Oscar Robertson on his NBA beginnings, lawsuit | Robertson on 3-pointers, big men and today’s NBA | Robertson on race relations in the 1960s | Who is the greatest of all time? | Robertson on his life & legacy
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played with or against many of the NBA’s most legendary players in a Hall of Fame career that spanned 20 seasons, was asked recently for his take on the simmering Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James greatest-of-all-time debate.
“LeBron is awesome, MJ was awesome, but I think Oscar Robertson would have kicked them both in the behind,” Abdul-Jabbar said on ESPN radio. “He had all the skills. He could rebound and box out guys four and six inches taller than him. He was ruggedly built. He had fluid, quickness, and just understood the game. No flair, he just got the job done every night. Who’s going to average double figures in points, assists and rebounds?”
It was a rhetorical question because, in the 52 years since Robertson became the first NBA player to average a triple-double – in his case, 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game – he remains, famously, the only one to do so.
Ask Robertson who the most neglected great player in league history is and he’ll tell you Elgin Baylor, whose moves and above-the-rim bursts made him a precursor of Julius Erving, Jordan and the rest. Ask plenty of others, though, and the name that bounces back is Robertson’s, a.k.a., The Big O.
That was an easy one for Wayne Embry, NBA lifer as a player, team executive and Springfield, Mass., inductee himself as a contributor.
“Look, there’s no question about it: Oscar Robertson is the greatest basketball player of all time,” said Embry, now working with the Toronto Raptors after his years with Milwaukee (as sports’ first black general manager) and Cleveland. “No disrespect to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or LeBron James, but I want people to remember this: Oscar Robertson played in a time where we didn’t have ESPN and this and that, but look at his achievements.
“Nobody [else] has averaged a triple-double, and that was with 30 points by the way. And he also averaged 11 assists. Combine the two, how many points does that equate to for your team? In the age of analytics, you want to factor in that he averaged 12 rebounds on top of that. Now who in the history of the game has done that?”
This is an appropriate spot to note that Embry was Robertson’s roommate during their years together on the Cincinnati Royals in the 1960s. Still, stats are stats, and giant steps are giant steps. Robertson did spread that triple-double across 1961-62, the same season in which Wilt Chamberlain averaged his mythic 50.4 points.
Impressed? Hold on. If you take Robertson’s first six NBA seasons – 460 games played from 1961-1966 – he averaged 30.4 points, 10.0 rebounds and 10.7 assists. Those numbers are staggering at a time when doubling up in two of those categories can earn a player $20 million annually.
As Robertson’s 75th birthday approached – the milestone is Nov. 24 – we sat down at one of his favorite haunts, the Montgomery Inn Boathouse, on the riverfront in his adopted hometown of Cincinnati. He passed on the ribs for which that restaurant is known, but skipped little else in a wide-ranging, part-cantankerous, part-charming, relentlessly honest and insightful two-hour conversation.
The following is excerpted from that:
NBA.com: This place is decorated with jerseys of famous Cincinnati and Ohio sports stars, but I don’t see anything of yours on the wall.
Oscar Robertson: I’ve got a college jersey here some place. I don’t know where it is now. Nothing from the NBA, nothing form the Royals.
NBA.com: Is it odd living in Cincinnati after all these years, when the city hasn’t been an NBA market in more than 40 years.
Robertson: Yes it is. Because I have to wait late at night to get the scores. Newspapers don’t write anything about it. You can watch some games on television but it seems to me, have they forgotten basketball here? They’ve got football and baseball and that’s all they write about, the Bengals and the Reds. But there are other teams!
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|West praises former rival Robertson
Hall of Famer Jerry West discusses what it was like entering the NBA and matching up regularly with Oscar Robertson, the trials they both faced in trying to overcome the Celtics to win a championship and the early years of the NBA.
Pro basketball is never mentioned around here. They don’t mention when the Pacers are playing, and the Pacers don’t do anything about advertising over here either. That’s an hour-and-a-half ride. They should have a bus, picking up 40 or 50 guys and taking ‘em over to games.
NBA.com: You played in Cincinnati and Milwaukee, and you had no control over your playing whereabouts thanks to the Draft and the lack of free agency back then.
