Revisiting Bob Cousy’s Crazy Comeback

NBA comebacks capture our imagination.  The hope that a retired star can return and somehow turn back time is quite appealing to the nostalgia in all of us.  We all remember Michael Jordan’s triumphant Second Coming in 1995 as the quintessential successful comeback.  We also remember MJ’s Third Coming or Magic Johnson’s return as more mixed.  I thought, today, we could look at a weirder comeback, Bob Cousy’s brief return to the NBA with the 1969-70 Cincinnati Royals.

Cousy was known as the Houdini of the Hardwood and was the first great point guard in NBA history.  Cooz starred with the Celtics from 1950-51 to 1962-63, when he retired at age-34.  Six years later, Cousy was a rookie NBA head coach for the Royals at age-41.  In late November 1969, Cousy was reactivated as a backup point guard.  How did this happen?   There isn’t a ton written about this forgettable return but I thought we could dig deeper and see what more we could figure out…

Old Players and the NBA as of 1969

Playing at age-41 in the NBA isn’t easy today but it was really unheard of in 1969.  From the start of the Shot Clock Era (1954-55) until 1969, only 10 players played in the NBA at age-35 or older (note that this age calculation is based on Basketball-Reference’s definition of age, which appears to be based on the age of the player for the majority of the season.  If the player turned 35 after the halfway point of the season, Basketball-Reference defines his age as 34 for the year).  Moreover, no one in that time had played past age-36.  Part of that had to do with the fact that modern medicine didn’t allow players to recover the way they would later. The other part of the equation was the fact that the salaries weren’t high enough to encourage players to keep playing either. 

From 1954 through 1963, only four players made it to age-35 in the NBA.  Here’s how they did:

Bob Davies retired after 1954-55 at age-35.  Davies had his usual season (12.1 ppg, 4.9 apg on career-best .415 FG%)  and abruptly retired to coach basketball and golf at Gettysburg College.  Clearly, Davies could’ve stayed in the NBA at least another year but chose to leave town for a better job.

Bobby Wanzer retired after 1956-57 at age-35.  He was running on fumes and barely played his final seasons.

Nat Clifton retired after 1957-58 at age-35.  Sweetwater was still pretty solid in 1958 and had made the All-Star game only one year previously.  But Clifton didn’t technically retire from basketball.  He went on to play with the Globetrotters and in the ABL and only retired when he hurt his knee in his early 40s.  No doubt he would’ve remained in the NBA past age-35 had the money been good enough to stay.

Andy Phillip retired after 1957-58 at age-35:  Phillip was one of Cousy’s rivals but had been his back up in Phillip’s final two seasons, scoring 3.9 ppg in 19 mpg.  He was clearly on his last legs as a player.

After Phillip there was a lull in older players until 1963-64 and then a few more popped up:

-Dolph Schayes in 1963-64: Schayes had been named coach of the 76ers that season at age-35.  Schayes had played the prior year with the Nationals as a role player (9.5 ppg in 21.8 mpg).  In 1963-64, Schayes played himself only 24 games for 14.6 mpg.  He shot only .308 FG% and seemed to play mostly in blowouts.  Schayes benched himself by the end of the season (he did not play in the playoffs).  He then retired to coach exclusively.

-Larry Costello from 1966-68 at ages 35 and 36:  Costello was the first 36-year old NBA player in the Shot Clock Era.  He had left the NBA in 1965-66 for the EBL but came back at age-35 to help the legendary 1966-67 76ers with Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker, and Billy Cunningham.  The team was short at point guard so they tried Costello, who played well but blew out his Achilles midway into the season.  He came back to play briefly in 1967-68 (28 games) before retiring for good to coach.

-Johnny Green, the first great old player:  Jumpin’ JohnnyGreen didn’t make the NBA until age-26 in 1959-60 but he lasted forever.  He had a mid-career lull and looked like he was about to be out of the NBA when he scored only 4.7 ppg at age-35 with Philly in 1968-69.  Then, Cousy’s Royals signed Green the next season and he somehow played better than ever.  He led the NBA in FG% in 1969-70 and 1970-71 and made the 1970-71 All-Star game at age-37 (16.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg, .587 FG%).  Green lasted until 1973, when he retired at age-39.  He was the first true great older NBA player.

-Sam Jones retired after 1968-69 at age-35.  Jones was eking out a final year with Bill Russell (who turned 35 that year but was 34 for most of the season).  Jones was an All-Star the year before (21.3 ppg) but declined to 16.3 ppg that final season, mostly because his mpg dropped from a 33 in 1967-68 to 26 in 1968-68.  Jones had big moments in the playoffs that final year but hung up the sneakers after the season.  Quotes at the time indicate that both he and Russell were physically running on fumes.  Roland Lazenby wrote in his NBA Finals book that Russell’s knees were so bad that he couldn’t practice his finals season and Jones was in a similar boat.

-Richie Guerin from 1968-70 at ages 36 and 37:  Guerin coached the Hawks from 1964-65 through 1971-72.  He retired as a player in 1966-67 but unretired to play 27 games in 1968-69 and only 8 games (and 64 minutes) in 1969-70.  The odd thing about Guerin is that, despite barely playing in 1969-70, he ended up playing major minutes in the Hawks last two playoff games against the West/Baylor/Wilt Lakers . 

How did this happen?  Guerin told the New York Times in 1990 that injuries to Don Ohl and Walt Hazzard forced Guerin’s hand.  But it was a bit more complicated.  Guerin who was known as a tough ex-marine, got particularly irate earlier in the series.  The Hawks lost the first game of the series in a close game.  After the game, Guerin told the press that “there will be a lot of blood spilled on that floor tomorrow night” and “certain players may not be around when the game is over.”  Commissioner Walter Kennedy fined Guerin $1,000 and called the remarks “inconceivable.”  Guerin remained defiant and said he would appeal the ruling and said “[m]y players aren’t going to get pushed around again, that’s for sure.”  There was no reported “bloodshed” in Game 2 and the Lakers won again, 105-94.

