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Oscar Robertson
Oscar Robertson (left) figured it was his job to make the weakest link on his team better.
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Big O: An all-around talent like the league has never seen

By Fran Blinebury,
Posted Mar 12 2012 12:23PM

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He was never trickier than Magic or lighter than Air. He didn't come with a factory-installed nickname that rolled poetically off the tongue like Earl the Pearl, Chet the Jet or Hakeem the Dream.

Oscar Robertson.

"No nonsense," says Hall of Famer Billy Cunnigham.

No peers, says the record book, at least not when it comes to the widely celebrated triple-double.

LeBron James currently has 29 triple-doubles in his career. Michael Jordan had 28.

In 1961-62 Robertson had 41 in the span of 79 games to become the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double -- 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 11.4 assists -- for a full season.

So what did the basketball world call that feat a half-century ago?

"Just playing," said Robertson, now 73, without a hint of a chuckle.

Fifty years ago, while Wilt Chamberlain was making headlines and stretching imaginations with a 100-point game and the Boston Celtics were rolling thunderously along toward the fourth of their eight straight championships, Robertson was laying the foundation of a career that was as powerful and often as quiet as the tides.

"Nobody ever called it a triple-double or any other kind of name," Robertson said. "And to be honest with you, I never thought about it until years later when somebody brought it up in connection with Magic Johnson.

"All I was ever thinking about was trying to do whatever I could to put my teammates into a position where I could get the maximum amount of production out of them and me. The idea, I always thought, was to get the weakest offensive player into the game and playing above his average. If you have a guy who usually gets two points and you can raise him up to 10 or 12, that's how you win."

The Cincinnati Royals won 43 games in the 1961-62 season and Robertson had a triple-double in 75 percent of those victories. He scored 40-plus points eight times, with a high game of 49. He grabbed 20-plus rebounds five times, with a high of 22. He handed out 15 or more assists in 17 games, with a high of 22.

There were eye-popping, mind-boggling box score lines like 42-18-15, 40-17-12 and 40-16-15.

It was just his second season as a pro.

It's likely that Robertson had several quadruple-doubles along the way, but the NBA did not keep track of steals as an official statistic until 1973-74, his final year in the league.

"It took me five or six years (in the NBA) to become an accomplished player," said Hall of Famer Jerry 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."

The Big O hardly had a fancy nickname. But that single initial was a perfect fit for a set of skills that was as well-rounded as any that ever were.

"Oscar could do anything he wanted," said Royals teammate and Hall of Famer Jack Twyman. "You have to remember that at 6-foot-5 and about 200 pounds, he was the first really big, strong, tall guard who brought the ball down the court and set up and ran the offense. Nobody had really seen anything like him before and I guess that was pretty obvious because nobody could stop him."

What often goes unnoticed when the talk turns to Robertson's historic triple-double season is that it was not an anomaly, but actually quite typical. As an NBA rookie he averaged 30.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 9.7 assists. In the 1962-63 season he averaged 28.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 9.5 assists. In the 1963-64 season he put up 31.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and 11.4 assists, barely missing another triple-double year. In fact, if you add up the numbers, Robertson averaged a cumulative triple-double for his first five NBA seasons.

"I'll tell you now, quite honestly, Oscar had a lot to do with me becoming a better player," West said. "That's something that I never told him and I don't mean to say it like I was standing in awe of him. But I watched him play and I saw how good he was and I saw how much I had to do if I was going to keep up with him."

If Chamberlain's sheer size and his scoring feats were enough to test the limits of the game, what Robertson did in that very same season 1961-62 season is as hard to comprehend for its splendid consistency and utter relentlessness. He was the basketball version of a metronome, steady, constant, never losing his beat.

The rap from his critics of the day was that all Robertson did was back his man down and score. Again and again and again. Everyone on the court knew where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do. Nobody could stop him.

