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The Big O, Oscar Robertson, was ahead of his time

By: 
Tom Collins

Talking about an athlete who can do it all is among the overused sports phrases, but for Oscar Robertston, it seems the description only began to describe his multifaceted talents.

From the time he stepped onto a basketball court at Crispis Attucks High School in Indianapolis, Oscar Robertson was a leader, a winner and a person with an aura of quality.

On court, Robertson would be the first person to define the role of the big guard, someone who could shoot and score well, but who could also dole out assists and rebound consistently. Robertson developed those skills early and he continued to manifest them at the highest levels of college basketball and in the NBA.

Beyond the court, Robertson was a leader as well. He immersed himself in causes as the Civil Rights Era unfolded. And he demanded the same high standards from society and the communities he lived in as he did from his basketball teammates.

His fellow players also respected Robertson’s leadership in business and legal affairs. He eventually became a respected president of the NBA Players Association.

The “Big O” was never afraid to carry his own team on his back during crucial games. And he also fought for player rights, including free agency, as he carried the entire league.

His 1970 lawsuit showed Robertson could blaze trails for others by standing against prevailing powers but still not burning bridges or stirring up the acrimony found in other sports.  

Key to the suit was striking down the league’s reserve clause and taking away compensation for teams that signed free agents. It changed pro basketball.

Robertson was able to take advantage of the legal win for his own benefit. He was able to leave the Royals and sign with the Milwaukee Bucks. His efforts blended well with younger players as they won the championship in 1971 and were competitive through the 1974 season, when he retired.

It seemed Robertson exuded an aura of quality and excellence that took him a long way from Indianapolis to a pair of NCAA Final Four appearances with the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, along with a gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.

Robertson became the top choice of the Royals. That selection system was meant to keep familiar regional stars close to their college homes and create a strong fan base. Robertson was chosen in 1960, just a few years after the Royals moved from their Rochester, N.Y. birthplace.

Robertson joined fellow Cincinnati University grad Jack Twyman in building a strong nucleus. Ohio State start Jerry Lucas and others soon followed.

Pro basketball was then, and still is, a difficult mountain to climb in terms of guiding teams to a championship, but Robertson soon was an all-pro level leader whom other teams feared and other players greatly respected.

With Robertson and company, the Royals began to make the league’s annual playoffs but never could overcome the formidable 1960s Boston Celtics, to whom they lost three consecutive playoff series.

Some say the city never took to the Royals like the baseball Reds or the later football Bengals.

In only their second season in Cincinnati, the Royals lost young star Maurice Stokes, who was paralyzed after a game injury caused permanent brain damage.

Eventually, Twyman retired, Lucas was traded to the New York Knicks where he became an NBA champion and Robertson became a member of the Bucks. During the 1970s, the Royals moved on to Kansas City and Omaha, then became the Sacramento Kings.

The on-court greatness of Robertson was demonstrated in his second season, 1961-’62. He averaged 30.8 points per game, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds, the famed triple double. It took more than 50 years until the 2016-’17 season when Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder broke the record.

Robertson accomplished the remarkable triple double an NBA record 181 times in his career. To put that in some perspective, Magic Johnson did it 138 times in his remarkable career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

When Robertson retired in 1974, there was a lot of talk about him being the best ever NBA player.

Of course, seasons and players change over time. But the remarkable Robertson, who was considered ahead of this time in the 1960s and early 1970s, would likely have fit well in the modern game.

“The Big O,” Oscar Robertson, was a skilled player who helped every team he played on be even better than it might have been otherwise. Imagine Robertson’s scoring with the three-point line available to him.

Stars change in various eras, especially in pro basketball where those skills are so visible for everyone to see. The versatile “Big O” might be an even bigger star in today’s game. Skills, poise and leadership are attributes that never go out of style.