Chuck Cooper is black.
Bob Cousy is white.
Cooper, a trailblazer for black basketball players and a star at Duquesne University, was the first African American drafted into the NBA, in 1950 by the Boston Celtics.
Along with Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton and Earl Lloyd, Cooper became one of the first blacks to ever play in an NBA game, wearing Celtic green from 1950 to 1954. In those four years, he averaged 6.8 points and 6.6 rebounds a game. Not sterling numbers, but he was a contributor.
Cousy, one of the greatest players in the history of the league - a Hall of Famer and six-time NBA champion - was also a trailblazer. Cousy revolutionized a struggling league in the early '50s, when the product was primitive, by introducing and perfecting the fast break. It was to be the blueprint for the future of the league.
To Cousy, the court became a gigantic chess board on which he moved living pieces with his creative and often spectacular passing and dribbling - behind the back, in between the legs.
Cousy didn't just recreate plays he had visualized in his mind, he distilled them. It lifted the NBA to the promised land and eventually propelled the league to the huge success it is today. He was elected to the All-NBA first team 10 times, led the league in assists eight times, and finished in the top 10 in scoring eight times.
But this story isn't about numbers and statistics.
It is about humanity.
When Cooper joined the Celtics, some cities where Boston played refused to allow blacks to stay in its hotels or eat in its restaurants. Also, some NBA players shunned Cooper simply because of the color of his skin. Cousy rallied against this discrimination.
"Chuck Cooper was a man of class, intelligence, and sensitivity who blazed a trail that wasn't easy," Cousy told me years ago.
One night in Raleigh, N.C., the hotel where the Celtics were to stay after the game denied Cooper a room. So Cooper decided to take a train that night to New York, where the Celtics would play the next day. Cousy, concerned about his teammate, chose to go with Cooper. They waited together on the station platform for five hours, until the train arrived at 3 a.m.
"We were very close," Cooper once said in an interview. "There was a certain bond between us. Cooz and I would go out a lot together, particularly on the road. We shared an enjoyment of music, particularly jazz. We were friends."
One night in Philadelphia, that close friendship was demonstrated when Cooper went to Cousy's rescue in a game.
Cooper was kneeling at the scorer's table, waiting to check into the game, when Philly's Neil Johnston, a big, strong man at 6-foot-9, clobbered Cousy with a football-type block as he was dribbling near Cooper. Infuriated, Cooper burst onto the court, grabbed Johnston, and tossed him across the scorer's table.
Both benches erupted. In the melee, Cooper got whacked in the back of the head from behind, took off after the assailant, and put a choke hold on him.
Cousy stood apart from the brawl, nonchalantly watching it unfold.
"Cooz was not a fighter," Cooper said. "What he was, was a great basketball player and a great person."
I've known Cousy for some 27 years.
A product of the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, Cousy energetically embraced its Jesuit tradition of giving back and paying forward.
Not only did he decry and demonstrate against the discrimination that Cooper endured, but he was also a big brother to an African American teenager.
One Sunday in his all-white parish church of Blessed Sacrament in Worcester - where he has lived for 71 years - he marched his little brother up the main aisle of the packed church as Mass was to begin.
It comes as no shock that Cousy rallied around Cooper. Indeed, Cousy's senior thesis at Holy Cross was titled "The Persecution of Minority Groups."
B.G. Kelley is a Philadelphia writer. firstname.lastname@example.org