NBA 75th Anniversary Season

Archive 75: Oscar Robertson

So much of Oscar Robertson’s game was crammed into the first third of the NBA’s marvelous 75 seasons being celebrated in 2021-22, it’s no wonder many might not know how gifted and transcendent he was. Like so many of his contemporaries, particularly fellow Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor, Robertson’s performances were captured on film, not videotape, if captured at all. He arrived in the league’s black-and-white era and was out in 1974, which means you’d need to be in your own sixth decade or so to have seen him live, either in a gym or in a rare, grainy televised game.

There’s a difference, though, between “never seen” and forgotten. Plenty of NBA fans never got to witness Robertson in person. But few who did ever forgot him or the versatile, dominating style with which he played.
His teammates never forgot. His opponents never forgot. Most of all, Robertson never forgot. The pride he has shown since his playing career ended was there from the beginning, through 14 stellar seasons, before games, after games and especially during games.

There was a seriousness to Robertson’s game, a drive matched by perhaps only Boston’s great Bill Russell. He was competitive, sure, right up there with his friend and rival Jerry West, the Lakers’ great guard who tormented himself over winning and losing. But it was more than that, a confidence and a dignity that burned to be the best and to draw that out in those with and against whom he battled.

Robertson flexed his talents most famously as the first – and only, for 69 of the league’s first 75 seasons – player to average a triple-double. In 1961-62, his second year, the Cincinnati Royals’ do-it-all star literally did everything, reaching double digits in scoring (30.8 PPG), rebounding (12.5 RPG) and assists (11.4 APG). In fact, if you look at Robertson’s first six seasons, he averaged a triple-double – 30.4, 10.0 and 10.7 – across a span of 460 games.

Finally, when Russell Westbrook matched that feat with 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists to win the 2017 MVP award, Robertson, by then 78, didn’t bristle that his superhero cape had gotten stepped on. He was gracious and he was honest, handling it like a boss by saying, “If I’d known people were going to make such a big deal about triple-doubles, I would have gotten more of them.”

Oscar Robertson was known for filling the stat sheet with points, rebounds, and assists, but he felt it was his leadership as a lead guard that helped the team the most.

Robertson’s roots were in America’s heartland, born in Charlotte, Tenn. and raised in Indianapolis, Ind. But he and his game grew up on the far side of any Hollywood “Hoosiers” lifestyle. He attended and played at a segregated high school named for Crispus Attucks, the first casualty of the Boston Massacre and thus the American Revolutionary War who became an early African-American hero.

When Robertson and his teammates became the first all-black team to win a state prep championship, the civic leaders of Indiana’s capital city curtailed their parade plans and generally failed to celebrate them at the level of previous high school champions.

Robertson was the first black athlete to play for the University of Cincinnati basketball team. By the time he graduated in 1960, the yearbook hailed him as “the fabulous Oscar Robertson,” the greatest athlete in the school’s history and that most decorated college player in America (three national scoring titles, two Finals Fours, All-American status and NCAA player of the year honors).

He was a slam-dunk choice, then, when the Cincinnati Royals took him first overall in the 1960 NBA Draft, one spot ahead of West Virginia’s Jerry West, his soon-to-be U.S. Olympic team backcourt partner. And then they reached the pros as rookies in 1960-61, more striking than Robertson’s scoring or passing was his size.

At 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, he put the big in his “Big O” nickname. His bundle of skills made him a pioneer of the modern “positionless” game, but his strength and length against smaller opponents made him the NBA’s first big guard.

Oscar Robertson defended by Jerry West

While crafting his own Hall of Fame career with the Los Angeles Lakers, West never underestimated or failed to praise Robertson. From comparing their relative comfort level as rookies (Robertson was named Rookie of the Year) to assessing their overall contributions, West for years talked of Robertson as the most overlooked superstar ever.

Their careers unfurled in tandem, the same 14 seasons, West a 14-time All-Star to Robertson’s 12. The league was ruled by centers for much of their stay, with West vs. Robertson offering a pocket version of the storied rivalry between Russell and the legendary Wilt Chamberlain.

