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The definitive point guard prototype, Oscar Robertson filled up box-scores like no one before and few since, and as head of the NBA union, changed the very infrastructure of the professional game. Robertson blazed trails even as a high school player in Indiana by leading the first all-African-American team to win a state high school hoop championship. Dubbed the "The Big O," he garnered national renown at the University of Cincinnati, where he won National Collegiate Player of the Year award three straight years and took the Bearcats to the Final Four twice. He remained in the Queen City as the star of the NBA's Cincinnati Royals and perennially posted 30-points-per-game seasons and, more impressively, the game's most vaunted statistical accomplishment - the "triple double." In his second season, Robertson averaged double figures in points, rebounds and assists for the entire season. However, a title eluded him until the Royals in 1970 traded him to Milwaukee and there, teamed with a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he finally garnered a championship ring. Robertson served a nine-year stint as president of the players union and in 1970 brought an antitrust suit against the league that challenged stringent...
The definitive point guard prototype, Oscar Robertson filled up box-scores like no one before and few since, and as head of the NBA union, changed the very infrastructure of the professional game. Robertson blazed trails even as a high school player in Indiana by leading the first all-African-American team to win a state high school hoop championship. Dubbed the "The Big O," he garnered national renown at the University of Cincinnati, where he won National Collegiate Player of the Year award three straight years and took the Bearcats to the Final Four twice. He remained in the Queen City as the star of the NBA's Cincinnati Royals and perennially posted 30-points-per-game seasons and, more impressively, the game's most vaunted statistical accomplishment - the "triple double." In his second season, Robertson averaged double figures in points, rebounds and assists for the entire season. However, a title eluded him until the Royals in 1970 traded him to Milwaukee and there, teamed with a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he finally garnered a championship ring. Robertson served a nine-year stint as president of the players union and in 1970 brought an antitrust suit against the league that challenged stringent player-rights strictures and led to the establishment of free agency. Robertson was hailed as a both a perfect specimen of hoop fundamentals and, as a guard the size of a forward who controlled nearly all facets of the court, an evolutionary step towards next-generation superstars such as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
He was born Oscar Palmer Robertson on Nov. 24, 1938, in Charlotte, TN, to Bailey and Mazell Robertson. When Oscar was four, the family moved to Indianapolis, IN, where he grew into both a bright student and a graceful athlete. He showed his basketball talents playing with brothers Bailey and Henry on the city's public courts and, determined to compete with the older boys, stayed for hours when games were over to refine his skills. The Robertson kids attended African-American-only Crispus Attucks High School and Oscar followed his brothers in playing for Coach Ray Crowe. Suiting up alongside Bailey, Oscar earned a starting spot on the Attucks varsity squad when just a sophomore, and the team came within one game of making the Indiana state finals. The next year, Oscar and Attucks began an incredible 45-game winning streak that would extend over the two seasons even as they played before hostile fans and biased referees with a tendency to call the game in favor of white players. In 1955, Attucks became the first all-black high school team in American history to win a state championship, and Oscar led them through an undefeated season and back to the title in 1956. He averaged 24 points a game and garnered Indiana's annual "Mr. Basketball" award.
He hoped to play college ball for the nearby University of Indiana, but, upon a recruiting visit, coach Branch McCracken abruptly insulted the most sought-after player in the country by insinuating he was looking for a payout to play for the Hoosiers. Robertson opted for the University of Cincinnati and, after sitting out his freshman season per NCAA rules, became one of the most dominant players in the country. In his sophomore year as a forward, he led the nation in scoring with a 35.1 points-per-game average, added 15.2 rebound per game, led the team to a 25-3 record and short ride into the NCAA Tournament, and was a consensus pick as first team All-America and the NCAA's Player of the Year. Garnering the nickname "The Big O," he made the Bearcats a powerhouse, blistered the nets for two more scoring titles and garnered two more consensus Player of the Year awards in 1959 and 1960, which made him the first in history to win it three years in a row. But for his many individual laurels and two consecutive trips to the NCAA Final Four, a championship eluded him as, in both his junior and senior years, the team fell in the semifinals to the University of California, coached by basketball trailblazer Pete Newell.
In spring 1960, the Cincinnati Royals claimed Robertson with the league's then-territorial draft. Robertson graduated with a business degree, but, before his pro career commenced, he joined one of the all-time great U.S. Olympic teams to compete in the 1960 Rome Olympiad. Newell coached the team and named Robertson co-captain along with West Virginia standout and soon-to-be Los Angeles Laker Jerry West, both on a team that included future NBA All-Stars Bob Boozer, Jerry Lucas, Terry Dischinger and Walt Bellamy. The U.S. defeated opponents by an average of 42 points a game on the way to the gold medal. Also that summer, Robertson married Yvonne Crittenden. When the NBA season began the next fall, Robertson and Boozer joined the Royals and The Big O shifted to his more natural point guard position to devastating effect. He led the league with 9.7 assists per game to go along with 30.5 ppg and 11.2 rpg. Making a habit of the statistical feat of the triple-double, he was selected to play for the Western Division team at the NBA All-Star game in January 1961. His 23 points, nine boards and 14 assists earned him the game MVP award as the West routed the East 159-131.
