The finest stories begin with, “Once upon a time,” and end with “lived happily ever after.”
Most stories in real life fall somewhere in-between.
I had stopped at Kroger’s for a gallon of milk, and overheard a middle-aged woman in the checkout line tell her friend how sad she felt. Her fiancé had informed her the night before he was leaving her.
She was weeping as she told her friend how she regretted her behavior. “He warned me, but I didn’t listen,” she said, frigid air blowing into her face as she hurried to her car.
Having no room in my life for added regrets, I did something I had never done before. I wrote a fan letter to Bob Cousy, the former Boston Celtic.
“Dear Mr. Cousy,” the letter began. I asked him if he remembered a game in Cincinnati against the Royals when some of the Celtics had stood in the concession line drinking Cokes during the halftime break.
Two days ago, I received a wonderful, handwritten reply from Bob Cousy.
“Please excuse my scribbling,” he wrote. “I’m proud to state that I am still computer illiterate.” He went on to say that he found my question interesting, but would have to deny having any memory of the event (but went on to drolly suggest to keep in mind he is 90 years old, and has difficulty with remembering what happened yesterday).
“I cannot imagine a scenario where Auerbach would have allowed his team to leave the locker room at halftime for hot dogs or any other reason,” he continued. “Must have been Celtic impersonators!”
In Manhattan’s East Side of New York, Robert Joseph Cousy shot basketballs on hardscrabble playground courts, never dreaming he would become a member of the Celtics.
About 2,800 miles away, in Oakland, California, William Felton Russell spent his childhood living in a series of public housing projects. Basketball wasn’t on his radar.
But in 1956 the NBA draft and fate came together to link the two men together for the first time. The Boston Celtics drafted Russell as their starting center.
However, life in America wasn’t all shamrocks and cigar smoke. Jim Crow laws were still flaring in the United States, and racism touched even the best NBA players.
In 1961, the Celtics were scheduled to play a preseason exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky. The team was staying at a nice downtown hotel with a well-appointed restaurant where the team had gone downstairs to eat. “We really can’t serve you people,” the restaurant manager told the black players.
Bill Russell was outraged. Russell, along with Satch Sanders, K.C. Jones, and Sam Jones decided not to play. “The white players gave it consideration,” Sanders says. “But in the end, they decided to play the game.”
Seven white Celtics played, including Bob Cousy, who didn’t protest.
According to Gary Pomerantz’s recent book titled, “Cousy, Russell, the Celtics and What Matters in the End,” Bob Cousy spends time now reflecting not only on his accomplishments, but also about the things he didn’t do, and he wants to make amends.
Cousy says it pained him to watch African-Americans struggle for acceptance and inclusion. But he remained silent.
“I thought about it for years,” Cousy said. “And I sent Russell a hand-written letter three years ago.”
“And I basically said, ‘Russ, I know we’ve never been pen pals, and I’m sorry about that. It was my responsibility to reach out to you and hopefully share the pain that you had during that period. However, I didn’t do that.’”
“Well, then six months passed without a response,” Gary Pomerantz said. “And then a year. And then, two-and-a-half years later, in August 2018, Cousy got a call on a Sunday night at home.
It was an old, somewhat enfeebled voice saying, “Bob, it’s Bill Russell. I’m calling to see how you are.”
“We talked for about 10 or 12 minutes,” Cousy said. And then he asked the question: “Russ, I sent you a letter a couple years ago. Did you get it?”
“Yes I did. Thank you,” Bill Russell said, but nothing more.
Ironically, a man in Boston later wrote about his mother and his regrets.
“The last night I had with her in hospice, I was exhausted and asked if she minded if I went home. She immediately whispered that absolutely I should rest, and to be careful driving home. I kissed her on the forehead. I remember I felt some relief to be leaving.”
“I knew it didn’t make a difference, leaving at that time or leaving a few hours later. She was going to die either way. But reflecting on that moment today, I know now that I didn’t understand how precious those minutes were, and how a door was being closed that would never open again.”
“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we didn’t do that is inconsolable,” Harris reminds us.
Bob Cousy knows with humility and sensitivity, we may be forgiven, and have no regrets.
Particularly for the things we didn’t do.
Pat Haley is former Clinton County Commissioner and former Clinton County Sheriff.