Coronavirus

How a ‘little bird’ tipped off Worcester officials that Bob Cousy needed help getting a COVID-19 vaccine

The suspects included Anthony Fauci and Joe Manchin. But it was someone else.

Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy with family members after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President Donald Trump in 2019. Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images

Dr. Anthony Fauci has called Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy, a fellow Holy Cross alum, his “absolute hero.”

But did the nation’s top infectious disease expert help Cousy get a COVID-19 vaccine?

Or was it Sen. Joe Manchin, another high-profile friend of the 92-year-old basketball Hall of Famer? Or someone else?

Cousy says it’s a “mystery.”

At least, it was.

Cousy told the Palm Beach Post this week that officials in his hometown of Worcester reached out to him last month after hearing from “a little bird” that he had struggled to land a vaccine appointment, despite being eligible under the state’s rollout, which opened up eligibility to residents over the age of 75 on Feb 1.

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According to Cousy, the call came after he had spoken to Fauci and Manchin, the moderate West Virginia Democrat — both of whom had asked if he had gotten the vaccine.

In fact, Cousy, who typically spend the winter in West Palm Beach, told the Florida-based paper that he had talked to Fauci on the phone just two hours before he got the call from the Worcester city manager’s office to help him set up an appointment. However, while Fauci had asked if Cousy had gotten the vaccine (he hadn’t), the longtime Worcester resident said he didn’t think it was Fauci’s doing.

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“Tony is busy saving the freakin’ world every day,” he told the Palm Beach Post, noting that Fauci “didn’t say anything further” after asking if Cousy had gotten the vaccine during their call.

Manchin, however, reportedly took more of an interest.

“Four months ago he said to me, ‘Cooz, don’t worry about the vaccine, I’ll take care of you,’” Cousy told the Post. “I said, ‘Joe, worry about West Virginia. Don’t worry about me.’”

Still, Manchin, who had lobbied to get Cousy the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2019, called back to ask again last month. Cousy said he still hadn’t gotten a shot.

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Then came the call from the Worcester city manager’s office offering help with the challenging signup process. Cousy told the Post that he asked who told them he had been unable to get an appointment, but that the city employee said they couldn’t say “because of who the little bird is.”

According to the Post, Cousy received his first shot of the Moderna vaccine at the Worcester Senior Center on Feb. 8, and was scheduled for his second shot this Wednesday.

But it wasn’t thanks to Fauci or Manchin.

Instead, the “little bird” was Bill Ballou, the longtime Worcester sports writer.

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Ballou had talked to Cousy on Feb. 5  for an unrelated story for Worcester’s Telegram & Gazette, where he worked for more than three decades. Now a part-time freelancer in retirement, Ballou said he knew that Joe Morgan, the 90-year-old former Red Sox manager and close friend, had fairly easily been able to get the vaccine at Gillette Stadium. So he was curious if Cousy had any luck.

Cousy had not.

“The man is over 92 years old,” Ballou told Boston.com over the phone Thursday. “Anyone who’s over 90 should get vaccinated as soon as they possibly can.”

Ballou said he already had a call scheduled with Worcester City Manager Ed Augustus Jr. for the story he was working on. But he decided to email Augustus’s office as well.

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“I said, ‘Hey, I just talked to Bob Cousy. He hasn’t been vaccinated yet. He’s having a difficult time navigating the process. So maybe we should see if we can get vaccinated?'” Ballou said. “It turns out that’s what got it going.”

A spokesman for the City of Worcester confirmed that Ballou — and not Fauci or Manchin — was the one that contacted their office. In turn, the city reached out to Cousy to help “facilitate” an appointment at the Worcester Senior Center, which offers appointments to eligible residents in Worcester and several surrounding towns.

Cousy told the Palm Beach Post that he wasn’t too anxious to get the vaccine, having remained at his home in Worcester through the winter.

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“I’ve been quarantining for seven years since my wife passed,” he said. “I don’t have any social life. I’m not at risk so I don’t worry about it.”

According to Ballou, the well-connected basketball player is underselling his social life, noting that Cousy’s high-profile friendships extend beyond Fauci and Manchin.

“He’s incredibly connected,” Ballou said. “I mean, he’s connected like on a worldwide level … but he’s so unassuming that you would never know that.”

Ballou says he hasn’t spoken to Cousy since their Feb. 5 call.

“I didn’t know what had happened, and I didn’t tell the city manager about it because I wanted a story written about it,” he said. “I just wanted a 92-year-old man to get vaccinated.”

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