The Royals struggled as a team, but Robertson's performance earned him Rookie of the Year honors. He continued to fill up box-scores the next season by averaging a triple-double in earnest (30.8 ppg, 11 rpg and 11.4 apg) and recording a total of 41 triple-double games. With center Wayne Embry and hot-shooting swingman Jack Twyman both in All-Star form, the team put together a winning season and made it to the playoffs. But with the Royals shifted into the Eastern Division, they would find a perennial roadblock in the playoffs during the Boston Celtics dynasty. They inaugurated the rivalry with an epic 1963 Division Finals battle, which went to a seventh game in which Robertson dueled the Celts' guard Sam Jones with 43 points to the latter's 48, but the Celtics won and eventually took the title. Even with the addition of his big-scoring Olympic teammate Lucas for the 1963-64 season and Robertson (racking up nearly another triple-double for the season) taking league-wide MVP honors that year, the team would find itself stymied in ensuing years by the Celtics and the ascendant Philadelphia 76ers. In 1965, the NBA Players Association elected Robertson its president. Robertson had long taken issue with how the NBA treated players, and, as the new decade approached, his concerns were exacerbated as the league offices mulled a merger between the NBA and its chief competitor for young talent, the American Basketball Association.
With him at the helm, the union won improvements in amenities and conditions for players - including things as rudimentary as having medical personnel on hand at games - but the merger threatened to lock down a period of surging salaries resulting from bidding wars for stars between teams in competing leagues. In 1970, Robertson put his name on an antitrust suit on behalf of his fellow players, Robertson v. NBA, which challenged the perpetual lock on player rights currently allotted to NBA teams and sought to enable players to seek their value on the free agency market. What became known as the Oscar Robertson Suit held up the merger while the case was litigated. In the meantime, Robertson increasingly found himself unappreciated in Cincinnati and was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, which the year previous had drafted a pair of hot-shooting blue-chip rookies, forward Bobby Dandridge and record-setting UCLA superstar center Lew Alcindor. The Bucks also brought in Robertson's old teammate Boozer as a reserve. The team gelled around The Big O at the point and, though his per-game line diminished to 19.4, 5.7 and 8.2, the Bucks rolled to a 66-16 regular season record. The 1970-71 Bucks lost only two games in the first two rounds of the playoffs and proceeded to sweep the Baltimore Bullets in the Finals. Robertson showed old form by putting up 30 in the clinching Game 4 and finally arrived in the NBA promise land.
Immediately after the series, Alcindor announced he had converted to Islam and was changing his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Bucks remained a Western power in ensuing years but they would not recapture the magic again until the 1973-74 season, in spite of Robertson's numbers dipping to career lows. But he upped his assist average to 9.3 for the playoffs, to go along with 14 ppg, as the Bucks returned to the NBA Finals. There, they met his old nemeses, a resurgent Celtics. The teams traded blows in an epic seven-game series, including a Game 6 that went to double-overtime, but the Celtics eventually prevailed. Robertson retired in the wake of the season with career totals of 26,710 points (a career average of 25.7 per game) and 9,887 assists, an NBA record that stood for 17 years. His 181 triple-doubles remained an NBA record, with Magic Johnson a distant No. 2 with 138. In 1976, the Robertson Suit was settled out of court as the NBA agreed to a six-year contract with the union that addressed the antitrust grievances by scrapping teams' ironclad hold on players and establishing free-agency, which became known as the Oscar Robertson Rule. With that, the NBA/ABA merger went ahead in the wake of the 1976-77 season.
Robertson enjoyed a successful business career in the wake of his playing days, but he frequently articulated that he felt blackballed from work affiliated with the NBA because of his labor impact. He went on to found his own small businesses, including Orchem, a manufacturer of specialty chemicals; OR Solutions, a business-to-business document management services company; and Oscar Robertson Media Ventures, which produced Robertson's hoop instructional media. Robertson was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979. In 1992, he co-founded the National Basketball Retired Players Association, an organization dedicated to securing healthcare and pension benefits for pro hoop veterans who had played during the period when such amenities were denied them. In 1997, when one of his three children, needed a new kidney due to complications from lupus, Robertson donated his. The always busy legend published his autobiography, The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game in 2003.
By Matthew Grimm
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