Oscar Robertson, the “Big O,” is the player against whom all others labeled “versatile” are judged, and he may remain the standard forever.
Statistically, one need look no further than the numbers Robertson put up in 1961-62, just his second year in the league: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists per game — a triple-double average for an entire season. He remained the only player to do so for more than 50 years until Russell Westbrook matched his feat in 2016-17.
During his 14-year NBA career with the Cincinnati Royals and the Milwaukee Bucks, Robertson became the top-scoring guard of all time, amassing 26,710 points, which ranks 15th in NBA history.
His average of 25.7 points per game ranks as the seventh-highest mark ever among retired players, and he averaged 30 points or more in six seasons. Although six players have surpassed Robertson’s career record of 9,887 assists, some argue that Robertson’s total came in an era when an assist was credited much less generously than it is today. Robertson also averaged 7.5 rebounds for his career and led his team in rebounding once, a rare feat for a guard.
Robertson’s playmaking and scoring brilliance were rewarded with commendation after commendation, and finally with an NBA title in the twilight of his career. He was Rookie of the Year in 1960-61, played in 12 straight All-Star Games, was selected to the All-NBA First Team nine consecutive seasons, won the MVP award in 1963-64, and helped the Milwaukee Bucks win the championship in 1971. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979 and named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996-97.
At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, Robertson was the first big guard. Magic was only one year old when Robertson made his NBA debut.
Just how good was he? “He is so great he scares me,” Celtics Coach Red Auerbach once said. Former teammate Jerry Lucas told the Indianapolis Star: “He obviously was unbelievable, way ahead of his time. There is no more complete player than Oscar.”
Born in 1938, Robertson grew up dirt-poor in a segregated housing project in Indianapolis. In the projects he not only learned basketball but also learned firsthand about racial discrimination and economic inequality. He was drawn to basketball instead of baseball, which was more popular in the neighborhood, because it was “a poor kids’ game.” He learned how to shoot by tossing tennis balls and rags bound with rubber bands into a peach basket behind his family’s home.
Robertson attended Crispus Attucks High School, an all-Black school that had no gym and one that white schools refused to play until Robertson arrived. At Crispus Attucks, Robertson’s natural physical abilities and instincts were polished by coach Ray Crowe, who was obsessed with teaching the basics of the game.
Robertson smoothly combined his street smarts with Crowe’s fundamentals. He averaged 24.0 points and was named Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball” as a senior. The team went 31-1 in 1955 and 31-0 in 1956 (including a state-record 45 straight victories) and took state titles both years. The all-Black school had brought home Indianapolis’s first state championship. But city leaders were uneasy about how the team’s celebration might take shape. The players were driven outside of town to hold their party because, said Robertson in the Indianapolis Star, “They said the Blacks are gonna tear up downtown.”
Robertson’s on-court brilliance, and the off-court racism to which he was subjected, continued at the University of Cincinnati. He was nothing short of incredible as a collegian, scoring 33.8 points per game with a one-handed style that made his shots virtually unblockable. Three times he won the national scoring title, was an All-American, and was named College Player of the Year.
He led the Bearcats to two Final Fours and a 79-9 record during his three varsity seasons. Among his 14 NCAA records was a career scoring mark that stood until Pete Maravich bested it in 1970. As a sophomore Robertson scored 56 points in a tournament game at Madison Square Garden, and he scored 62 points in another contest.
Cincinnati, however, had never had a Black player before. In the late 1950s road trips through the Midwest were awkward, to say the least. Barred from hotels until his junior year, Robertson often had to stay in college dorms. “I’ll never forgive them,” he told the Indianapolis Star years later.
Co-captains on the gold medal-winning 1960 U.S. Olympic basketball team, Robertson and Jerry West entered the NBA one after the other in the 1960 NBA Draft. Robertson went to the Cincinnati Royals as a territorial pick. (The system allowed a team to claim a local college player in exchange for giving up its first-round pick.) West went to the Lakers, who were moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, as the first overall selection of the regular draft. Robertson, too poor to own a basketball as a child, signed for $33,000 per year.
Robertson exploded onto the NBA scene, finishing third in the league in scoring (30.5 ppg) and winning Rookie of the Year honors for 1960-61. The Big O made his first of 12 consecutive trips to the All-Star Game, winning the MVP award after scoring 23 points and setting a record with 14 assists, one better than Bob Cousy’s previous mark. Robertson also ended Cousy’s eight-year string of regular-season assists titles by leading the league with 9.7 per game. With forward Jack Twyman contributing 25.3 points per game, the Royals improved to 33-46. The team, however, remained in the Western Division cellar.
It would only take until Robertson’s second year for him to achieve true stardom. In 1961-62, the season he averaged a triple-double, Robertson led the Royals to the first of six straight trips to the playoffs. He repeated as assists champion with 11.4 per game and a total of 899, smashing yet another record set by Cousy, who had accumulated 715 assists two years earlier. The sharpshooting Robertson also finished fourth in field goal percentage (47.8), and his average of 12.5 rebounds per game was a career high. Success did not follow the Royals to the playoffs, however, as they were dumped in the first round by the Detroit Pistons.
Robertson had another great year the following season (28.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 9.5 apg, 51.8 field goal percentage). With Twyman continuing to put up big numbers, Cincinnati battled past the Syracuse Nationals in the division semifinals. In the next round against the Boston Celtics, Robertson’s heroics forced a Game 7, but the Royals fell to the eventual world champions.
Throughout the mid-1960s the great Boston and Philadelphia 76ers teams would stand impenetrable, keeping the Royals from advancing to The Finals. The rivalries made for classic matchups between Robertson, the Celtics’ Cousy and the 76ers’ Hal Greer.
