record.  In 1973, he coached the U.S. National Team to victory against the Soviet Union.  He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971, and later became the first inductee to serve as its president.

He coached the Cincinnati Royals and briefly reactivated in 1969, setting the record for the oldest person to play in the NBA.  Am I allowed to ask how old that was?

MR. COUSY:  I’m having a senior moment, Mr. President.  (Laughter.)  I think it was 41.

THE PRESIDENT:   Well, that’s pretty good.  That’s pretty good, huh?

Over the years, Bob has also poured his heart in countless charitable causes.  He was named the “Big Brother of the Year” in 1965, taught youth basketball, and created a scholarship for underprivileged children.  It’s an incredible life.  Incredible life, you’ve done.  Great job, Bob.

MR. COUSY:  Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT:  But, you’re one of the all-time greats in the history of sports — not just basketball — and an inspiration to us all.  And today, America honors and celebrates everything that you have achieved.  You’ve achieved so much — and even beyond basketball.

It is my privilege to ask the military aide to read the citation as we present Robert “Bob” Cousy with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Please.  (Applause.)

MILITARY AIDE:  Robert Joseph “Bob” Cousy is one of basketball’s all-time greatest players.

During his 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, the “Houdini of the Hardwood” confounded opponents and was instrumental in building the team into a legendary success.

Mr. Cousy won six NBA Championships with the Celtics, led the league in assists for eight straight years, was a 13-time All-Star, and won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 1957.

Off the court, he fought for racial equality by standing up to racism directed at his teammates, and he helped organize the NBA Players Association.

In 1971, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

The United States proudly honors Mr. Cousy, whose competitiveness and character have solidified him as a distinguished athlete and American.

(The Medal of Freedom is presented.)  (Applause.)

MR. COUSY: Thank you, sir.

THE PRESIDENT:  Here’s the mic, right here.

MR. COUSY:  (Inaudible.)

THE PRESIDENT:  You take your time.

MR. COUSY: Thank you, Mr. President, for those kind words.  However, if I had known I was going to be eulogized, I’d have done the only decent thing and died for you.  (Laughter.)

Yeah, I think I’ve got to — at 91, I’ve got to stop using that line.  (Laughter.)  I think that line — I think the Good Lord has heard it once too often and he’s ready to tell one of his aides, “Hey, I think that sucker wants to come up.”  I hope he says “…up with us.  Yank him up.”

Anyway, Mr. President, I know, in your world, you’re well on your way to making America great again.  In my world, it’s been great for 91 years.  Only in America could my story have been told.  I’m here to say that I’m easily the most fortunate, lucky S.O.B. on the planet.

Fabricated overseas, followed by a 17-year ghetto experience in early life, I discovered some God-given skills to play a child’s game and landed — without much of a moral code other than the law of the streets, survival, and self-interest — at the College of the Holy Cross — then and now one of the finest liberal arts schools in the country, where my Jesuit mentors, in answer to the eternal questions — what’s it all about; why are we here; what’s our raison d’être — advised, “Maximize your God-given skills in the areas of your choice and then reach out in your communities and help, in any way you can, those who are less fortunate, those who need a boost.”

And to the best of my ability, I’ve tried to do that.  And I’d like to think that the Good Lord has rewarded my feeble attempts by surrounding me, at this point in my life, at this wonderful event — oh, boy, I screwed it up there — friends who have my back; my two wonderful grandchildren who — let’s introduce you guys one more time, Nicole and Zachary; two loving daughters — both with devoted partners and both who hover over me and make sure that I take my pills on time.  (Laughter.)

I can’t ask all those friends to stand and be identified, but I would like to pay special tribute to my friend, Senator Joe Manchin, from West Virginia, who was directly responsible for my presence here today to receive this award.

And I’d like my daughters — Marie and Ticia — I know you took one bow.  Just a quick wave, guys.  They are both retired schoolteachers, both with distinguished careers in education, and both wonderful replicas of their mother — sorry about that — Missie, who put up with me for 63 — this is why you shouldn’t invite old men to the White House.  (Laughter).  We get emotional.  For 63 wonderful years, while trying, in her way, to make her world a better place.

So, as exhibit A, for that earlier reference to my good fortune, I refer to why we’re here this afternoon.  This acknowledgement allowed me to complete my life’s circle.  I can stop chasing a bouncing ball.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom allows me to reach a level of acceptance in our society I never once ever dreamed of.  And it’s very special for two other reasons: It allows me to join one of the most exclusive clubs on our planet.  And secondly, Mr. President — and I’ve lost the last sheet.  I’m sorry.  Secondly, Mr. President, it’s special because it is being presented by the most extraordinary President in my lifetime.  And I’m a “B.R.” — a “before Roosevelt.”  (Laughter.)

Anyway, thank you, sir.

THE PRESIDENT:  That’s very nice.  Thank you.

MR. COUSY:  Thank you all my friends and family.  Thank you for your attendance and your attention.  Peace.  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I just want to say that — first of all, that was beautiful.  And congratulations to the family and all of your friends.  And the last one — the last great athlete to get it was Tiger Woods, about three months ago.  Tiger got it.

MR. COUSY:  I saw it all.  I’m a Tiger fan myself.

THE PRESIDENT:  And he — I’m a Tiger fan, too.  And he’s a — he did a great job.  He did something that people thought was impossible and he won the Masters, and he was something.  So, you’re in very good company.  There’s some incredible people, as you know, in the past.

MR. COUSY:  I have been.  And I think I mentioned to you when we spoke in December that if I ever get back to golf, I’m going to give you two a side.  (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Okay.  That sounds good.  That sounds good.  Thank you very much.  That was fantastic.

And I just want to, again, congratulate Bob and his family and thank you all.  And Joe, thank you for that reference.  That was a reference.  When Joe Manchin called — Senator Manchin — he said that, “I have an idea: Bob Cousy.”  I said, “Done.”  He said, “You don’t want to…”  I said, “No, I don’t have to think about it.  What’s to think about?”  I know his life.  I know how great an athlete he was.  I also know he’s done great things beyond that.”  So that was a very quick acceptance.  I didn’t have to call you back, Joe.  I saved the phone call.

So, thank you very much for that reference, and we’re very proud of Bob Cousy.  Thank you.  Thank you, Bob.  Congratulations.  (Applause.)

Q    Mr. President, are you concerned about the jobs numbers — the revision?  Five-hundred thousand fewer jobs over the past year?

THE PRESIDENT:  No.  The job numbers have been really good.

We have unemployment at a level that it hasn’t been at for many, many years.  Fantastic numbers.  The economy has been really fantastic.  If you look at the world economy — not so good.  But the economy has been really fantastic.

Thank you very much everybody.

END

5:11 P.M. EDT