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Fran Blinebury

Oscar Robertson
In the 1961-62 season, Oscar Robertson averaged an unprecedented triple-double.
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Not flamboyant, but Robertson played at highest level

Posted Aug 31 2011 9:56AM

"Big O" the standard for measuring greatness

Magic Johnson could seem to make the ball disappear with his no-look passes. Michael Jordan defied gravity.

Oscar Robertson just played.

Dr. J operated with the imagination of a surgeon on an LSD trip, making up every move as he went along. Wilt Chamberlain bent and twisted the boundaries of the game until the rules were changed.

Oscar Robertson just played. And played and played.

If Jerry West's 14 years in the NBA from 1960-1974 would eventually make him "The Logo" of the league, then Robertson's parallel career should have, at the least, turned him into the conscience of the game.

For the way he played -- hard, angry, defiant, as consistently as a metronome.

All of the talk about the "Big O" usually centers on the 1961-62 season when he became the only player in history to average a triple-double -- 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds 11.4 assists. But what that highlight tends to overshadow is the splendid fact that it was almost typical. In the 1963-64 season, Robertson almost did it again, but came up barely short by slimmest margin, averaging 9.9 assists. He averaged double-doubles five other times and finished with career averages of 25.7 points, 9.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds.

"If Oscar were playing today against Michael (Jordan), we'd have a huge argument going on," the late Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly once told ESPN.

"He was the Michael Jordan of his day in a lot of ways," said the late Celtics legend Red Auerbach.

In every way, that is, except flamboyant.

"Everybody talks about Michael," said former Celtics great Satch Sanders, a member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2011. "Michael certainly had a lot of style. But if it's flat out ass-kicking, Oscar was a very potent weapon."

If Air Jordan was the high-flying fighter jet through those seasons in Chicago, Robertson was the infantry for the bulk of his career with in Cincinnati and Milwaukee.

It probably was Magic coming along to pile up his career total of 138 triple-doubles that forced the basketball world to look back on the so many things that Robertson did. He was big. He was fast. He could pass. He could shoot. He could defend. And he did it all like a brick wall -- hard and unforgiving. There was rarely the appreciation for the great things Oscar was doing because his game didn't have the bells and whistles.

"The way I played, people said, 'Oh, he's not doing anything,' " the now 72-year-old Robertson once recalled. "Until you looked at the scoring and the assists and the rebounding."

The rap from his critics of the day was that all Robertson did was backed his man down and scored. Yes, again and again and again. Everyone on the court knew where he wanted to go and precisely what he wanted to do. But nobody could stop him.

"He was hell," said Knicks Hall of Famer Walt Frazier. "He didn't try to beat you with quickness. He overwhelmed you. He methodically backed you where he wanted to take you and then just jumped right over you."

"It took me five or six years (in the NBA) to become an accomplished player," said the Hall of Famer West. "But from the first game Oscar played, he looked like he'd been in the league for 10 years. There was nobody like him."

He was strong, powerful, economical in motion and usually under-appreciated despite all that he could do with a ball in his hands.

While Jordan was eventually given the supporting cast to win all those championships with the Bulls, Robertson slogged amid mediocrity in Cincinnati. In 10 seasons during the 1960s, his Royals never once made it to the Finals, all while Bill Russell was winning nine titles in Boston and being anointed the ultimate winner.

That burned inside of Robertson, like so many other things in his life. He was always called driven, grumpy, angry, unsatisfied and the truth is he had every reason to be so.

Robertson was born in the Jim Crow south in Charlotte, Tenn. and was raised in a segregated housing project in Indianapolis. He was clearly the best player in the state during his prep days at Crispus Attucks High and still was not welcomed at Indiana University. When he played at the University of Cincinnati, he was often subjected to racial prejudice.

So merely being the best player on the court on a given night -- or even the most complete basketball player of his era -- didn't satisfy Oscar at time when he still could not eat at certain restaurants and had to sit in the back of the bus.

"Take a young man who grew up in the south, play at an all-black school, came to the University of Cincinnati as the first black to play, was threatened by the Klan, told I couldn't do certain things, it's a wonder why I didn't kill somebody," Robertson told ESPN.

Thus, it was not a chip, but a huge plank that Robertson carried on his shoulder in every game on virtually every trip up and down the floor. He complained and groused at referees. He yelled at and battled opponents, fought with coaches, chewed out and intimidated his own teammates.

He never backed down from a challenge. Robertson became president of the NBA players' association in 1965, the year after the near-boycott of the All-Star Game. He was still president of the union when it challenged the merger with the ABA and the reserve, which prevented free agency. When the lawsuits were eventually settled, one of the major provisions was called the Oscar Robertson Rule. So, many of today's multimillionaire players have him to thank, even if he doesn't get the recognition there either.

Robertson's credit finally came when he was traded to the Bucks and teamed with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to win the championship in 1971. There he was less the all-over-the-court threat and more the point guard facilitator. While his own scoring average plunged nearly six points that season, the numbers of Abdul-Jabbar, Bobby Dandridge and Greg Smith all went up as the Bucks rose to the top.

The next season, the Bucks lost to the Celtics in seven games in the Finals. The year after he retired in 1974, the Bucks finished last in the Midwest Division.

Magic could do tricks, Bird could dazzle, Jordan could fly, Kareem could score, Wilt could dominate.

Oscar Robertson just played.

"When I look back on my career," says West, "he's the greatest I ever played against. Period."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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