They entered the league in lockstep, spent the same 14 seasons as rivals and exited at the same time as well. Perennial All-Stars and eventual Hall of Famers, fiercely chasing championships in a zero-sum game. One guy black, one guy white.
If you didn’t know better, you might think that Oscar Robertson and Jerry West were the first draft of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, their heated rivalry played out 20 years earlier in simpler times – the 1960s rather than the ’80s – but essentially the same.
Except that West wants to make sure you do know better.
“They didn’t guard each other, OK?” West said by phone recently. “I guarded him and he guarded me. That would be our biggest difference with those two guys.
“When you saw Boston play the Lakers, you saw [Bird and Johnson] playing with a team, you didn’t really see those two guys playing each other. It’s a huge distinction. … I did not fear him. I know he didn’t fear me. You get to the point where you can’t sit around and admire how someone else plays. You have to go make them play against you.”
Bird and Johnson were intense competitors pitted against each other from the start, courtesy of the 1979 NCAA championship game, whose duels ripened into a friendship. Robertson and West had their own dynamic and parallel careers, only different.
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They were teammates before they were foes, dominating the trials for the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, then helping the Americans grab gold in Rome.
That’s where Zeke From Cabin Creek first saw The Big O in all his budding glory.
“To me, he was so far ahead of the other players who were playing then,” West recalled. “I looked at him and it was like, my God, playing with someone who was a wise old grandfather. He was one of those people who seemed to be a step ahead of the game.
“I thought, ‘He knows so much more about this game than I do.’ It was almost like watching some genius perform his magic, regardless of what it is.”
The two had gone 1-2 in the 1960 Draft, Robertson to the Cincinnati Royals – he had played in college at the University of Cincinnati – followed by West to the Los Angeles Lakers. After their shared Olympic moments, they settled into stellar yet ultimately frustrating grinds trying to match professionally what they had achieved as amateurs.
Robertson led the Royals to the playoffs six times but never got past the mighty Bill Russell-led Celtics to even reach the Finals. West, working with NBA legend Elgin Baylor, got to the Finals just fine but lost all seven trips, six of them to Robertson’s nemeses from Boston.
“This league then was dominated by one team and one franchise,” West said. “When that happens, you certainly get frustrated. … Sometimes you feel like you’re carrying a little more load than other players. The mental burden on you is enormous.
“But people who say ‘He wasn’t good enough to get his team there,’ that’s really ridiculous.”
All Robertson did in Cincinnati was make the All-Star team all 10 years while averaging 29.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 10.3 assists. He was named 1964 Most Valuable Player, two seasons after authoring his signature performance – averaging a triple-double (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg) through all of 1961-62.
Robertson has shrugged off that achievement, one of the NBA’s most famous, by saying he merely was trying to play the right way – and played a lot that season. But for West, it was another case of his rival setting the bar higher.
“Again, it was me looking at him and saying, ‘Well, he’s an all-around player. How am I going to prosper in this game unless I become an all-around player?’ West said. “If you’re any sort of competitor, you judge yourself against the very best players.”
In April 1970, Robertson was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, where at age 32 he joined up with a 23-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to win the 1971 NBA championship. Now there was separation again from West, one ring that belonged to Robertson.
“I was thrilled for him,” West said.
A year later, West finally broke through, winning the title with his own Hall of Fame center, Wilt Chamberlain.
The two men have been linked in competition, eventually friendship, for more than 50 years. They see each other a couple times each year, West said, and “we always have more intelligent talk than just talking about basketball.”
West, who is six months older (May 28), made a career in the NBA after his playing days, coaching the Lakers for three seasons before becoming one of the league’s most respected general managers. Robertson did none of that. He had one season as an analyst alongside Brent Musburger on CBS NBA telecasts, and that was it. Robertson believes NBA owners held it against him when he put his name to the class action “Oscar Robertson suit” that opened the door to free agency. Friends like West and Wayne Embry, The Big O’s teammate in Cincinnati turned successful team executive, agree.
“I don’t think there’s any question in my mind and particularly in his mind, that that was a huge detriment,” West said. “I think it’s a shame that someone with his knowledge didn’t have a chance.
“One of the things I always admired about him and Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor, when it wasn’t in vogue to talk about the things our black players had to endure then, they spoke up.”
Different times then, but not so different that those players should be eclipsed or neglected from the G.O.A.T. discussions. Robertson especially.
“Trust me, there were a lot of players who could play in this era,” West said. “People who say, ‘Oscar couldn’t do this, he couldn’t do that,’ that’s the biggest bunch of crap I’ve heard in my life. He would be a tremendous player today. He’d acquit himself against everyone because of how he played the game.
“He just played the game so efficiently, half the time he didn’t even look like he was playing. To me, that’s the greatest compliment of all.”