"He could just take the ball to any place on the court," Cunningham said. "I don't remember Oscar ever shooting the ball from more than 16 or 17 feet from the basket because of that unbelievable strength and his ability to jump. And if you tried to put somebody bigger on him to bang him, he was so much quicker and would just go right around."

Wali Jones was a younger, quicker member of the NBA All-Defensive team and he had a method for guarding Robertson.

"I would pick up Oscar from the locker room and stick to him on every inch of the court," Jones said. "The refs would allow me to beat on him. Mendy Rudolph would not let me beat on Gail Goodrich or Jerry West like that. But it was OK on Oscar. I beat on him and I beat on him and if he finished with 30 points, I figured I did a good job."

"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."

The late Celtics legend Red Auerbach once offered: "He was the Michael Jordan of his day in a lot of ways."

In every way, that is, except in flamboyance.

"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."

While Jordan was given a supporting cast to win all those championships with the Bulls, Robertson and his Royals could never get past the Celtics. In 10 seasons during the 1960s, Cincinnati 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 called driven, grumpy, unsatisfied. The truth is, he had every reason to be so.

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 clause, 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 multi-millionaire 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 NBA 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.

"These days when you turn on the TV all you hear about are the top 10 dunks and guys flying through the air," Robertson said. "That kills basketball. Years ago, you went into places like New York, Philadelphia and Detroit and they understood what playing basketball really meant. Now you go to an arena and if a guy hits a long jump shot and dunks a ball, people think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread.

"What I think is a great injustice is that a lot of people who say they are fans or who are supposed to be experts don't know or have forgotten the names of John Havlicek or Bob Pettit or Elgin Baylor. Can they really tell me there are people playing today who can score more points than Wilt Chamberlain? Or play better defense than Bill Russell?"

Robertson has never been shy with his opinions. These days his pet cause is trying to get the NBA to acknowledge and celebrate a glorious past that goes much farther back than just the birth of the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson rivalry in 1980.

It is more than a bit ironic that the term 'triple-double' was coined to celebrate the smiling face and the all-around game of a rookie who began his NBA career 5 years after Robertson retired. Magic ranks second on the career list for triple-doubles with 138. Robertson had 181.

Could the 6-foot-9 Magic do anything that Oscar couldn't do?

"I think the question is backward," said Twyman. "I don't think Magic had the shot that Oscar had. He didn't have the strength of Oscar. Maybe he was a better passer. But Oscar was a better rebounder. The thing is Magic was always smooth and smiling. Oscar was in your face."

It was often said that Robertson played angry, at his opponents and his teammates.

"He was demanding," Twyman said. "He had a competitive spirit and he wanted to win. If you didn't contribute, he would let you know about it. That shouldn't be a criticism. It's an asset."

"Edgy would be a better word," said West. "It manifests itself in different ways."

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.

"Coming up in the '60s as an African-American basketball player, there was a lot to be angry about," Robertson said. "They threatened you all the time when you went into certain places. Then they want you to go out onto the court and be an average citizen. You can't go into a hospital and get treatment. When I was in the Army and had my uniform on, I can't buy a sandwich. There was a lot going on."

But when he stepped onto the court there was nothing going on that he couldn't seem to control.

"I never thought about what I was doing statistically," Robertson said. "I just knew that I had command of my dribble. I could always get comfortable. I could go anyplace that I wanted and find any teammate with the ball.

"I get asked a lot if a guy could average a triple-double for a season today. Well, LeBron is close. What you have to remember is I used to play 44-45 minutes a game. These guys only play maybe 36. That's a couple of extra assists. On the other hand, when I played you only got an assist when a basket was made without a dribble. Now you can do all sorts of things and it seems there is no legitimacy to what they call an assist anymore. A lot of things have changed."

Just not him.

Fifty years later, Oscar Robertson is relentless, unyielding and still alone with his season-long triple-double in the record book.

"When I look back on my career," said 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.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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