Robertson: You can be the greatest player in the world, but if you’re with a team that’s going nowhere, you’re not going anywhere either. You can play great but if the players around you don’t complement what you do, you don’t go anywhere.
NBA.com: Hardly anyone did if they didn’t play in Boston back then. Was it hard falling short against the Celtics year after year after year?
Robertson: Not really, because I realized we didn’t have the talent. We didn’t have the bench. We didn’t have management. We didn’t have athletes on our teams, even our starters. Then you’ve got to make the right trades sometimes. No team has won without making a trade.
NBA.com: Now teams have free agency, which you know a little about. [The "Oscar Robertson lawsuit," a class-action case brought by Robertson and other players against the league, opened the door to basketball free agency when it was settled.]
Robertson: I think the Oscar Robertson case made guys into movie star-type athletes. Big money and personas about them, people following them around and wanting to meet and greet them. But still, if owners did not want to try to get that player, you still couldn’t go anywhere at all. Owners will say a lot of players are greedy and all they want is a lot of money. But they’re there to give the money out. Without the owners, this never would have been possible.
NBA.com: If that case had been brought earlier and been called the “Sam Jones lawsuit” so you might have benefited from it, would you have looked to leave Cincinnati?
Robertson: I probably would have. … I realized after I played a few years, we were not going to win anything in Cincinnati. Great guys. But like anything, it takes talent. It takes a good bench. It takes people not [just] liking each other but playing well together, which is a real key.
NBA.com: Some would say these days that it takes two or, in Miami’s case, three stars to win a title.
Robertson: That’s always been the case. you look at championship teams. The Lakers, Boston, they had more than one star on their team. They had two or three stars, sometimes four. That’s how you win basketball games.
NBA.com: So those great Celtics teams led by Bill Russell – were they great because they were stocked with Hall of Fame players or did their players get to the Hall because of how much that team won?
Robertson: I’m sure because they won, a lot of guys went into the Hall of Fame. But even the Hall of Fame, it’s changed over the years. It’s not because of your talent or how good you were that gets you in anymore. It’s a lot of different things. If someone likes you and thinks that what you did is a credit to the game of basketball, they can put your name forward and really broaden the campaign for you, and you can get in. I like football because … a lot of people go into [football's] Hall of Fame but during that induction ceremony, it’s only the players. And they don’t have any year where there are no players who go in.
NBA.com: Did the ABA ever come after you? You would have been a tremendous “get” for that league.
Robertson: Yes, I talked to them at one time. It wasn’t that big a deal. I spoke to the Indiana Pacers once because I’m from Indianapolis. It wasn’t anything I was looking forward to. It was a decent league. It had some good players in it. It was almost a dunk league, a show-me league, a big-time-play league. I guess I didn’t realize that it [four ABA teams merging into the NBA] eventually was going to happen anyway. It’s like the NFL and the AFL, it was going to happen.
NBA.com: Is there anyone who’s not in the Hall of Fame who ought to be?
Robertson: Probably Guy Rodgers [who played 12 seasons, 1958-1970, mostly for the Warriors, Bulls and Bucks]. He did a great job for many, many years. Handled the ball well. I think he should be in the Hall of Fame. Excellent leader. For the people who vote for a guy to be inducted, I don’t know if they understand what happens on the basketball court. I think maybe they read a lot of stats. … You should have some basic knowledge of the game other than saying, “I saw this guy play and he averaged 25 points a game.” But what about the other things that happened? Could he play any defense? Could he get a rebound? Were there [other] factors?
On 3-pointers, big men and coaches in today’s NBA
NBA.com: What jumps out at you about the NBA today?
Robertson: There are no good inside players anymore. The offenses don’t work off the pivot anymore either. So it’s just a different game. If you can’t score from outside, you’re not going to win. The 3-point line is great, but it’s backed up much of the game. Even though you score a thousand points – the other night, I think the Clippers had 37 3-pointers. But the other team was 10 behind ‘em. I think you’ve got to get inside. If you’ve got decent inside people, you’ll do well.
NBA.com: Are the best big guys born or made?
