Oscar Robertson was a prolific scoring machine.
At the same time, he never lost sight of what it took to win.
Through his first eight years in the National Basketball Association, the 6-foot-5 guard averaged over 30 points per game.
On top of that, he led the league in assists seven times in his career, averaging over 10 a game.
“If you don’t have a team concept, you don’t win,” Robertson, 74, told IBD. “You mix with the team and you find out what’s needed and required of you.”
Robertson’s University of Cincinnati teams went 79-9 from 1958 to 1960. Vaulting to the NBA, he pushed the Cincinnati Royals to immediate improvement — then shifted the Milwaukee Bucks into winning at a 70% clip. The victory peak came in 1971, when he teamed with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to lift the Bucks to the NBA title.
In a league full of legends — Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Baylor, West, Magic, Bird, Jordan — Robertson was voted Player of the Century by the National Association of Basketball Coaches in 2000.
Recently Abdul-Jabbar said he ranks Robertson above Michael Jordan among all-time guards.
Former teammate Wayne Embry told IBD: “Pound for pound, inch for inch, I think Oscar was the greatest player of all time.”
Embry was the Bucks’ assistant general manager in 1970 when a trade brought Robertson to Milwaukee. Thirty-two years old that season, the Big O provided leadership to a young team that went 56-26 the year before but fell short of a title. Not so with Robertson.
The Bucks romped to a 66-16 record, including a 20-game winning streak, and swept the Baltimore Bullets in the NBA Finals.
Robertson directed the drive while averaging 19.4 points and 8.2 assists per game — while the Bucks became the first NBA team to shoot 50% or better from the field.
Robertson also helped increase the scoring of Abdul-Jabbar, then in his second year, from 28.8 to a league-leading 31.7 points per game and his shooting from 52% to 58%.
“He was our vocal leader on the court, running the offense,” Abdul-Jabbar, author of the new book “Sasquatch in the Paint,” told IBD.
The Hall of Fame center added that Robertson helped “the whole team focus on executing the Bucks’ game plan. … (He made the team) more effective by making sure that every player got the opportunity to contribute at some point in the game. (His) presence on the court meant that the right thing would be done at the right time.”
As a floor general, Robertson tried not to force things if he didn’t have to. “I knew the game,” he said. “My fundamentals were very sound, and I think that helped a lot. You get the fundamentals down, you let the plays work. I let the game come to me.”
Even before his pro career, Robertson took the game by storm.
Starring at the University of Cincinnati, he was named national player of the year three times, from 1958 to 1960. After his senior season, he joined with Jerry West to co-captain the U.S. Olympic basketball team to a gold medal in Rome.
Then came 14 years in the NBA, where Robertson averaged 25.7 points, 9.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds a game. He retired as the league’s all-time assist leader with 9,887 and stood second among scorers with 26,710 points.
Since retiring after a close Milwaukee loss in the 1974 Finals, Robertson still stands sixth all-time in assists and 10th on the scoring list.
Robertson was named NBA Rookie of the Year in 1961 and the regular-season Most Valuable Player in 1964. He landed in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1980 and was voted to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996.
“I was an intense competitor (who) played textbook basketball, fundamentally sound, without a lot of flash,” Robertson wrote in “The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game.”
His improvement took sweat: “I worked hard. I loved to practice and play basketball. You’ve got to practice. You’ve got to work on your deficiencies.”
Born in Charlotte, Tenn., he was 4 when his family moved to Indianapolis. He grew up in poverty, but that didn’t keep him from basketball and practicing with purpose.
In his book “The Art of Basketball,” Robertson detailed his court regimen while in his early teens. Just as his teachers gave him homework for his studies, Robertson gave himself homework in hoops: dribbling exercises, free throws and bank shots from all angles.
At Crispus Attucks High School, Robertson led the basketball team to a 45-game winning streak and two straight Indiana titles. He was named Mr. Basketball for the state in 1956 as well as national high school player of the year.
Then it was off to the University of Cincinnati, where he took the Bearcats to the Final Four in 1959 and 1960. Oscar was a star, and the city’s Royals, the NBA team that would become today’s Sacramento Kings, drafted him first overall.
Big Numbers Fast
Robertson’s rookie year in the NBA saw him lead the Royals to 33 victories, a 14-game improvement over the previous season. He averaged 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and a league-high 9.7 assists per game.
In Year 2 he averaged a triple-double for the season: 30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds as the Royals improved to 43 wins while reaching the playoffs.
His first five years cumulative, Roberts averaged a triple-double with more than 30 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds.
For six seasons he led the Royals to the playoffs, where they fell five times to either the Boston Celtics of Bill Russell or the Philadelphia 76ers of Wilt Chamberlain.
Robertson finally joined a powerhouse with the Bucks, where his “ability to understand everything that was going on the court at one time” contributed to big seasons, said Abdul-Jabbar. “He was always very efficient and set an example for our team.”
Over the course of Robertson’s career, he shot 49% from the field, high for a guard, and 84% from the foul line. Those weren’t accidental numbers: “I worked on my game of basketball — jump shots from a certain points on the floor. I worked on my free throws quite a bit.”
He said he expected to nail shots when he was open, but “sometimes you’re not; that’s the difference between being a good basketball player vs. a great basketball player. When you’re not open, you’ve got to develop something to get yourself open.”
Lots Of Sweat
Embry said: “Oscar had enough self-respect and respect for others to know what he had to do to excel. His work ethic was terrific. He knew what he had to do if he wanted to be the best, so he spent endless hours doing so. He was very dedicated. Oscar was a great leader. He led the rest of us. He got on us when he needed to. And would build us up when he needed to. He was a great basketball player, but even a greater person with his values and the way he lives his life.”
Robertson supports numerous charitable causes, such as the National Kidney Foundation. It’s personal, since he donated a kidney in 1997 to his daughter Tia.
As president of the NBA Players Association during his Royal-Buck days, his class-action lawsuit against the league led to the Oscar Robertson rule, which granted free agency to those who played out their contracts. Salaries shot up.
Robertson, who has a business degree, practices that subject in Cincinnati. He’s president of Oscar Robertson Document Management Solutions and the food-chemical firm Orchem, plus is involved in Oscar Robertson Media Ventures.
He takes such responsibility seriously, saying, “I think everyone, not just athletes, has a responsibility to set a good example.”
Same with basketball: “It’s the way you conduct yourself, the way you live, how you are around your teammates and how you respond to pressure. That means a lot. If you respond well to pressure because you’ve prepared yourself through practice, you don’t get upset, you’re calm about it, then you’re on your way to being a good leader.”
By: Michael Mink