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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

Oscar Robertson is seated in his office at Orchem, his company in Fairfield, Ohio, that makes chemicals for food processing plants. He is puffing on an Ashton cigar, commenting on its easy draw—"I don't like cigars that draw hard," he says—and naming Hoyo de Monterrey among the brands he likes to smoke. His manner of enjoying a cigar is as unpretentious and easy as his career was.

Behind Robertson's desk are some dozen photographs that attest to the stages of his basketball evolution—from Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis to the University of Cincinnati, from the Cincinnati Royals to the Milwaukee Bucks, where he won the National Basketball Association championship in 1971. He points to a photo of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and himself, all maneuvering for position near the basket. Each man holds a place in the pantheon of basketball royalty, then and forever.

Yet one wonders, more than 30 years later, how much is known about Robertson's achievements or how different the league was when he played. Is it known that he was synonymous with the triple-double—double digits in points, rebounds and assists—and that he's the first and only player to average a triple-double for a season? Or that he did it when playing conditions were nothing like they are in the NBA today and players were essentially the property of their teams?

Charlotte, Tennessee, in summer is a place of stretching fields, with trees and mountains in the distance, and a high sky spotted with cottony clouds. This town of Robertson's birth, in 1938, would have been idyllic were life there more practical for his family. But his father, Bailey, lacked money to acquire farm machinery, so he moved his wife, Mazell, and three children, Bailey Jr., Henry and Oscar, to Naptown, Indiana. "Dad found a little shotgun house on Colton Street in an area that was your basic black ghetto," Robertson relates. "It was a world where you respected your elders, said 'Yessir' and 'No, ma'am.' I liked it fine." Perhaps the die was cast then: things might bother Oscar, but they would not keep him down.

"I was kind of quiet when I grew up. I gravitated toward sports, because where I was from, there was nothing else to do but play sports." He didn't own a basketball, but mimicked shooting, tossing cans and bottles and tennis balls—even balls wrapped in elastic and rolled-up socks bound with string—at nothing but air. It was a sports pantomime in which he made believe that he was shooting with seconds remaining on the clock.

Oscar's parents divorced when he was 11 and his mother put in long hours as a beautician and a domestic, cooking for a white family. That Christmas, in 1949, she brought home a scarred ball that the family had discarded. "It was old and beaten up, but it was round," Robertson recalls. Like most everything else in Naptown, it was just good enough.

He improved his game at the Dust Bowl, a neighborhood court where adults, high schoolers and toughs from Chicago and Detroit descended. It was a place of trial and terror, where getting roughed up was a rite of passage. "Guys there were flamboyant," Robertson recalls. "Playing outside was the greatest basketball in my life. Guys made moves—went behind the back, between the legs, dunked balls, blocked shots—all the things guys do now, and people say, 'Oh wow, isn't that wonderful! Look how great he is!' You have to understand that we grew up watching the Harlem Globetrotters, so we saw Marcus Haynes dribbling. We did the Goose Tatum thing, when he maneuvered with the ball. We did it all. But being black, our high school coach, Ray Crowe, would not let us do anything like that because he didn't want us to be ridiculed by the whites saying, 'You see, they're clowns or Globetrotters—they don't want to play serious ball.' So in high school we played serious basketball."

Few knew just how good Oscar was before he exploded onto the basketball scene at Crispus Attucks High School. But Nature lent Oscar a hand between his freshman and sophomore years—growing from 5 feet 8 inches to 6-3—and in no time his game was full-blown.

In 1955, Attucks became the first all-black team in Indianapolis to play for the state championship. Its opponent was Gary Roosevelt, another all-black squad that boasted Dick Barnett, a deft forward who would play guard in the NBA for 15 years. Oscar scored 30 and Attucks won, 97-74. A year later, Robertson set a state record, scoring 62 points against Sacred Heart, and carried his Tigers to a 44-game winning streak and the state final against Lafayette Jefferson. Oscar played all three positions, scored 39, and Attucks rolled, 79-57, to become the first Indiana high school team to go unbeaten. Recruiting for UCLA, coach John Wooden offered his assessment: "Of all the high school players I've seen, Oscar is the one that can move right into the pro ranks."

Recruited by some 75 colleges, Robertson chose the University of Cincinnati. "In 1956, there weren't many schools offering anything to black athletes," Robertson says. "The South was taboo, and I didn't want to go out west. I wanted to go to Indiana University, but I think coach Branch McCracken didn't want Oscar Robertson. I think he felt he had too many blacks on the team to begin with."

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