Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Big 7-0

At the end of his 2003 autobiography, "The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game," Oscar Robertson openly wonders if he and his contemporaries will be forgotten.

"As I write this, basketball has entered a strange new century," Robertson writes. "The game has become international; it has become computerized and wireless and fiber-optic. Nobody knows what the next five years will look like, what heights players will be capable of reaching, how brightly they will shine. Whatever happens to the sport, I hope that the men who gave their blood, sweat, and tears to build the league will be remembered. I hope that people will never forget that when any man reaches for previously unattainable heights, he does so only because he stands on shoulders of those who came before."

Robertson wrote those words when he was 65 years old and 29 years removed from his final game as an NBA player and it's not difficult to understand his concern. When he called it quits after the 1973-74 season, Robertson held the NBA record for assists (9,887), was second only to Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list (26,710) and was one of the top 20 rebounders with 7,804. Now, Robertson's fourth in career assists, eighth in scoring and barely hanging in the top 60 for rebounds.

But Robertson, born 70 years ago today on a snowy Thanksgiving Day in Charlotte, Tenn., shouldn't worry about fading away.

In fact, in the five years since he penned that paragraph, Robertson's stature has only grown. Thanks to the all-around excellence of players from today's generation such as Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, Robertson's Hall of Fame accomplishments have become that much more magnificent.

From his days at Indianapolis' Crispus Attucks High School to when he retired from the Milwaukee Bucks in 1974, Robertson's playing career could best be described as a great river: a steady and consistent confluence of excellence flowed from him.

Much of his on-court steel was forged in the roiling racial cauldron of its day. Rightfully angered by the injustice he encountered off the court because of the color of his skin, Robertson mixed that internal fire with a cool control of every team he ever ran. Robertson wasn't flashy like Bob Cousy and was as fundamentally sound as any player before or since. When asked how he accumulated so many assists in his career, Robertson was said to reply: "I passed it to the open man."

Therein lay Robertson's genius. He made playing the point guard position seem simple.

And at the time, there was no precedence for what Robertson was doing: leading the first all-black team to an Indiana state high school title, averaging 33.8 points per game and winning National College Player of the Year in each of his three season at the University of Cincinnati, a feat not even his future teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar accomplished.

"I think he revolutionized the position because he was 6-5," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Oscar was very well built, a great example of physical fitness, and strong. He wasn't a wispy kind of guy. I think of another guard of his size, Dave Bing. Dave was not the physical presence Oscar was.

"You couldn't push Oscar around. It was impossible."

He lead a veritable All-Star team to gold in Rome in 1960, and then notched a triple-double during the 1961-62 season (30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists) for the Cincinnati Royals.

Oscar Robertson's stellar career was highlighted by a championship in Milwaukee.
Walter Iooss Jr./NBAE/Getty Images

At the time, not even Robertson had known what he had done.

"There's a story attributed to baseball legend Willie Mays," Robertson wrote. "When Jose Canseco was honored in the 1980s for being the first man to hit forty home runs and steal forty bases in one season, Mays said, 'If I'd known that would be such a big deal, I would have done it a few times myself.'

"That comes close to expressing the bemusement I feel about all the attention on my triple-double season."

Imagine our bemusement, then, to know now that Robertson averaged a triple-double for the first five NBA seasons with 30.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 10.6 assists per game in 384 games. Stick that in your trophy case for a moment and gawk at it: 30, 10 and 10, every season for five years.

Could you imagine what ESPN would do with Oscar if he played today? They'd probably give him his own channel. He would own Nike ... and adidas. In this Internet world of today, how huge Robertson would be in Europe or China? And how many articles would be written about him opting out of his contract in 2010?

And there is another overlooked element of Robertson's storied legacy: free agency. If not for Robertson and the Player's Union filing a class-action suit in New York District Court in 1970 -- known as the "Oscar Robertson rule" because as the NBPA president, his name led the list -- and its settlement in 1976, we'd have no speculation regarding where Amar'e Stoudemire, Chris Bosh and LeBron James would go to chase an NBA title.

A title once eluded Robertson as well. Boston or Philadelphia always stood in Cincinnati's way and because of the reserve clause that kept a player with a team in perpetuity, Robertson was a Royal until the franchise either traded or released him. On April 20, 1970, four days after the NBPA suit was filed, the Royals traded him to Milwaukee, where he teamed with a young superstar in Abdul-Jabbar.

"I was very aware of Oscar's overall excellence," Abdul-Jabbar said, remembering the trade that brought Robertson to Milwaukee from Cincinnati. "I just didn't know how he'd fit in with our team. I should have known better. There was nothing to be apprehensive about. He was a great overall player and a great leader. He pushed us. He'd get on our case if we didn't do our assignments. Having that kind of leadership is a key element to any team."

The Bucks went 66-16 in the regular season, became the first team to shoot better than .500 from the field (.509), cruised through the postseason at 12-2 and capped that incredible run by sweeping the Bullets in the Finals.

"I think that was an exceptional season," Abdul-Jabbar said. "In terms of efficiency in the playoffs, that was one of the best teams that ever played. A lot of people don't remember that very accurately because of the way things happened with the Knicks and Lakers in the mix."

Robertson would make one more trip with the Bucks to The Finals in 1974 before retiring at the age of 35.

It was then one could see what the river of Robertson's career had carved: basketball's Grand Canyon. You could not help but be stunned by the depth, breadth and the sheer beauty and excellence of it all.

"I think Oscar was really special because of his ability to do so many different aspects of the game well," Abdul-Jabbar said. "There are very few people who have the ability to score, set people up to score, rebound and defend. He was a complete player."

When Kidd adds to his career triple-double total of 101 (still 80 shy of Robertson's career mark) or James finishes the season with 30 points, seven-plus rebounds and seven assists per game, they're like tourists who spend a couple days, take some photos and leave, gobsmacked by what they have seen.

And only by getting as close as they do to Robertson's excellence do Kidd and James know how much they have left to accomplish.

They, too, could look at what he's done after his player career ended -- owner of three companies and partner in a fourth or that he donated one of his kidneys to his daughter, Tia, which subsequently led to him being named a spokesperson for the National Kidney Foundation -- and see that in 35 years after he retired, Oscar remains to this day, a pioneer.

So, on this day, 70 years after that snowy Thanksgiving Day when Robertson was born, let us give thanks for Oscar Robertson.

Because of him we know what true greatness looks like.



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