Every time Chris "Mad Dog" Russo appears on First Take Wednesdays, younger viewers are treated to a rolodex of sports stars from the past. It's part of the charm and, honestly, who doesn't like hearing about a Rabbit Maranville or a Norm Van Lier from time to time? Russo tends to give the players of yore the edge against their current counterparts and last month he tried to use Bob Cousy as an example of what Chris Paul isn't. J.J. Redick wasn't having it, and noted that the Boston Celtics star's exploits, including a 29-assist game, were perhaps aided by a general lack of athleticism among his competition.
"Well, he was being guarded by plumbers and firemen," Redick quipped.
It was a funny moment but there was also something interesting about it. Because Russo's reacted as though he'd never really heard this argument. That no one had ever pointed out that Cousy played with a belt and never shot 40 percent in a single-season despite being guarded by someone who had a second job at a car repair shop on off-days. Redick chose to compare to our brave first responders, which is playing with fire, but certainly hammered his point home.
That seemed like the end of it until yesterday, when 93-year-old Cousy clapped back. Normally, I despise that phrase. Not in this case, though, because how many chances does someone get to say the Houdini of the Hardwood clapped back? Not too many.
“So when you respond to something like this, you play into their hands. I won’t do that, but I will defend the firemen and the plumbers that he referenced. And I’ll just give you a few of the names of these firemen that I played with and against during those years. How about Bill Russell, the aforementioned, not too bad a player. Wilt Chamberlain, remember that guy? He wasn’t bad. I guess he must have fought fires as well. But in any event, Wilt Chamberlain.”
Cousy went on on to list a bunch of other players from his era. None of whom were firemen or plumbers while they played. One understands his desire to defend himself. On the other hand, if LeBron James or even the 12th man on any roster suddenly appeared in 1953, everyone in an NBA arena would marvel at the alien life form. Basketball players, like athletes in every sport, have gotten stronger, faster, and more skilled. There's no point in arguing that. Comparing across generations has become a bit harder. Eras were different and the best a person can do is just accept that and try to appreciate the past and the present.
That, of course, is boring. And not how you sell a sports-debate show. Controversy breeds conversation and Cousy emerging from the clouds to fire back at Redick is top-notch content. So what this column is going to suggest is that First Take should start doing this more. Have Russo work his way through some 1950s rosters, praising those players, while a recently-retired player sits next to him and roasts the athleticism of the day. Then wait for the 97-year-old player to respond like some sort of analog John Oliver.
That right there is how you create a buzz. You're telling me it wouldn't be fantastic if to have some member of the Syracuse Nationals going at Patrick Beverley? Or someone from the Brooklyn Dodgers taking aim at Jeff Passan? You're telling me it wouldn't be incredible to have First Take research actually dig up information on how these players of ages past supplemented their income?
There's a nice formula here. Ridiculous, of course, yet no less full of potential.