Robertson: I don’t think they’re coached right. I don’t think anyone takes time to teach the centers how to pass out of the pivot. How to make a move off the pivot. You don’t make cuts off the pivots anymore. There are no back-door plays. No weak-side plays at all. Those things are so important to spreading the floor out, keeping the floor covered.
Dwight Howard is a great athlete – doesn’t have a shot off the pivot. See, [Tim] Duncan could score off the pivot. Duncan is simple. He just gets it down. But you don’t have a [Bill] Russell, Wilt, Nate Thurmond, those big centers. It’s all gone. And the guys you do have, they don’t seem to be able to play defense off the pivot. I’ll never forget the first time Wilt faced [Walt] Bellamy, he must have blocked his first seven or eight shots.
NBA.com: That was mentioned in some of Bellamy’s obituaries [the Hall of Famer died Nov. 2].
Robertson: Wilt was trying to prove a point to him. And Walt was averaging 31 points a game and 19 reobunds, which goes unheard of anymore .Wilt want to prove who the top dog was. Fortunately you don’t play against Wilt every night. No one could handle Wilt. Wilt saved basketball when he averaged 50 points a game. For TV or what-not.
NBA.com: Is the game better coached now?
Robertson: No. You have one little play [pick-and-roll]. Hope somebody tries to double-team you, throw the ball to the guy in the corner, he makes a long 3-point shot, something like that. I don’t think there’s much coaching at all, because players today are such gifted athletes, they do that without thinking about it. “I pass you the ball, I pick your man off, try to roll off” – that’s just natural play when you don’t know anybody. Whether you’re playing in the park or in the All-Star Game, you did those things without thinking about them. It’s great, if you can score without a lot of movement – if you can score. If you don’t score, everybody else stands around and watches you.
NBA.com: Do you believe in the concept of “clutch?”
Robertson: Could be. Here again, I think that what happens at the start of the game is just as important as what happens at the end. Jerry West was called Mr. Clutch because he got the ball at the end. And he should have had the ball. Fortunately for him, he made those baskets. If you don’t get the ball where you’re in position to make a basket or miss it, you’re not considered clutch. Some players don’t mind having the ball at the end of the game, when there are seconds on the clock. Some players don’t want that. [For more on Jerry West, click here]
NBA.com: You took those shots on your teams?
Robertson: Some of them, not all of them. But I’d been in so many big games when I younger, in high school and college, it didn’t bother me. No pressure at all. I just wanted to make the shot. If it happens, it happens. [If I missed] it didn’t bother me at all. I think the game of basketball is up and down. You’re not going to win every game. In sports, they think it’s a life and death situation but it really isn’t.
On crowds and race relations in the ’60s
NBA.com: What were the crowds around the NBA like, when you played?
Robertson: Some were very nasty. Boston. Philly had nasty fans – they’d yell insults at you a lot. Chicago had tough fans at times. I think they wanted their teams to win, so if you came in and defeated them, they didn’t like that at all. Sometimes it was a personal jealousy thing. But you get used to that.
NBA.com: Did it ever get racial?
Robertson: Oh hell, back then? That goes without saying. Being born in the south [Tennessee], growing up in Indianapolis where the Ku Klux Klan actually built our high school [to segregate black students] – Crispus Attucks – and being segregated in an all-black neighborhood, some things you get accustomed to. Not that you liked them, but you got used to them.
It’s almost like animals out in the wild, where they teach their young how to survive. Our parents were like, “You can’t go here. You can’t go there.” If you go to visit your parents and grandparents in Tennessee, you ride on the back of the bus. You don’t go into a restaurant anywhere along the route to get anything to eat. All those things. You learn that over a period of time, more or less so you can exist.
NBA.com: People have praised sports for breaking down those types of barriers. Is that overstated?
Robertson: No, it’s not. My high school had an all-black team and a lot of our friends were white guys, and they’d come to the park and we’d play together. The Olympics is a prime example of what athletes can do not only in their country but in the world.
I’m sure all the players I played with didn’t like black people, but we were in a setting where we had to work together in order to win. Then people got to know you and you got to know them.
I always said, on a team, you don’t have to come home and live with me. We just have to play together for a couple hours. Most of the guys were great guys. During my playing career, I never felt I had someone I disliked.
