Robertson given Lifetime Achievement Award
TORONTO – Oscar Robertson is one of the greatest players in NBA history, a pioneer both on and off the basketball floor and walking shorthand for one of the game’s most esteemed stats: the triple-double.
Current stars way too young to have seen Robertson play during his 14-season career with Cincinnati and Milwaukee know his name and what it meant in terms of 10 or more points, rebounds and assists in the same game.
“He averaged a triple-double, right? The whole season?” Washington’s All-Star guard John Wall said, answering the question with a question. “That’s all I need to know. If you can do that in one season, that means you were a heckuva player.”
How “heckuva” was he? Robertson, 77, will be presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award Sunday at the National Basketball Retired Players Association classy “Legends” Brunch in a ceremony scheduled to feature Lakers Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and the Minnesota Timberwolves young big man Karl-Anthony Towns.
Robertson did average a triple-double in his famous 1961-62 season: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists. The 6-foot-5 guard from the University of Cincinnati had 41 games that season in which he reached double figures in all three categories – the NBA’s big triple-double threats in 2015-16, Golden State’s Draymond Green and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, have done that 10 and eight times, respectively.
Even more impressive, Robertson averaged a cumulative triple-double over his first five seasons as a pro: 30.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg and 10.6 apg across 383 games. He remains the league’s all-time leader with 181 triple-doubles, racking up the 1960 Rookie of the Year award, the MVP in 1964, 12 All-Star berths and three All-Star MVP honors.
After missing the postseason five times and advancing only twice in his 10 years with the Royals, Robertson was traded to Milwaukee to play with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He and the Bucks won their only championship in his first year there but returned to the Finals again in 1974 before Robertson retired.
If the players who will be participating in Sunday’s All-Star Game weren’t around in time to witness Robertson’s exploits, the same isn’t true for one of their coaches. San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich grew up in Merrilville, Ind., and was a teenager during Robertson’s dominance in Cincinnati. Neither the Pacers nor the Bulls existed yet as a rooting option, making it simple for Popovich to look over to the Royals.
“I’m an Indiana boy. He’s an Indiana guy, from Indianapolis obviously,” Popovich said Friday. “He and [Celtics Hall of Famer] John Havlicek were the two people I keyed in on the most when I was a young kid and watched games. They weren’t on as much as they are now, but whenever they were, those were the guys I wanted to watch.”
In high school, Robertson famously was the leader of Crispus Attucks High’s consecutive state championships, making it the first all-black school in the nation to win a state championship in any sport. At the University of Cincinnati, Robertson’s teams went 89-9; he was the national collegiate player of the year three times and the U.S. Basketball Writers’ player-of-the-year award is now named the Oscar Robertson Trophy.
Before he reached the NBA, he and Lakers legend Jerry West drove the 1960 U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal. And then came his marvelous, multi-faceted work with the Royals.
“I’m still incredulous at Oscar’s accomplishments,” Popovich said, “when you talk about how he scored, passed and rebounded night after night after night. It’s a combination that I don’t think anybody in the league has. Nobody. And he did it over and over again, to the point where it was almost ignored because he made it so common.”
Robertson, who lives in Cincinnati with his wife Yvonne, has said that if he knew triple-doubles were going to be such a big deal, he would have tried to get more of them.
It isn’t possible to fully appreciate Robertson’s impact, though, without noting his work on behalf of the NBA Players Association. He served as NBPA president from 1965 to 1974, becoming the first black president of any sports or entertainment labor union. In 1970, he put his name to a lawsuit to block the merger of the NBA with the old American Basketball Association, to end the option clause binding a player to an NBA team in perpetuity, to end the NBA Draft’s power to bind a player to one team and to end restrictions on free agency.
By April 1976 – 40 years ago this season – the league agreed to a class-action settlement that became casually known as the “Oscar Robertson rule,” eliminating the reserve clause (much like Curt Flood‘s MLB litigation) and moving the NBA toward free agency.
That side of Robertson’s career, he long believed, denied him some post-playing opportunities in coaching, in NBA front offices or in broadcasting because of the clout it shifted to players and the boost it provided to player salaries. It remains an underappreciated element to this day, at least publicly, even as his skills stay relegated to grainy black-and-white film clips.
“I think he probably was the best player to ever play the game,” said Wayne Embry, Robertson’s longtime friend, former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer. “And then the contribution he made with the Oscar Robertson lawsuit., that changed the complexion of the league in salaries and in creating free agency. So all the growth of this league is the result of guys like him getting things right.”