Robertson was as perfect as they come
No one may more reflect the history and elements of the game better than Oscar Robertson, writes Sam Smith.
The logo that represents the NBA is generally regarded as an outline of the great guard, Jerry West. But if the NBA really wanted to designate someone who best represents the NBA, the model for the game, then it should be Oscar Robertson. If there was a perfect basketball player, it was Oscar Robertson.
Robertson turned 75 on Sunday, and I’ve long been trying to figure out where he fits in NBA history. Given he starred in the 1960’s as a high scoring guard in Cincinnati, he generally has never been seen. He’s more known for averaging a triple-double in one season, the only player to do so in NBA history.
But since Robertson’s Royals teams weren’t as talented and played in the Eastern Conference dominated by the greatest dynasty in American team sports history, Bill Russell and Red Auerbach’s Boston Celtics, Robertson generally never gets in those Michael/Kobe/LeBron/Magic discussions among the best guards ever.
Robertson never got a championship until he was past his prime and joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee in the early 1970’s, going to two Finals in four years.
But I have figured out who Robertson is: He’s Ben Hogan.
The great golfer doesn’t come up in the Jack Nicklaus/Tiger Woods greatest debates because he never won as much. Of course, he never played as much as they did because of injuries. But golfers revere Hogan as perhaps the perfect player, the game’s guru.
It’s the same with the greatest players.
You’ll hear Kareem say Oscar was the greatest guard ever; no offense, Magic. Bill Russell said so. Wilt said, well perhaps after himself.
“In my opinion, and no disrespect to Michael, whom I have the utmost respect for his greatness,” says Hall of Famer Wayne Embry, “but Oscar in my opinion pound for pound, inch for inch was the best player ever to play the game.”
Those who have watched and played the game basically since the beginning of the NBA know that no one could do everything at the level Robertson did.
Wilt liked to think he could, and he did lead the league in assists one season. But he couldn’t shoot. Michael didn’t rebound at a high level and wasn’t known for his passing. Similarly with Kobe. LeBron doesn’t shoot as well. Larry Bird was a brilliant passer, but not so routinely and didn’t score like that.
“My opinion he’s probably the best all around to ever play the game,” said Hall of Famer Chet Walker, an opponent in college and the pros.
In fact, Walker laughs that at Bradley they always played Robertson with a box and one with one defender chasing Robertson and four zoning, “and he still got 40 on us every time.”
“Compare him to Magic, Michael, he wasn’t only an assist man or a scorer or a rebounder. He did everything,” says Walker. “Because of that you have to say he’s the best.”
“To me,” adds former teammate and now Bucks broadcaster Jon McGlocklin, “he’s the most perfectly sound player I ever saw. Fundamentally perfect, skill wise perfect, the perfect overall player.”
And perhaps representative because Robertson had an edge to him, as anyone who’s played with him knows, but overwhelming so for social justice and challenge to authority. Who knows that role better than the NBA player.
“Oscar was the godfather of the free agency,” notes Walker, who was one of the plaintiffs on the famous Oscar Robertson suit that created NBA free agency. “He’s the one who spearheaded that. Oscar stayed with it all through 10 years we were in court. A lot of people were vindictive toward him as a result. He did not do this for himself, but future players. But too many people don’t appreciate what people in the past have done to enhance their success.”
Robertson, thus, never was accepted in the official NBA club given he fought the league so long and made the mistake of winning. People don’t forget.
Plus, Robertson, coming into the NBA in 1960 endured the sort of racism even Russell refused to deal with as Russell told the St. Louis team that could draft him he wouldn’t play in the south. He was traded to Boston, but no black star was featured in a southern NBA city in that era other than Robertson. Who was hardly embraced even in his own city as a result. He fought the community; he fought the NBA; he fought the Celtics. And nobody ever was more productive across the board basically averaging a triple-double just about his first five years in the league when you combine the statistics. And at 30 points per game.
“And remember in that era,” says McGlocklin, “you’re playing Russell and Chamberlain and West and Baylor and those guys eight, 10 times. Name the greatest players of all time. Maybe LeBron gets in, maybe Kobe. But most are from the 80’s and then, Russell, Wilt, Kareem, West, Baylor. Oscar doesn’t talk about that stuff much, but one time maybe 10 years ago we were at a dinner with our wives and someone brings up all this talk of triple doubles. I asked him what he felt. He said, ‘Jon, if I’d known it would be such a big deal I’d have done it my whole career.”
Yet, says Embry, also being the ultimate teammate who made players better with his playmaking.
He epitomized making other players better,” said Embry, known for his eye for putting teams together as he built the 1970’s Bucks and 1980’s Cavs. “He knew we were open before we knew we are open. The next thing you know the ball is in your hands.”
But Robertson basically never played with even a top 10 player in Cincinnati, though some would suggest Jerry Lucas. It hardly matched the Celtics seven Hall of Famers on virtually every team and Auerbach, easily the best NBA executive ever against a dysfunctional and constantly changing ownership and management in Cincinnati.
The picture of Robertson many who watched him have is a big man, the game’s first true big man guard, backing down a guard and turning around and shooting, sort of in slow motion. Teammates will say he was as fast as any and athletic, but he didn’t need the wasted motion.
“I never saw him dunk,” recalls Walker.
The goal was to score and Robertson did it with efficiency.
Former Knicks star Dick Barnett, who played against Robertson in high school, once famously said if Robertson has a 10-foot shoot, then he’d back you down to eight feet to make it more certain, a sound, intelligent player.
It came naturally, and it came from hard work.
Embry was roommates with Robertson in Cincinnati and said wherever Robertson went even as a pro he always carried a basketball.
“He’d lay in bed and I’m trying to sleep and he’s shooting the ball, up and down in the air, catching, shooting, all night,” recalls Embry with a laugh. He’d say, ‘Got to get the right rotation, big fella.’ He worked at it every day.”
Robertson played without flair, but he fought injustice and stood up for the little guy. He played the game more like it was originally intended as much as anyone who’s ever played. And playing his career in two of the smallest cities in NBA history, his game was respected if not as celebrated. But no one may more reflect the history and elements of the game better than the Big O who turned the Big 7-5. Happy birthday. To those of us who watched you, thanks for the memories.