It’s like a soldier fighting in the war. Some guys from the deep South don’t like blacks, some blacks from up north don’t like whites. But you get in a foxhole, it’s a different story. Then when they left their foxholes, they’d still go their separate ways.
As a race, there was so much going on. It was so volatile – the right to vote. Right to go into a restaurant or a movie. Sit where you want to sit on a bus. Be able to go from this side of town to that side. Or get a job. A lot of whites didn’t think about that, where it concerned me or other black people.
NBA.com: So what is your take on the Miami Dolphins’ locker room controversy?
Robertson: When I heard that, I almost couldn’t believe it. The young man [Jonathan Martin] was a starter. But you have a lot of people in football who think that type of attitude is what makes you a good player. I don’t think that – it’s whether you can play or not. But for them to blame everything on that [Richie] Incognito, as if the coaches didn’t know anything about it? Some coaches knew all about that stuff. Then you hear black players say, “How can that guy turn in a player?” He ain’t no player to me.
Direct your energy to the guys on the field you’re playing against. If you feel like you want to call a guy the N-word and he’s as big as you and he’s across the line from you, then it’s a different story. You get an immediate response. It’s a different story then. But if I’m playing on your team and I hear you calling this guy a name that I don’t like? Damaging, to say the least.
Robertson: We went out to Denver for the trials. I think you had, I’m gonna say, 10 teams and you played a game every night for seven nights to get into a championship round. So we picked our team. My starters were myself and [Terry] Dischinger at forward, [Darrall] Imhoff in the pivot, Jay Arnette and Jerry West at guard. And Bellamy came off the bench.
[Coach] Pete Newell played Imhoff because the starting team that won was [our] first team in the Olympics. He was telling me how he had such a hard time with AAU getting Bellamy on the team, which you really needed to win in Rome. AAU was so powerful then. They put four or five guys on the team. Actually, AAU was more powerful. But we won, so we got to place our first team on the Olympic team.
On the Greatest of All Time and the greatest today
NBA.com: What do you make of Kareem’s comments about you in relation to Jordan and James?
Robertson: I appreciated him saying that. You know what happens today in sports: With the advent of all the ads and things, it makes players much bigger than they really are.
To say this guy could outplay that guy, it’s ridiculous. I could play against anybody. Elgin Baylor, they never even mention his name, they couldn’t handle Elgin Baylor on the basketball court. None of these guys playing today.
Everyone thinks because a guy can dunk a basketball … [that] doesn’t mean he can play. Can he make a play? Can he set a pick? Can he roll to the basket right? Can he help out in the right position? All of which has nothing to do with … it’s what TV is today. Highlights. They want the sensational windmill dunk – the guy who hits the jump shot never gets a look. Oh, the one [Ray Allen] hit for Miami, they’ll throw that in, because it was a pressure shot and he got it in the basket.
NBA.com: How high should Kareem rank on these G.O.A.T. lists?
Robertson: Russell was great. Wilt was great. Kareem was great. Just because you can say he didn’t do this or that … no one could stop Kareem off the pivot. I don’t think Bill or Wilt could stop him from shooting that sky hook off the pivot.
NBA.com: The Internet would blow up if someone averaged a triple-double over his first six seasons in the league. Was that a big deal for you to do that?
Robertson: Not at all. I thought everybody played the same way. That’s the way I learned to play: Pass the ball, shoot when I got open, rebound if I’m inside.
An assist was different when I played. “A pass that leads to a basket.” Now I can throw you the ball outside, and you can dribble eight or nine times and shoot, that’s an assist.
You see guys throw alley-oops to players – how in the world can a guy get an alley-oop? If I’m guarding somebody, OK, the first time you get an alley-oop on me. The next time you’re not gonna get it because I’m going to play defense on you. These players seem like they go brain-dead when it happens. How can a guy score four or five of these things on you in a game?
Say you’re a good 3-point shooter and you hit the first one. I’m not gonna get off of you anymore. Just like when Kobe Bryant scored 81 points – I’d have fouled out. He might have got ‘em on the foul line but not shooting the ball. It seemed like they got out of his way.
NBA.com: Which player today do you enjoy watching?