While West spent his entire career in Los Angeles, teaming with Baylor to constantly butt heads with – and lose to – Russell’s Celtics dynasty in the Finals, Robertson’s Royals teams never made it that far. Cincinnati was eliminated by Boston in the East three times in the Royals’ six postseason appearances.

By the end of their 10th NBA season, West had played in 120 playoff games, ringless but with a 65-55 overall record. Robertson? Just 39 games and a frustrating 15-24 mark.

Grinding year after year with the Royals tested Robertson’s patience, though it never snuffed his focus on involving and elevating his teammates’ performances. He made sure to draw them out in the regular season, finding them for scoring chances as opportunities to stay sharp for whatever postseason runs might follow.
But there were only those six. And the Royals managed to reach .500 just six times in Robertson’s 10 Cincinnati seasons. Eventually, after he had moved on, the losing and its effect on fan interest sent the franchise itself packing, first to Kansas City, then eventually to Sacramento. A lot of the Royals’ history, including Robertson’s, is boxed up in a Kings storeroom out west.

One bright side: Toiling so often out of any national spotlight, even by the meager standards of NBA popularity in the 1960s, might explain Robertson’s zeal and performances in All-Star Games. He seized on those moments to shine, averaging 23 points, 7.6 assists and 33 minutes in his first 10, and earning the midseason event’s MVP trophy as a rookie in 1961 – joining only Chamberlain and Baylor to win it in their first seasons – as well as in 1964 and 1969.

Oscar Robertson facing the New York Knicks

Robertson burned to be the best, so thriving at that level against the league’s other elite players was as close as he could get. Even if it was just one game each year.

By 1969-70, the Royals were headed nowhere fast except out of town, and at 31, Robertson no longer was capable of doing the heavy lifting by himself. A clash in philosophy with his final Royals coach, Celtics Hall of Fame point guard Bob Cousy, and Cincinnati ownership’s reluctance to pay market value in Robertson’s contract made a trade inevitable. In April 1970, after exploring talks with four other teams, the Royals traded Robertson to the Milwaukee Bucks.

The key to that deal was Wayne Embry, Robertson’s sturdy, pick-setting center for six seasons in Cincinnati. Embry was embarking on a front-office career with the Bucks, who enlisted him to talk with Robertson about his potential fit in Milwaukee. The expansion Bucks had just completed their second season, but the draft acquisition of Lew Alcindor – soon to be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – had rocketed them from 27 victories to 56 that year.

Adding Robertson – the player he was with a decade of NBA experience, relying less on raw ability and more on guile – gave Milwaukee the perfect playmaker to nurture the young talent around him: Alcindor, Bobby Dandridge, Lucius Allen, Greg Smith and others.

Once again, there was nothing glamorous about the locale. But the Bucks were world class, on the brink of a 66-16 record in the NBA’s silver anniversary season. It was time for Robertson and his new team to play chess rather than checkers.

That 1971 championship was it for Robertson, one ring, same as it turned out for West (whose Lakers won in 1972). A year later as defending champs, the Bucks lost to L.A. in the conference finals, then got beat by Golden State in the 1973 semifinals. Robertson, Abdul-Jabbar and the rest returned to the Finals in 1974 yet fell short, losing in seven games to the Celtics. Proud to the end, suggestions that his skills had eroded annoyed Robertson. But nearing age 36, it was time.

The man’s impact did not end there, however. Robertson had served as president of the NBA players association longer than any of his peers, shepherding the union through some of its most pivotal years (1965-74). He had seen up close how essential the group was to player welfare as a 1964 All-Star, when a dispute with league owners lingered into game day in Boston and nearly caused the showcase to be cancelled.

During Robertson’s tenure, conditions, salaries and clout for the players improved, affecting everything from meal money and minimum salaries to qualified trainers and schedule considerations. Early talks of a merger between the NBA and the upstart ABA – a competing league that sent salaries soaring by bidding for talent – prompted him in 1970 to lend his name to the union’s “Oscar Robertson” antitrust lawsuit. Its settlement ultimately produced free agency, something that has transformed so many players’ lives ever since, something many take for granted.

Robertson long has believed that serving as the lightning rod in that financial clash with owners cost him post-playing opportunities in coaching, broadcasting and management. Yet he remained as proud of his work in that role as anything he did on the court. And he did plenty.

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