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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 1)

At Cincinnati, Robertson also faced some galling racial incidents. One was in 1958, at the Dixie Classic tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina. "My brothers and friends went down there and were treated kind of bad," Robertson says. "Before I went down there, I got a telegram from the Ku Klux Klan that said I was going to be shot if I came down to play." When the team played the University of Houston in 1958, Robertson was forced to move from the Shamrock Hilton Hotel in Houston to a dormitory at Texas Southern, an all-black college.

Following the Dixie Classic, the team went on a tear, winning 16 straight. Dick Baker, the Bearcats broadcaster, began calling Robertson "The Big O," and the name caught on. He was the first sophomore ever to lead the country in scoring, averaging 35.1 points per game, more than Elgin Baylor from Seattle University and Wilt Chamberlain from Kansas. Robertson won a second consecutive scoring title in 1959 (32.6 ppg), and a third (33.7) in 1960. By the end of his career at Cincinnati, Robertson had posted the greatest three-year point total in college history and led the Bearcats to a 79-9 record, including two Final Four appearances.

Due to the NBA's territorial draft at the time, Robertson was picked first in the nation by the Cincinnati Royals in 1960. The territorial draft rule dated back to 1946, when the fledgling league was more interested in survival than in competition. League officials thought it wise for pro teams to piggyback on the success of a college player in their city and bring more fans into arenas.

That summer, Robertson was off to the Rome Olympics. That Olympic team, including future Hall of Famers Jerry West and Jerry Lucas, was as dominant as any in history, with the United States scoring 102 points per game and allowing just 60. Robertson and Lucas averaged 17 points apiece to lead the team to an 8-0 mark and the gold.

If Crispus Attucks remains a trailblazing team for the ages, and the University of Cincinnati was successful, even with its near misses, then the Cincinnati Royals were a step behind. Having moved to Cincinnati from Rochester in 1957, the Royals had won just 19 games in consecutive years before Robertson's rookie campaign.

With Robertson they had five straight winning seasons, but the 1962—63 campaign typified their frustrations. Cincinnati upset the Syracuse Nationals in five games and faced the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. Cincinnati management had thought the team would lose early, and as a result, a circus had been booked for its home court, Cincinnati Gardens. The move meant that the Royals had to play at Smith Fieldhouse, with its smaller crowds, for the conference finals. The Royals won twice in Boston, but just one of three at home, and then lost the seventh game, 142-131.

For Robertson personally, life was good. "I was making $30,000 when I started," he recalls. Most of his teammates made between $8,000 and $12,000. "I thought I was on top of the world," he admits. "I smoked cigars from time to time when I played. I might go months without smoking one, and then I might smoke three or four in a month. At that time, they smoked those two-dollar packets."

In the 1963—64 season, the Royals won a franchise-best 55 games and reached the conference finals, but again succumbed to the Celtics, this time in five games. After 1964, the Royals never got past the first round of the playoffs, and from 1967 through 1970, didn't make the playoffs at all. Red Auerbach, who coached those Celtics to eight consecutive NBA titles and nine of ten between 1957 and 1966, thinks the Royals' style of play hurt. "His coaches [Charles Wolf, Jack McMahon, Ed Jucker and Bob Cousy] did not use him in the fast-break offense. They elected to go along with a deliberate-type game. In the long run, I don't know too many teams that win [without the fast break]."

Robertson's tenth year in Cincinnati, 1969—70, was his last. He was fed up. "Bob Cousy was the new coach, and management and the press were saying I hadn't done anything. 'Oscar doesn't grab those loose balls. Oscar doesn't like the city. I hadn't done anything in ten years in Cincinnati.' They believed everything in the paper. They said so many things that were so unbelievable. It happened to Frank Robinson [who was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in December 1965) in Cincinnati, too. Historically, black athletes don't do well in this town. I was All-NBA first team for nine consecutive years [1961—69], and these people said I didn't do anything? It's almost like they lived on a different planet. When I was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1980, a young lady from the Cincinnati Enquirer went back to her sports editor, and he said, 'Who cares?' I'm going into the Hall of Fame for playing here in Cincinnati, and they said, 'Who cares?'"

His professional life took a quantum leap forward in Milwaukee. Teaming with sky-hooking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—then known as Lew Alcindor—produced immediate dividends. The Bucks ran up streaks of 10, 16, and then a record 20 wins during the 1970—71 season, finishing 66-16. In the playoffs, they blitzed the Warriors and the Lakers in the Western Conference and swept the Baltimore Bullets in the Finals.

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