President Trump presented six-time NBA champion and Bostons Celtic legend Bob Cousy with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Thursday, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“He’s a great champion and we love champions,” the president said to Cousy in the Oval Office. “You have achieved so much … even beyond basketball.”
Thanking the president for the medal, Cousy quipped, “If I had known I was going be eulogized, I’d have probably done the only decent thing and died for you.”
“Mr. President, I know in your world, you’re well on your way to making America great again,” Cousy said. “In my world, it’s been great for 91 years. Only in America could my story have been told. I’m here to say I’m easily the most fortunate, lucky SOB on the planet.”
“Mr. Basketball,” as the 91-year-old Cousy was known when he was a point guard for the Boston Celtics in the 1950s and ’60s, has been invited to the White House six times before. His first visit to the Oval Office, Cousy told CBS News in a phone call Wednesday, was during the Eisenhower administration. President Eisenhower, he recalled, asked him, “Cooz, how’s your basketball?”
But he said receiving the Medal of Freedom “falls into a different category.”
“It closes a circle. It’s like the cherry on top of the sundae,” he said. “At 91, you get excited when the doorbell rings.”
Cousy still lives in what he described as the “laid-back New England town” of Worcester, Massachusetts, where he attended college and as a freshman, helped the College of the Holy Cross Crusaders win their first NCAA men’s basketball championship in 1947.
After ending his NCAA career with a 26-game winning streak in his senior year, Cousy graduated from Holy Cross in 1950 and moved east on the Boston Turnpike to play for the Celtics, beginning his legendary 13-season run with the team.
Playing with his friend Bill Russell, a fellow Medal of Freedom recipient whom Cousy described as “the greatest center who ever played,” “Cooz” won six NBA championships and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1957. He was an all-star each of his 13 years in the league, and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971.
Cousy said he’s been considered before for the Medal of Freedom, during the Obama administration, and he received support from Massachusetts icons like former Senator James McGovern, former Governor Deval Patrick, and future presidential contender, Senator Elizabeth Warren.
After befriending the “very helpful” Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, a sometime-Trump ally whom Cousy praised for “voting his conscience,” the retired Celtic said he received an unexpected call from the president in December.
“I gave it a two-count,” he said of the call from the president, which he feared might be a prank.
To Cousy, who last traveled to the White House to meet President Reagan, neither the novelty nor the division of the Washington he’s visiting on Thursday is lost.
“In my 91 years, I’ve never seen this kind of polarization,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to me we will ever have a Ronald Reagan – Tip O’Neill moment,” in reference to the relationship between the conservative icon and the Democratic speaker of the House.
The grandfather of two said that in 2016, he voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson for president and is an independent. He said Wednesday he will most likely “pull [Trump’s] lever” in the 2020 election, but blames the polarization in Washington on both sides of the aisle.
At the White House on Thursday, he said Mr. Trump was “the most extraordinary president of my lifetime.”
Cousy observed of the president, “He’s not a politician … What you’re seeing is what Donald Trump’s been about his entire life.” When asked if he would press Mr. Trump on the partisan divide, Cousy told CBS News that based on his experience with past presidents, he knows he won’t get it in before the buzzer: “The president is not going to have time to chitchat.”
For the Celtics legend, Thursday’s visit is not about politics. He views the Medal of Freedom as perhaps the most prestigious recognition of his esteemed career and, and said, “I can stop chasing the bouncing ball.”