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Dan Shaughnessy

Cousy is pointed in praise of Rondo

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / June 2, 2010

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Imagine Willie Mays giving us his take on baseball’s best young center fielder. Or the late Frank Sinatra assessing the skills of a hot young crooner. Today we give you Bob Cousy on Rajon Rondo.

A half-century ago, the Celtics were paced by a 6-foot-1-inch, 175-pound point guard who could solve any defense. He was Houdini on the hardwood, deftly finding the open man with bounce passes in traffic. He had long arms, enormous hands, and uncommon peripheral vision. He was a world champion and he gave the Celtics a weapon the Lakers didn’t have in the early days of Boston-Los Angeles championship finals.

Today Bob Cousy is 81, living with his bride, Missy, in the same Worcester home they bought after he got out of Holy Cross in 1950. Cooz still golfs and works out regularly in the Hart Center atop Mt. St. James on the Holy Cross campus. He doesn’t mention that he walks past a statue of himself when he goes in and out of the building.

Cousy doesn’t get to Causeway Street that much anymore, but he watches a lot of games on TV. These days, he’s constantly asked about another 6-1, 175-pound Celtic point guard who is able to do magical things with the basketball. Cousy says he’s seen split-screen video of Rondo and himself, working the parquet floor.

“I like the way he uses the bounce pass,’’ says Cousy, whose team record for assists in a season (715 in 1959-60) was broken by Rondo this year (794). “That was my favorite pass, especially internally. He’s developed that behind-the-back stuff that I used to do. He does it much more effectively than I used to. He cups it, brings it all the way behind him, and the defenders fall off because they’re sure he’s going to pass it, and he still pulls it back.

“He’s a much stronger penetrator. I didn’t get off the ground too often. I always felt I was very vulnerable if I left my feet going into the monsters, so I was a little more careful than he is.’’

Any other similarities, Cooz?

“I had big hands,’’ he starts. “Arnold’’ — Cousy always called Red Auerbach “Arnold’’ — “said that the reason I could do so much behind-the-back crap was that I had long arms. I’ve measured my hands against most people. I still do it today. Most normal people, I dwarf their hands. I’ve heard them talk about how big Rondo’s hands are, so I guess we share that. And obviously that’s a great asset for a point guard.

“Vision, I think, for a point guard, is the most important thing. I was constantly being told I had eyes behind my head. It would seem that way to people who didn’t know that much about basketball who couldn’t believe that I could see things I could see. It’s exceptional peripheral vision.

“People who have tunnel vision don’t usually become point guards. That happened with [Chauncey] Billups here before they traded him. I think it was the only thing [Rick] Pitino ever asked me. I didn’t think Billups would make a good point guard because he would penetrate and then run into people. Billups proved me and Pitino both wrong, but I still don’t see him as a great creator in the vein of Rondo.’’

What about foot speed, Cooz? Kentucky coach Tubby Smith told us Rondo could have won the NCAA 100 if he went to the track. How do you think you’d do in a footrace with Rondo?

“I used to think I’d have trouble beating my grandmother down the floor,’’ he says with a chuckle. “I never had great speed, but I had great quickness. Rondo would lap me, probably. I’d be curious if there’s anyone in the league that gives him a go.’’

He’s too humble. Cooz won six NBA championships and earned a spot in the Hall of Fame. He belongs on any first-team assemblage of all-time Celtic greats. Time has enhanced the deeds of Messrs. Russell and Bird, but it’s important to remember that there was a time when Bob Cousy was the face of the NBA and the man who saved the Celtics in Boston. He was Mr. Basketball, Boston’s signature star in the early years when the Celtics annually fell short at playoff time.

Unlike many former greats, Cousy is generous toward modern players. He’s also razor-sharp. When folks in local television decided not to retain his services a couple of years ago, Cooz got out the needle and told us about getting a call from a “junior-level executive.’’

It’s a shame. We need commentary from the Cooz. Here’s his take on the maturation of Rondo:

“It’s been a steady evolution each year. He seems to have added a little more to his repertoire. This year, his confidence level is about as strong an asset in terms of where he’s going. Even his outside shooting, which everyone says he can’t do, and they play him accordingly. But in the games I’ve seen he seems to hit the shots he has to hit.

“Given his speed and quickness, I don’t think there’s anyone in the league that can guard him effectively. He penetrates at will, he’s playing the ball down very well. He’s always seeing the floor well — that’s always been one of his biggest assets — and I think this year his creativity and his imagination have really come to the fore. He’s added to his repertoire considerably in that regard.

“He plays much bigger than he is. He’s a genuine rebounding threat at 6-1. He also physically has become a dominant defensive player. He leads the league in steals, which makes him a little vulnerable occasionally in terms of his one-on-one defense, but he’s got such quickness and he recovers effectively if he gets himself out of position trying to steal.

“He’s a hell of a defender, he’s a hell of a rebounder, he’s added to his offensive repertoire. There’s not much more a point guard can do.

“Tommy [Heinsohn] and I have liked him from the start. I remember at the start of this year there was some question as to whether Danny [Ainge] was going to sign him. I said, ‘My God, given the scarcity of point guards out there, you’ve got potentially a great one here, why would you not sign him?’

“I’ve liked everything I’ve seen. The knock on him was that he didn’t have confidence in his outside shot. I guess he still doesn’t have as much as I’d like to see. To be the most effective point guard, you must be enough of a threat from the perimeter where the defense at least respects you.

“In the first three series, whoever was guarding him pretty much falls off and gives him outside anytime he wants it. But he’s got such quickness he still penetrates effectively even when they play off him. I haven’t seen anyone guard him effectively. Yeah, he doesn’t pursue his shot, but point guards aren’t out there to pursue their own opportunities. They’re out there to create ones for the others.’’

Is Rondo a Hall of Famer?

“I don’t know if he’s going to be a Hall of Fame point guard, but if he continues this forward movement that we’ve seen the last couple of years, there’s no reason to think he can’t be. He doesn’t have [Kevin] Garnett’s demonstrative intensity — he’s not banging his head on the basket support — but it seems to me he doesn’t have the highs and lows that the other guys have. He seems to play with the same intensity all the time.

“He is the whole package. Usually you think of guards in terms of what they produce offensively. You don’t think of John Stockton or Steve Nash or Magic [Johnson] as defensive guards or outstanding rebounders. When people describe what a point guard can do, it’s unusual that a player will have no weaknesses but that he can function effectively on so many levels.

“Tiny Archibald was probably as quick, but Tiny didn’t have the body strength. Tiny would take it in and bounce off and end up on the floor. This guy is strong enough where he can absorb a lot of punishment.

“Rondo’s free throw release looks a lot different to me. He was shotgunning it a little bit and now he releases it like he’s shooting it. I heard he was working with Mark Price and it looks like Price really got through to him and he does look so much better.

“His stroke from outside is not bad. He makes a lot of shots where fans are probably saying, ‘Don’t shoot that.’ He gets the full extension. I don’t see any hesitation when he finally takes it.

“If progress can still be made, it would probably be in his believing that he has a good release and he can shoot that thing. He’s got all the assets. The sky’s the limit for this kid. There’s no reason to think he won’t continue to improve.’’

High praise from the best point guard in the history of the Boston Celtics.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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