Robertson named 36th greatest athlete of century

Oscar defined the triple-double
By Ron Flatter
Special to

Long before there were Michael and Magic, there was "The Big O." Before Jordan and Johnson redefined the role of a guard, Oscar Robertson defined it.

 Oscar Robertson
Oscar Robertson was traded from Cincinnati to Milwaukee after a dispute with coach Bob Cousy.

Long before they knew what to call a triple-double, Robertson averaged it over an entire season.

Long before the moves had names, Robertson invented them. The head fake that led to driving layups. The ability to decide in mid-air whether to pass or shoot. The arsenal of shots that included a radar-like fadeaway jumper.

His countless skills enabled him to become the first college player to lead the nation in scoring three consecutive years, to be an Olympic gold medalist in 1960, to win an NBA MVP award, to be first-team all-league for his first nine pro seasons.

"Robertson was a big man with the moves of a really tremendous little man," former Boston Celtics guard Bill Sharman said.

In his 14 seasons with the Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks, Robertson scored 26,710 points and set the NBA record for most assists in a career -- 9,887. The mark lasted almost two decades, and even though many -- including Robertson -- argue official scorers have become more lenient in judging assists, his total still ranks third all-time behind John Stockton and Magic.

Even after his Hall of Fame playing days were done, Robertson's name became synonymous with the latter-day NBA when his antitrust suit paved the way for free agency.

"It's something that had to be done," he said. "Basketball's not just a sport. It's a business."

Long before that, basketball was a way out of the slums for Robertson.

Born Nov. 24, 1938, in Charlotte, Tenn., he moved with his family to the "Dust Bowl" slum of Indianapolis when he was four.

After taking up basketball at six, Robertson established himself as a star in high school. In 1955 and 1956, Robertson led Crispus Attucks of Indianapolis to consecutive state championships, the first time an all-African-American team won the title.


Recruited by more than 30 colleges, Robertson sought a school that would allow him to alternate his business-administration classwork with on-the-job training. He finally chose the University of Cincinnati and became a three-time All-American guard and a three-time UPI and Sporting News Player of the Year.

In the days before the three-point shot, he averaged 35.1, 32.6 and 33.7. Only Pete Maravich (3,667) scored more points than Robertson (2,973) did in a three-year collegiate career.

As a co-captain in 1958-59 and 1959-60, Robertson led Cincinnati to the Final Four. Both seasons ended in semifinal losses to California.

Between his junior and senior years, there were whispers Robertson might leave school to join the Harlem Globetrotters. He admitted it was an attractive option, particularly because he tired of a college life of "boring" classes and the stark reality of racial segregation.

"There's a cafe and a movie house just a few steps off campus where I'm not welcome," he said. "Sure I'd like to play with (the Globetrotters). They're a swell bunch, and they're enjoying themselves."

One form of pro ball or another seemed to be in Robertson's immediate future. He even went to work in the summer of '59 for an insurance agency run by Tom Wood, chairman of the Cincinnati Royals.

Despite the lure of a quick basketball buck, Robertson stuck it out at Cincinnati to earn his degree and complete a college career in which he averaged 33.8 points and 15.2 rebounds a game. Before "The Big O" graduated in 1960, his No. 12 was retired.

His college days finally behind him, Robertson still kept professional suitors at bay while he went to Rome, co-captaining the U.S. Olympic team that included future rival Jerry West to an undefeated record and a fifth consecutive gold medal. Robertson averaged 17 points per game for what many still regard as the best amateur team ever assembled for an Olympics.

When he returned from Italy, Robertson spurned the Globetrotters and signed a three-year, $100,000 contract on Sept. 10, 1960, to play for the Royals.

It did not take long for the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Robertson to adjust to pro ball. He was the All-Star Game MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1960-61.

Moreover, Robertson's personality changed. He went from being a sulking, temperamental college star to a quietly content newlywed and NBA rookie. "It's amazing how Oscar grew up in the last year," West said.

Robertson and West would become career-long rivals, guards whose quick moves and skills would line them up to become the heir apparent to Bob Cousy's backcourt throne.

Robertson gained an upper hand in the rivalry in 1961-62, when he became the only player to average a triple-double (30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists) for a season.

In 1963-64, he was named NBA MVP, averaging a career-high 31.4 points and leading the league with 11 assists a game. He also became president of the NBA's players union, a position he held until he retired.

In the next six years, Robertson's lowest scoring average was 24.7. He tacked on two more All-Star Game MVPs, in 1964 and 1969.

But while in Cincinnati -- both as a Bearcat and as a Royal -- championships eluded Robertson. Questions persisted as to whether he was a worthy team player. Cousy became coach of the Royals and tried in vain to get Robertson to shoot less and pass more. In 1969-70, Robertson's disenchantment with the Royals turned into a two-week holdout after he vetoed a trade to the Baltimore Bullets.

Finally, on April 21, 1970, Robertson was dealt for guard Flynn Robinson and forward Charlie Paulk to the Milwaukee Bucks, where he became the last piece of a championship puzzle. Joining a team that included a young Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Robertson quickly helped turn the third-year Bucks into 1971 NBA champions, sweeping the Bullets in the Finals.

After scoring 30 points to lead Milwaukee in the final game, Robertson said, "Finally. This is the first champagne I've ever had, and it tastes mighty sweet."

Robertson would play three more years before calling it a career, finishing with averages of 25.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 9.5 assists. His Royals' No. 14 and Bucks' No. 1 were both retired.

Although he wasn't playing anymore, Robertson was not out of sight. As president of the players union, his 1970 suit against the NBA contended the draft, option clause and other rules restricting player movement were violations of antitrust laws. The suit was settled in 1976, when the league agreed to let players become free agents in exchange for their old team's "right of first refusal" to match any offer they might receive.

In a more quiet way, Robertson has become an accomplished businessman whose companies specialize in contracting and manufacturing. Robertson made news in 1997, when he donated a kidney to his 33-year-old daughter, who was suffering from lupus.

Not long before the transplant, a Purdue professor started writing a biography about Robertson. In a throwback to his more reticent college days, Robertson expressed a certain humility about the project. "I told this guy my life is dull. Been married to the same woman for a long time."

It sounded as simple as direct as something he said when he was asked to reflect on his basketball career just before he retired.

"I've done the best I could," he said. "I've accomplished everything I could have hoped for. It was fun while it lasted."