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While he’s relatively new to the sports media space, JJ Redick hasn’t had any problem fitting in at ESPN. The former sharpshooter is unafraid to give his opinion, even if that means clashing with Stephen A. Smith or Chris Russo. Now, he’s got someone a bit more famous on his case: Bob Cousy.

Yes, you read that correctly. The 93-year-old Celtics legend got wind of Redick’s comments about players from back in the day being little more than firemen and plumbers and felt the need to weigh in. Unsurprisingly, he thinks pretty highly of his peers.

JJ Redick threw some shade at former NBA players, and Bob Cousy isn’t having it

Our story begins roughly a month ago when JJ Redick and Chris Russo were debating Chris Paul’s overall body of work. Without recapping the entire clip, Mad Dog said that the Suns’ guard was no Bob Cousy. Redick responded by, among other things, saying that the Celtics legend “couldn’t dribble with his left hand,” won in an era when you only had to survive two playoff series, and played against “plumbers and firemen.”

While that exchange was largely forgotten as the NBA Playoffs progressed, it seems like word eventually reached Cousy himself. On May 19, he finally responded.

“People with less talent will always try to make a name for themselves by criticizing other people and hopefully getting some attention and perhaps increasing their credibility,” he said on SiriusXM NBA Radio, taking a shot back at Redick. “So, when you respond to something like this, you play into their hands. I won’t do that.”

If you ignore the fact that he was basically doing what he said he wouldn’t do, Cousy went on to speak on behalf of his peers.

“I will defend the fireman and the plumbers that he referenced,” the former point guard continued. “And I’ll just give you a few of their 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. Still the best, in my judgment, small forward that ever played the game, a guy named Elgin Baylor. A couple of point guards that weren’t too shabby. My colleague, who … also had an award created, a guy named Oscar Robertson, who was pound-for-pound the best player perhaps in the game. Jerry West wasn’t too shabby.”

Cousy also mentioned a few of his Celtics teammates and some other names before circling back to drop the hammer.

“I can go on and on, and we must have had the best fireman and plumbers on the planet at the time,” he concluded.

At the risk of being boring, both Redick and Cousy have valid points that could have been phrased a bit better

At this point in a standard post, I’d usually pick one side and argue why that person’s take was reasonable. In this case, though, the answer is somewhat in between.

When it comes to the overall sentiment of Redick’s original comments, nothing is that controversial. Today’s NBA is incredibly different from Michael Jordan’s era, let alone Cousy’s. It’s not unreasonable to say that, in a time when seven-footers are dribbling the ball like a point guard and pulling up for three-pointers, someone from 1959 would be a bit out of their depth.

Could JJ have phrased things a bit more respectfully? Of course he could have, but ESPN debate shows aren’t exactly known for their subtlety.

Moving over to Cousy’s side of the aisle, he’s obviously correct to name the legends who played during his era. While that’s a bit of a straw man — the argument was more about the overall quality of play than claiming that no one good took the court back in the day — it does indirectly highlight a point that works in the old school’s favor.

If you want to criticize players from that era for being “plumbers and firemen,” that has to cut both ways. Let’s take someone like Oscar Robertson, who everyone can agree is a basketball legend. While you could argue that he faced easier competition, the Big O also had less help. He hit the hardwood in an era of bus trips, halftime cigarettes, and trainers armed with little more than an ice pack. MRI scans, which we now think of as a fairly standard diagnostic tool, weren’t commercially common until the 1980s.

If anything, that makes the guys who Cousy named even more impressive.

The answer, it seems, is probably to avoid value judgments


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So, where does that leave us in terms of a conclusion? At the risk of being somewhat Pollyanna, the solution is probably to focus on respect rather than individual greatness.

Were players from Cousy’s era a bit less athletic? Probably, but they didn’t have private jets, armies of trainers, and everything else helping them focus on their craft. It’s also important to remember that they were working within their conception of basketball. Could someone like Walt Frazier have been breaking out NBA Street-style dribbles if he wanted to? Possibly, but in an era when carries, travels, and other seemingly pedantic rules were enforced, that wasn’t even on his mind.

The same can be said for dunks. While Dr. J highlights may look basic, he was only getting the ball rolling. Without him, there’s no Michael Jordan at the Slam Dunk Contest or any of today’s highlight-reel jams. To break out a bad analogy, no one is going to choose to climb aboard the Wright brothers’ plane ahead of an Airbus, but that doesn’t mean their 1903 efforts are any less valid.

As I said a few paragraphs ago, it just boils down to respect. Arguing about individual greatness, as much as fans may be unable to resist it, is a recipe for disaster.

Basketball in the 1950s was essentially a different game than it is today. That shouldn’t devalue someone like Cousy, who shone in that era, but it does make comparisons almost impossible. If you were good, great, or legendary during your time on the hardwood, that’s how you deserve to be remembered.

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