Posted Jun 27 2011 11:46AM
Over the years, basketball linguists have settled on the term "complete player" to describe the ultimate, the best there is. It means the guy who can do everything: shoot, dribble, pass, rebound, play defense and win. In other words, Oscar Robertson.
"In his time, he was the greatest," said Ed Jucker, a former coach at the University of Cincinnati. "No one was his equal. I always called him a complete ballplayer, and there are not many truly complete players. But he could play any position."
Robertson led the nation in scoring three straight years as a collegian, in the process setting the NCAA career scoring record. He did this while averaging 15.2 rebounds and setting Cincinnati's single-season assist record.
Ultimately, however, the test for all players is not how complete they make themselves, but how complete they make their teams.
Robertson attempted to answer that question everywhere he played, every time he played. As a prep star, Robertson carried Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis to back-to-back state championships in 1955 and 1956, the first time an all-black team had ever won an Indiana state title. But throughout his college years and a dozen pro seasons, that special championship magic eluded him.
The top pick of the 1960 NBA Draft, Robertson was the heart and soul of the Cincinnati Royals for the first 10 years of his pro career. But they were frustrating years. Despite making the playoffs several times, the Royals never advanced to the NBA Finals.
Then in 1970 Robertson was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, a three-year-old team with a future. The future was one Lew Alcindor, a 7-foot-2 center who was soon to change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
His college career stood in direct contrast to Robertson's. Alcindor's UCLA teams had won three straight NCAA titles. In fact, his biggest adjustment as a Bucks rookie during the 1969-70 season had been learning how to lose.
Without doubt, he was the best college-age center in history, the kind of player to whom all the superlatives apply: well-schooled, intelligent, dominating. He was the single player around which a championship could be built.
Alcindor's basketball life had been that way since early high school, when he began leading Power Memorial to a series of New York City championships. By the time he arrived with the Bucks, winning was almost the nonchalant by-product of Alcindor's businesslike approach to the game. That made him a perfect match for Robertson.
With 17 teams, the NBA was now organized into four divisions, and Milwaukee dominated with a league-best 66-16 record. At one point the Bucks won 20 straight, breaking the Knicks' year-old record for consecutive wins.
Robertson's scoring average, often more than 30 points per game during his years in Cincinnati, dipped to 19.4 as he spent his time running the team and getting the ball down low to the big man. That worked. Alcindor led the league in scoring at 31.7 points per game and was named MVP.
By season's end the Bucks had become machinelike in their efficiency, which was exactly what coach Larry Costello had sought. He set up hard, well-organized practices packed with drills and repetition, and he and assistant coach Tom Nissalke spent hours watching game films. With Costello, Robertson and Alcindor, the prevailing atmosphere was business as usual.
This emphasis on execution made the Bucks one of the greatest offensive teams in league history. They led the league in scoring, yet were only 12th in field goals attempted. And they were the first team in league history to average better than 50 percent from the field.
The Bucks met the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, but it wasn't the same Los Angeles team of a year earlier. Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were out with injuries, and with Wilt Chamberlain as the focal point, the Lakers had become a plodding halfcourt team. Milwaukee pushed them aside in five games.
Baltimore outlasted New York in a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals, but the Bullets were no match for Milwaukee. Baltimore center Wes Unseld had badly sprained his ankle at season's end and was supposed to be out six weeks. Somehow he hobbled back for the playoffs. The seven-game battle with New York had further thinned the ranks. Forward Gus Johnson had sore knees and missed two games against Milwaukee. So did Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, who had pulled muscles to go with his chronically sore knees.
With the Bullets' offense hurting, the Bucks squeezed a defensive noose around the games. Baltimore shot better than 40 percent in only one game in the series, and in only two quarters did they score more than 30 points. "They stopped us from getting the layup," Baltimore's Jack Marin said of the Bucks.
"You've got to give Lew all the credit," agreed Baltimore guard Kevin Loughery. "He may just block one shot here or there, but guys have to change their shots because of him." The result was only the second sweep in Finals history, the other being the Celtics over Minneapolis in 1959.
If not for the injuries, the series might have offered great potential. Unseld was seven inches shorter but 13 pounds heavier than Alcindor. And Robertson versus a healthy Monroe could have been a matchup for the ages. Monroe did score 26 points in Game 1, but Alcindor had 31 and the rest of the Bucks were dominant in a 98-88 win. Alcindor had gotten in early foul trouble, but he came back to have a big second half.
In Game 2 in Baltimore, Unseld used his muscle to shove Alcindor farther away from the basket, but it didn't help the outcome. Robertson held Monroe to 11 points while scoring 22 himself. Milwaukee won 102-83. Back in Milwaukee for Game 3, Milwaukee went up three games to none with a 107-99 win as Bobby Dandridge had 29 points.
Robertson did the major damage with 30 points in Game 4 in Baltimore as the Bucks closed it out with a 118-106 win. "It was almost like pure basketball," Robertson said years later.
At the time, the press and fans thought they were witnessing the birth of another dynasty. Instead, Milwaukee management broke up the team.
"After the championship, they did something which was really foolish," Robertson said. "They traded Greg Smith, Bob Boozer and Dick Cunningham. You had people who really did not understand what a team concept means. You win a championship and make a trade of any key ballplayer, and it's the kiss of death."