Robertson: There are a lot of good players. I like the guard at Cleveland [Kyrie Irving]. I like to see LeBron play. I love San Anotino’s team — they actually come down and run plays. Indiana has come on. They have a collection of good athletes who make plays.
A lot of team can’t do that at all. I don’t think Miami’s very good, other than [Dwyane] Wade and LeBron. Seems like the other guys can’t even dribble the ball two or three times and get a shot off. Now this is me looking in.
And they blame Carmelo [Anthony] for the demise of Denver. I thought he played great out there. Other guys couldn’t get a basket, they threw it to him and he put it in the basket – and they didn’t like him for that? Isn’t that something.
NBA.com: Who do you want taking the shot at the end of the game?
Robertson: You tell me.
NBA.com: I think that’s Carmelo’s greatest skill.
Robertson: You can say that again. He can really shoot it, can’t he? But other guys are good shooters like that. At Indiana, very good shooter, Danny Granger. And this kid from San Antonio, he made so many one night against Miami it was unbelievable. Danny Green. Then the next night, he doesn’t get a smell of it.
NBA.com: Any thoughts on the one-and-done college rule?
Robertson: I’ve spoken to [Kentucky coach John] Calipari about that a little bit. He says there’s nothing to be done about that. It’s what the players want to do. But why one-and-done? You can go to the Army when you’re 18. Why shouldn’t you be able to play [pro] basketball and football if you have the ability to play, and someone will pay you? You shouldn’t have to say, I’ll go to college for a year. That doesn’t make sense. … Then they want you to play well but they don’t want you to play well enough so you’ll leave.
NBA.com: Did you work under year-to-year contracts or multi-year deals? We hear that a lot of guys played hurt back then.
Robertson: Mostly year to year. Sure, you had to play. Plenty of times. The year we beat Baltimore, the final game , I was hurting so bad, I was up all night. I had a bad groin. I was hurting like crazy. I put heat on it all night long. It got to the point, I’m getting close to game time, I told ‘em, “Look, I’m gonna go out and try to play. If I can’t go, I just can’t go.” I went out there and started running and running, it stopped hurting. I just got used to the pain, I guess.
I had a broken finger one year, I just taped it up. Achilles tendon messed up one year, I kept playing, knotted up. Hamstring pull. If you play enough, you’re going to get hurt.
NBA.com: You a fan of instant replay?
Robertson: To get it right? I think it slows the game down. Make the call and if you miss it, too bad. Players adjust. Why don’t they have someone else there at the game look at the call? You can tell in one second who knocked the ball out of bounds.
NBA.com: There’s a question that gets asked around the NBA: “Steve Nash or Steve Kerr?” In other words, would you rather have multiple MVP awards and the All-Star career that Nash has had or multiple championships as a role player.
Robertson: Russell won with a lot of different people in Boston. The kid [Robert Horry] who played for Houston, played with the Lakers and San Antonio … he’s got seven or eight rings himself, doesn’t he? [Horry has seven.] So just because you win a ring … not demeaning Bill’s ability, but does that say you’re the greatest player? Bill played great for the Celtics, no doubt about it.
Different people have different thinking about it. Steve Nash played great for Phoenix a few years ago, won MVP a couple times. I don’t think he should have won two. You’ll see writers anoint someone before a season starts. I don’t know who they’re going to give it to this year. It’s not going to be LeBron. They want to pass that award around.
NBA.com: Never mind multiple rings, how different would your career feel to you if you hadn’t managed finally to win a championship in Milwaukee.
Robertson: It wasn’t any big difference-maker for me. I didn’t even think about it. Because we had a little better team. We had a great bench. That’s how we won. The next year they traded almost all our players away. You’d have to ask the Bucks management about that. I could not understand how they could do that.
The start of my last year, to start practice, you’d run three laps around this [gym]. Being a veteran, I took my time going around. Kareem would always outrun everybody. [Milwaukee beat writer] Bob Wolf wrote in the paper, saying I was too old and couldn’t play anymore. I called him up and said, “All right, you can write what you want. But I don’t want to do another interview with you.” This is practice, man. We hadn’t even started playing yet.
