Oscar Robertson reflects on NBA, his legacy
Oscar Robertson reflects on NBA, his legacy
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Before LeBron James dominated on any court he took a shot from, before Michael Jordan laced up and soared, before Bird and Magic’s hardcourt duels, there was Oscar Robertson.
It was Robertson who, along with guys like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, who set the tone, who didn’t just star but paved the way.
Robertson would go from famed Crispus Attucks High School (Trivia: The now-famous David-Goliath saga played out in the 1986 movie “Hoosiers” is really Milan beating Crispus Attucks in 1954) in Indianapolis to the University of Cincinnati to the NBA. While Jordan and James came along in an era of intense media coverage and fan engagement, Robertson and his peers toiled in barns like the Cleveland Arena on Euclid Avenue.
“It was a terrible arena,” he said at the National Sports Collectors Convention, which ends its five-day run in Cleveland at the I-X Center on Sunday, Aug. 5. “Showers always had water on the floor. Guys just didn’t want to go in. But the NBA has come a long ways.”
If you never saw Robertson then or now, you knew there would be something to his game just by his nickname: The Big O.
“When I was in college playing basketball, Wilt Chamberlain was called Big Wilt. Elgin (Baylor) was called The Rabbit. This radio guy (Dick Baker) called me The Big O,” he said.
He was big then and, at 79, is still sharp as a quick shot drained from 20 feet. His claim to fame, on a resume that encompasses 14 seasons with Cincinnati and Milwaukee is, of course, the triple-double he averaged over the 1961-62 season: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 11.4 assists. He was the first player to achieve that season-long, out-of-this-world average, until Russell Westbrook did it twice, more than 50 years later.
It is a mark that will be reached again, he said.
“Because of the way the game is played today, everything is changed - the terminology about what an assist really is, about what a rebound really is. The three-point shot has come into play. Records are made to be broken.
“When I set those records ... I didn’t even know it. I didn’t know anything about a triple-double or anything like that. So they had to go back into the archives to figure things out.
“Now,” he continued, “every time I throw you the ball, you dribble once, twice, and shoot and score, that’s an assist. When I played that was not an assist. An assist is a pass that leads directly to a basket.”
(For the record, the 6-foot-5 Robertson holds the record for most triple-doubles, at 181. Westbrook has 104; James, 73.)
Robertson was, by far, one of the select individuals signing autographs at the convention - even in a group that included dozens of hall of famers in multiple sports.
He is working with Lelands sports-memorabilia auction house to items like a 1971 NBA championship ring with Milwaukee, awards, jerseys and plaques.
“You know it’s funny, it’s strange, these things have been in the attic for so long, I didn’t even know I had them,” he said. “And I know people are upset because I’m selling a few things, but if they can get some benefit out of them, then ... I’m happy for them.”
His accomplishments might have gone from attic to auction, but when pressed about his achievements he doesn’t rattle off play-by-play of the triple-double season. He doesn’t boisterously hold court. He maintains a fairly quiet place amid sports royalty. His proudest moments range from a simple milestone to a heady achievement.
“People are going to be shocked,” he said. “One was winning the eighth-grade championship. First time I ever got involved with organized basketball.” A high school title and his college grades also come to mind. He mentions the 15 rebounds he pulled down in college but leaves out the 33.8 points-per-game average.
But the real pride come in his legacy of empowering basketball players in free agency.
“I think the Oscar Robertson rule is going to stand out forever for me,” he said. “It’s about free agency, better playing conditions. It’s the reason why Kevin Durant can go to Golden State and play. ... Did you know all the trades that have been made in basketball prior to that? First one was Bill Russell, who went from St. Louis to Boston because St. Louis didn’t want any black players. The Lakers would always go out and get the best center in basketball for their team, but no one ever said anything about these things.
“But only if a player decides ‘I’m going to control my own destiny’ then it’s upsetting to people. The Oscar Robertson rule says you’ve got a right to do that yourself. If you don’t have a contract with a team you can entertain the best offer to go play.”
That rule came about because of the 1970 lawsuit Robertson v. National Basketball Association. It was filed the same year Curt Flood sued in baseball, and while the outcome of each suit was different, the unending career reverberations would begin for scores of professional athletes.
Today, Robertson owns an IT company and a chemical company, and watches some basketball. He likes the team aspect of the sport, though positions have become less defined and money more prominent. And he says – evenhandedly – that current players don’t really seek him out for advice.“Very few. I think it’s a classic case of they come up in a world where some are more successful than others and they don’t know how they got there. Some players say ‘I appreciate what you did with the Oscar Robertson rule,’ and I was happy I was able to do it.”