In 1963-64, Robertson cemented his status as one of the league’s dominant players. He won the All-Star and regular-season MVP Awards and led the Royals to a 55-25 record, good enough for second place in the Eastern Division. Robertson finished first in the league in both assists (11.0 apg) and free throw percentage (85.3) and ranked second in scoring (31.4 ppg). By this time the Royals had assembled a powerful supporting cast for the young superstar, with Twyman, rookie Jerry Lucas and Wayne Embry up front and Adrian Smith joining Robertson in the backcourt. Cincinnati also had a new coach, Jack McMahon, who had played with the Royals when they were in Rochester.
In the postseason, the Royals muscled past the 76ers in five games, only to meet the mighty Celtics in the division finals. Although the Royals were firing on all cylinders and Robertson was in top form, Cincinnati was still no match for Boston, which won all four games by at least 10 points.
Throughout the decade Robertson averaged at least 25 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists. The league was full of stars at the time, including West, Chamberlain, Russell, Elgin Baylor, Willis Reed and John Havlicek.
That Robertson stood out as equal to — and, in the eyes of many, even better than — these players was testimony to his greatness. From 1960 to 1968 Robertson was the only player other than Chamberlain or Russell to win the MVP Award. And it took Chamberlain’s prodigious point totals to keep Robertson from winning a scoring title.
No other player excelled in as many ways as Robertson did. Basketball watchers marveled at his hardworking style of play. Knicks guard Dick Barnett once said: “If you give him a 12-foot shot, he’ll work on you until he’s got a 10-foot shot. Give him six, he wants four. Give him two feet and you know what he wants? That’s right, man, a layup.” Red Auerbach joked that after telling his players to stretch out their fingers extra wide while defending Robertson, “Oscar shot the ball through their fingers!”
Before the 1969-70 season, near the end of Robertson’s peak as a player, the Royals brought in Cousy as head coach. Cincinnati had missed the playoffs two years in a row, and attendance was suffering. To draw fans and generate some excitement, the 41-year-old Cousy even put on a uniform and played seven games in the backcourt with Robertson.
Then, prior to the 1970-71 season, the Royals stunned the basketball world by trading Robertson to the Milwaukee Bucks for Flynn Robinson and Charlie Paulk. Theories attempting to explain the trade abounded. Many observers believed it was Cousy’s jealousy of Robertson that led to the trade. The Big O had just broken many of Cousy’s records and Cincinnati was suddenly too small for the both of them. “Whatever his reasons were,” Robertson later said, “I think he was wrong and I’ll never forget it.” Fans up and down the Ohio River mourned.
Also in 1970, Robertson became part of one of the most important court cases in NBA history. The landmark Oscar Robertson suit, filed against the league by the Players Association, stalled a proposed merger between the NBA and the American Basketball Association. The anti-trust suit, named after Robertson because he was president of the union at the time, challenged the merger as well as the legality of the college draft and the NBA’s reserve clause that prohibited free agency. Six years after the suit was filed, the NBA finally reached a settlement, the leagues merged and the draft remained intact.
But drafted players won the right to snub their prospective employers for a year and reenter the draft. In addition, teams were no longer required to provide compensation when signing a free-agent player. This encouraged the signing of more free agents and eventually led to higher salaries for all players.
At age 31 and still searching for a championship, Robertson joined second-year center Abdul-Jabbar (then called Lew Alcindor) in the Bucks’ lineup. With Abdul-Jabbar winning the scoring title and the MVP award, Milwaukee posted the NBA’s best record in 1970-71 at 66-16. Robertson had what for him was a typical late-career season: Playing every game but one, he tallied 19.4 points, 8.2 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per contest.
Compared to Robertson’s postseason struggles in Cincinnati, the Bucks’ relatively easy road through the 1971 playoffs was an unusual experience. Milwaukee breezed by the San Francisco Warriors and Los Angeles to reach The Finals against the Baltimore Bullets. The Bucks cruised past the Bullets and their strong frontcourt of Wes Unseld and Gus Johnson in four games, the first Finals sweep in 12 years.
With a championship ring now adorning one of Robertson’s famous fingers, people around the league started asking the question: “Is the Big O the best ever?” Although obviously not a question that could be answered objectively, a strong case was being made by sports writers and basketball experts all over the country.
With his legs starting to go, Robertson considered retirement. He managed to play three more seasons, however, helping the Bucks to division titles in each of those years. Stymied in the playoffs in 1972 and again in 1973, the Bucks reached The Finals in Robertson’s final year and were favored to win the title in 1974 against the Celtics. In what stands as a classic series, an Abdul-Jabbar sky-hook in double-overtime of Game 6 gave the Bucks new life and forced a Game 7. In the finale Dave Cowens delivered 28 points and 14 rebounds, leading Boston to a 15-point victory.
It was an emotional end to one of the most remarkable careers in the history of American sport. The Big O had single-handedly redefined the role of the basketball guard, laying the foundation for players such as Magic Johnson. No one, however, may match Robertson’s overall greatness.
Robertson left the NBA with 26,710 points, 9,887 assists and 7,804 rebounds collected in 1,040 games. He shot 48.5% from the field and 83.8% from the line. In 86 playoff games Robertson averaged 22.2 points, 8.9 assists and 6.7 rebounds. He led the league in assists six times and in free throw percentage twice. His teams made the playoffs in 10 of his 14 years in the league.
After his retirement Robertson worked to improve the living conditions of African-Americans in his hometown of Indianapolis by helping to build affordable housing. He remained a harsh critic of social policies that adversely affect minorities, particularly African-Americans.