With the Hawks down 0-2 to the Lakers and Hazzard out, Guerin started himself in Game 3.  Atlanta was shorthanded and needed a player and Guerin, I’m sure, probably wanted to go out and hit someone anyway.  He played 21 minutes (1-4 from the field, for 2 points, 3 boards).  The Hawks lost a tough overtime game dropping them to 0-3 in the series.  

Guerin started himself again and had great raw numbers: 35 minutes, 31 points, 12-17 from the field, 7-7 from the line, and 5 boards.  The game was a dead heat for three quarters before the Lakers won the fourth quarter 45-25, clinching the series and ending Guerin’s playing career.  In the same 1990 interview, Guerin said “I didn’t die after that game, but I was so sore I felt like I wanted to.”

Years later, Guerin didn’t recall his anger at the Lakers and his only memory was that his retirement ended the two-handed set shot.  Guerin said he had “five or six [set shot baskets] that night.”  Guerin lamented “[t]hat was the swan song of the two-hander.   I’m sorry to see it go.  It added something, something very nice to the game.  The jumpshot is more glamorous, I suppose but the two-hander had an advantage in that late in the game the motion of the jump shot takes its toll on the body. There’s no real exertion to the two-hander.” 

Cousy’s Comeback

With this background, Cousy’s comeback is slightly less crazy than in seems in retrospect.  Schayes and Guerin unretired to play on occasion.  Still, the big difference with Cousy was age.  Schayes and Guerin were younger and had played within two years of their returns.  Clearly, coaches would play to fill vacated roles or to help the team play the style the coach wanted.  This seemed to be the case with Cousy.

He was a rookie coach for a blah Royals team and Cooz was not happy with the state of the team.  Bill Reynolds wrote in “Cousy” that Cooz “wanted the team to run and play more uptempo, the style he had known with the Celtics” but that star Oscar Robertson’s “style was to use his body to back defenders down, controlling the ball.”  Perhaps playing a little could help bridge that gap.  Upon closer look, though, the comeback was probably much more a public relations ploy.

The Royals were not popular in town, drawing less than 6,000 for the home opener and owner Max Jacobs only cared about attendance.  Reynolds wrote that “every night [Jacobs] would call Cousy and ask how many people had been at the game.  Not whether or not the Royals had won.”  Jacobs obviously saw Cousy playing as a potential draw for fans.  Reynolds wrote that before the home opener, “the Royals ran newspapers ads that showed a picture of Cousy in uniform, under the heading, ‘Would You Believe?’”  Cousy had scrimmaged with the team the summer before the season but never really intended to play much, if at all.

Cousy ended up playing only 34 minutes over seven games.  Cousy didn’t insert himself into a game until the 18th game of the season, where he played ten minutes in a 14-point win over the Bulls.  He played seven minutes the next game, another 14-point win (this time over the Suns).  Cousy sat himself the next game and then played, perhaps, the worst two-minute cameo of his career against the Knicks.

Reynolds explained the cameo thusly: “[w]ith about 90 second left, the Royals leading by three, Robertson fouled out.  Cousy believed he was the next-best option and could give his team some stability….So he put himself in, then quickly made two free throws.  But he had a pass intercepted, and then when one of his players threw the ball away again, the Royals had lost.”

Hard to imagine putting yourself in the game to settle down the team and then make the cardinal mistakes that help cost the game.  Nonetheless, Cousy didn’t give up yet.  He sat himself the next three games but played 12 minutes in a one-point loss to the Sonics.  Cooz shot 0-2 but had an impressive five assists.  Then the playing return really slowed down.  Cousy had three more one-minute cameos on December 14, 1969, January 3, 1970, and January 6, 1970 and that was the end of his playing career.

Cousy’s Comeback Stats

In all, Cousy averaged 0.7 ppg  and 1.4 appg in 5 mpg.  He only took three shots in those games (and was 3-3 from the line).  The sample size is way too small to attribute to much meaning.  Still, let’s dig in and give the highlights:

-He passed and fouled a lot, averaging 10.6 assists per-36 minutes and 11.6 fouls per-36 minutes.  The assists rate was the best of his career.  The high fouling either came because he only played late in losses where intentional fouling was needed or because he couldn’t guard quick players anymore (or a combination of those two factors).

-For what it’s worth, Cousy’s comeback advanced stats were: 8.6 PER and .101 WS48.

-The Royals went 5-2 in those games.  Five of the games were played at home, supporting the public relations angle (this includes the Knicks game, which was played in Cleveland but that was a quasi-home game because it was in Ohio).

Older NBA Players

In terms of the aging curve and NBA players, older players have really popped up over time.  Here are the number of seasons by NBA players age-35 or older by decade:

1950s: 8

1960s: 6

1970s: 34

1980s: 42

1990s: 189

2000s: 269

2010s: 231

35+ NBA players exploded by the 1990s but slightly declined last decade.  It will be interesting to see where the trends go in the 2020s (there have been 48 such season so far through this third season of the decade).

Cousy’s Blah Comeback Summed Up

Having coaches dabbling in playing was common until the late 1970s.  The practice has since been barred under the CBA (I recall Scott Skiles tried it briefly for the Suns before the NBA refused to permit him).  Cousy’s return was far-fetched, though, even at the time.  He was just too old to play semi-regularly in the 1969 world.  You can’t fault him for trying to help management bring in fans, though it’s not clear that his presence actually did this.  52 years later, we can appreciate the comeback for the weird data point that it was.