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Hands Behind His Back

Bob Cousy first tried the play that was to become his trademark in a college game 12 years ago

On January 11, 1949 near-freezing temperatures chilled the snow-patched campus of Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. High on the hill behind the red-brick dormitories, three black limousines were parked near the sprawling white Quonset-hut-type field house. Inside, the varsity basketball team was gathered in the athletic office for the 40-mile trip to Boston and a game that night against Loyola of Chicago. "Everybody's here," Coach Lester (Buster) Sheary said. "Let's get going."

Bob Cousy tossed his equipment bag into the trunk of the first limousine. He walked over and opened a rear door with his right hand. "Use your left hand, Cooz," said Sheary. "You've got to remember that."

Weeks earlier, the bull-chested, booming-voiced Sheary had told Cousy, "You need a better left hand. They're overplaying your right side. Everybody knows you're going to shoot with the right hand. Do me a favor, please. Open doors with your left hand. Shake hands with your left hand. Carry your books with your left hand. And if you can, come up to the gym early and work on your left hand. You need a better left hand."

Cousy had taken his coach at his word. Varsity practice at Holy Cross began at 6:30 p.m., with the team eating together at 5. After Sheary's request, however, Cousy arranged to be fed an hour earlier, sitting alone at one of the shiny oaken tables in Kimball Hall. At 5:30, when the regular students had emptied out of the field house, Cousy had arrived for his private practice. He concentrated on left-handed moves—dribbling and firing left-handed hook shots.

Now, as their chauffeur-driven limousine sped toward Boston, two of the Holy Cross players—Joe Mullaney and Dermie O'Connell—sang On a Slow Boat to China. George Kaftan, Frank Oftring and Bob McMullan hummed along with them, but the quiet, intense Cousy, as was his custom, silently stared out the window. "Give us a tune, Cooz," Mullaney said. "What for?" Cousy answered pleasantly. "Like they say, it's a game of think."

From the start of the game at Boston Garden, it appeared that Holy Cross would beat Loyola easily. Kaftan and Charlie Bollinger consistently out jumped Loyola's six-foot-six-inch center, Jack Kerris, and Cousy tossed in 13 points, most of them on right-handed push shots. By half time Holy Cross led 35-28. At the start of the second half the Crusaders quickly extended that lead to 40-28. But then Loyola began to whittle it down, and with less than six minutes to play, husky Jim Nicholl tapped in a rebound to give Loyola a 52-51 lead.

Using their deliberate offense, Holy Cross wove the ball to spring loose McMullan and Kaftan for a 55-52 lead. Loyola came right back to go ahead, 57-55. Kaftan curled in a lay-up to tie the score. Loyola brought the ball across mid-court, but an erratic pass went out of bounds. It was Holy Cross's ball. "Time out," yelled Oftring. The clock showed there was one minute and 27 seconds to play. The score was 57-57 as the players walked slowly to their benches.

"Take your time," Sheary ordered in the Holy Cross huddle. "Work the ball in an outside weave. I want the man furthest from the ball to watch the clock. When it hits a minute the furthest man calls the seconds: 59...58...57. We're going for one shot, so don't make a move until it hits 10 seconds. Then I want Cooz set up on a scissors play off the high post. The one we've practiced. You'll be O.K. Just take your time."

The whistle blew. Oftring tossed the ball in bounds to Cousy. Closely covered by Gerry Nagel, the quick-moving Loyola guard, Cousy dribbled across mid-court and the Crusaders went into their outside weave as the seconds ticked off ...50...40...30...20. With 15 seconds to go, Cousy got the ball at mid-court. He stopped. Fourteen. "Not yet," Sheary yelled from the bench, but his order was muffled by the roar of the 10,787 fans. Thirteen. Cousy looked for Kaftan near the foul line. Kaftan was tightly covered. Twelve. Cousy dribbled toward the foul line. Eleven. Jammed in by Nagel on his right side, Cousy stopped short. He twisted the ball behind his back, bounced it into his left hand, cut suddenly to his left. Ten. Another one-bounce dribble. Nine. Cousy flipped a left-handed hook shot off his left ear from 20 feet out. It banked off the glass backboard through the net.

The crowd, stunned by this be-hind-the-back dribble and the ensuing hook shot, gasped, then cheered wildly. In the waning seconds, Loyola added a foul shot, but Cousy's play had won the game, 59-58.

In the dressing room Cousy told the newspapermen, "When I saw Nagel all over me on the right side it was the only thing I could do. I didn't think about doing it. I just did it."

"You mean you never practiced it?" he was asked.

"No," Cousy answered calmly. "I've practiced the hook shot many times, of course, but not the behind-the-back dribble."

Some of the other Holy Cross players, however, claimed that Cousy had practiced the behind-the-back dribble, but Oftring said, "He's done something like it in practice—I've seen him dribble in and spin with the ball—but I never saw him make this precise play in practice." In the midst of it all, Sheary smiled and shook his head. "When I saw him shooting with his left hand," the coach said, "I leaped off the bench. I was on my way out to strangle him. But when it went in I skidded to a stop. He looked right at me and seemed to say: 'How's my left hand now?' "

In the Loyola dressing room, Nagel shrugged. "I had him covered," the Ramblers' defensive star said, "and then he sort of disappeared. The guy is a magician."

Since that game, Cousy has confirmed his magical talents with a basketball. During his long professional career with the Boston Celtics, he popularized the behind-the-back dribble to the extent that it is now his trademark. "Every time I pass a playground," he said recently, "I see some kid trying it. I get a kick out of it but not every kid has the physical assets for it. You need long arms and perfect timing. And even so, I don't use it more than maybe six times all season. The only time you should use it is when you need it to get a step on the man covering you. Like in that Loyola game."