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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)

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."

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.

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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