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The Big O

With a cigar in hand, Oscar Robertson, one of the greatest guards in basketball history, looks back on his life, his Hall of Fame career and the NBA today.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Morgan Freeman, Mar/Apr 2005

(continued from page 2)

Off the court, Robertson served as the third president of the National Basketball Players Association, from 1965 to 1974. "Playing conditions at that time just weren't appropriate for a professional league," Robertson recalled. "Players didn't have health insurance. We always stayed in second-class hotels. There was one called the Madison Hotel right next to the Boston Garden. It wasn't very nice—like a transient hotel. Teams also refused to send their trainers on the road trips. Meal money started at $7 a day [today it's around $100] and we might have gotten it up to $15 during that time."

Matters came to a head on January 14, 1964, before the All-Star Game in Boston. The players had been promised better conditions since the 1950s, when Maurice Podoloff was commissioner, but the promises had been broken. Now, with league officials gathered and a national television audience awaiting a 9 o'clock tip-off, the players threatened not to play unless given a new contract for a pension plan and better conditions. Ten minutes before game time, commissioner Walter Kennedy gathered with the owners and walked into the locker room. "Larry [Fleisher, counsel for the players] can draw up the papers," he said. "Have them sent to my office tomorrow." It was a historic moment: the owners formally recognized the NBPA as the players' exclusive collective bargaining representative, increased the players' per diem to $8 a day, and agreed to set up a pension plan.

As important as these issues were, they paled beside Robertson v. NBA, which lawyer and sports historian Gary Hailey has called "the most significant player-versus-owner lawsuit in NBA history." The plaintiffs—Robertson and 13 other NBA players, including Bill Bradley, John Havlicek and Wes Unseld—were elected player representatives. The 1970 suit challenged the college draft, the reserve clause in the standard contract—which bound a player to his team perpetually—and the proposed NBA merger with the American Basketball Association. It wasn't until 1976 (after Robertson had retired) that the owners negotiated a settlement with the players, which included a new collective bargaining agreement that made significant concessions to the players. The most important was the elimination of the reserve clause; free agency had finally come to basketball.

But Robertson's most heroic work lay ahead of him. Oscar and his wife, Yvonne, whom he married in 1960, have three children, Shana, Tia and Mari. In 1989, at age 25, Tia was diagnosed with lupus, a disease that causes the immune system to attack tissues and vital organs. In 1996, she began kidney dialysis at home. It turned out that Oscar was a donor candidate.

For Oscar, there was no choice. "She was my daughter and she was my responsibility," he says. Surgery took six hours and was a success. He won a national "Father of the Year Award" and People ran a story calling it "The Big O's Biggest Assist." There was an appearance on Oprah's Father's Day show, but Robertson shunned the attention. "There are a lot of fathers of the year; I was just one of many," he says.

Whether or not new fans have their eyes on Robertson, Robertson still has his eyes on the NBA. "Professional basketball has been trivialized and dumbed down to the level of a highlight reel," he wrote in The New York Times in February 2004. "The NBA has made a conscious decision to function as a marketing and entertainment organization, and seems much more concerned with selling sneakers, jerseys, hats and videos than with the product it puts on the floor."

He refuses to pick an all-time squad, but does select a "starting six" of his period: Bob Pettit and Elgin Baylor as forwards, Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain at center, and Jerry West and himself playing guards. The suggestion that Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson were better begets his response, "How many rebounds and assists did they average?"

Robertson averaged a triple-double for the entire 1961—62 season, and if you take the average of his first five seasons, the result is the same. His 178 career triple-doubles is far ahead of anyone in league history, but more points per game were scored in the 1960s and early 1970s, and so there were more rebounds and assists, too. Thus, in 1962—when Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists—the average team posted 118 points, 71 rebounds and 23.9 assists. By 1987—when Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists—the league averages had dropped to 110 points and 44 rebounds, though assists had increased slightly, to 25.9. While Robertson's statistics are still dominant, they must be measured relative to league averages at the time. What is beyond dispute is that Robertson is one of the top players of all time.

Robertson thinks that today's players ought to see beyond their present situation and learn about the past. "If you go to a company to work, I'm sure they will give you a history of that company," he says, letting out a cloud of smoke from his Ashton. "I think that any player that plays a sport in this country should understand the history. They should have to read the history of the sport to find out what really went on." If they followed his advice, they would find that players of times past made it possible for the NBA spectacle that followed.

Kenneth Shouler, from Harrison, New York, was managing editor and a writer for Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia (Toronto: Sports Media Group, 2004).

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