NBA.com: You sounded a little like Allen Iverson.
Robertson: [Laughs] But I think the Bucks set it up for me not to play anymore after that year. If you look, my last year, I was playing  minutes a game. But I was gonna quit anyway.
NBA.com: Did you still have some game in you?
Robertson: Oh sure. I could play with those guys. But it got to a point where they kept on making trades, bringing in the wrong people each year. It wasn’t working at all.
On life after the NBA
NBA.com: Once you were done playing, you worked one season as a TV analyst. But you often have said that your lawsuit against the league led to you being blackballed because owners resented your involvement as the head of the players’ union and as a big-name player.
Robertson: I got involved with CBS, which was a joke. They decided that, because of the lawsuit, I was an adversary. It really was a blackballing when it happened. But the players association didn’t do anything about it. Over the years, I’ve thought about it a lot. But when the NBA said they were going in another direction, I said, “Fine.”
The NBA has done a lot of things over the years. A lot of great things but that doesn’t mean they haven’t done some things they shouldn’t have been doing. At first they didn’t want any black guys coaching. Then they got Russell – he wouldn’t have played for nobody else. That’s when Red [Auerbach] named him the coach.
NBA.com: Was the lawsuit worth it to you?
Robertson: It had to be worth it. I was involved in a situation when I first got there, I didn’t understand it but I grew into it. I saw some of the situations that were happening to players. When I first started playing, we got $8 a day for meals. Didn’t have a trainer. You flew on the first [commercial] flight going.
Look what that lawsuit did for basketball. Propelled them to the atmosphere. Beyond the moon. And they talk about great things that changed basketball. Not because I was involved – I was with some other guys, Wes Unseld, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere – it changed basketball. It made guys millions of dollars. You see entourages they have with them, limousines going to games, guys making $20 million. Now they get shoe contracts that make them superstars.
NBA.com: It shifted the balance of power to the players.
Robertson: No, it really shifted the power to the owners. Say you had a real good team and you needed Wilt. … If you were outside your contract, you could go. It made a lot of teams different.
NBA.com: It’s been said that you’re only old when your regrets outnumber your dreams. Do you still have some dreams?
Robertson: Sure, I have things I still want to do. Especially in business, which I haven’t gotten there yet.
NBA.com: Your business ventures might surprise some people. You founded Orchem, a chemical manufacturer, in 1981. You also put your business degree to use, too, through Oscar Robertson Solutions, a document management and consulting firm. I know you’ve had some challenges, financial and otherwise, in those endeavors. Does business scratch the same itch as basketball, in a competitive sense?
Robertson: Yes. Sometimes it’s a little more difficult. Because in sports, you’re out there and either you do it or you don’t do it. People could say anything they wanted until I hit the floor, then it was up to me. But in business today, it’s up to a lot of people.
I just wish I had played a little later [at a bigger salary]. Then I could have gone into what I wanted to go into. When I was with the players association, we talked to [late head of the NBA players union] Larry Fleisher one year about groups of players getting together and buying car dealerships in every NBA city. It didn’t work out – couldn’t get the financing. But it would have been great. In every city, you set up a Ford and a Chevrolet dealership? Man!
NBA.com: Generally it sounds like you’re OK that you played when you played and were paid what you were paid.
Robertson: I didn’t make a million dollars in 14 years. But times are different. I just think that players today are instantly gratified to be making the money. Some don’t appreciate that they’re making what they’re making. They take it for granted.
NBA.com: How would you like to be remembered?
Robertson: I have no idea. It doesn’t really matter that much to me. People are going to say what they want to say anyway. Like one [reporter recently] asked, “Do you think you could play in the game today?” I said, “It’s obvious you don’t know anything about basketball or you wouldn’t ask me that question. So I have no comments for you at all.” I just walked away from him.
Did he think, if they had eight teams, how many guys wouldn’t be playing now? Or 12 teams or 16 teams? How many guys would not be playing [in the NBA] now?
NBA.com: You’ve never been shy about speaking your mind.
Robertson: My wife [Yvonne] gets on me. She says, “Don’t tell ‘em all these things.” I say, “I won’t. But if they ask me, I’m not going to lie about it.”