Known as "The Big O," Oscar Robertson (born 1938) is regarded as one of the greatest, most versatile players ever to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA). The Michael Jordan of his time, Robertson played guard for the Cincinnati Royals and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Born Oscar Palmer Robertson on November 24, 1938, in Charlotte, Tennessee, he was the son of Mazell (nee Bell) Robertson. As a child, his family (which included two elder brothers) moved to Indianapolis, Indiana. Robertson grew up in poverty, living in the ghetto. His brothers, who played basketball at a local YMCA, introduced him to the game at an early age. (Brother Bailey went on to play professional basketball with the Harlem Globe-trotters.)
Extraordinary Basketball Ability at an Early Age
By the time Robertson entered junior high school, his skills as a basketball player were already evident. As future professional teammate, Wayne Embry, told Terry Pluto in Tall Tales, "When Oscar Robertson walked into the ninth grade, he was a great player—not just for junior high, but for anywhere. The thing to remember about Oscar is that he was always great."
Robertson attended Indianapolis's Crispus Attucks High School, a primarily black school in a segregated system. In addition to his main sport, basketball, he was a baseball pitcher and competed in the high jump in track and field. However, high schools that were primarily white would not play Crispus Attucks because of racial prejudice.
Despite such barriers, Robertson's high school team was dominant. The team won two state championships and once won 45 straight games. Robertson himself was named All-State three times, and many believed that he was the one of the best high school players in the country, if not the best. A number of All-American high school teams included Robertson's name. He attributed his success to grounding in fundamentals, in addition to his natural born talent and inborn basketball smarts. Robertson told Bob Herzog of Newsday that "When I was in high school, my coach told me I wouldn't play if I took a bad shot. So I never did. I worked for good position." In high school, Robertson was also academically gifted. At graduation, he was ranked 16 out of 171 in his class.
Played College Ball in Cincinnati
Robertson was pursued by many colleges and universities for his basketball abilities. He wanted to play at his home state's Indiana University, but was not invited there because of the coach's racism. Instead, Robertson chose the University of Cincinnati, in part because it was close to his hometown. He was the first African-American to play on the school's basketball team, but did not play his freshman year (as was customary at the time).
During Robertson's three active years with the Cincinnati Bearcats, he was dominant as a forward. He led scoring of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) University Division each of those three years, averaging 33.8 points per game. Robertson was named a first team All-American three times as well. He was College Player of the Year in 1959 and 1960, the same years that the Bearcats reached the Final Four in NCAA tournament. As a senior, Robertson once scored 62 points in a game against North Texas State University. This was a record that lasted for almost three decades.
When Robertson graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1960, he had set a new career scoring record for the NCAA University Division. Robertson had broken the previous record during his junior year, though it had taken the previous holder his whole career. Robertson's total was 2973 points, a record that held for a decade. Robertson had 14 total scoring records in his division. Despite such accomplishments, he endured much racial taunting while playing, especially at schools located in the south. Even Cincinnati was somewhat segregated: a restaurant located near the university did not serve African Americans. Still, Robertson graduated with his B.B.A. (Bachelor of Business Administration), despite racial problems and nearly flunking out at one point.
Played in the Olympics
After graduation, Robertson was selected to play on the United States basketball team in the 1960 Olympics. The games were held in Rome, Italy. Robertson was the captain of the team, averaging 17 points in each of the eight games played. The Americans swept the competition, winning the Gold Medal.
Began Professional Career
Because of the way the National Basketball Association (NBA) constructed the draft at the time, Robertson was a territorial draft pick of the Cincinnati Royals. He was already well known by many players on the team because of his accomplishments with the University of Cincinnati Bearcats and because of pick-up games he played with some of the Royals' players. Robertson was moved from forward to guard, though some thought he was too tall for the position at 6 ′ 5 ″ . Instead, Robertson redefined the position, adding rebounding and other aspects and attitudes of forwards. He soon became known for his skills as a ball handler and passer.
From his first year, Robertson was a dominant player, already possessing the skills needed to compete. Of his style as a player, Patricia Sellers and Andy Freeberg of Fortune wrote "He viewed basketball as a business, and he played it with precision and consistency, never with flamboyance or wasted motion." Robertson concurred, telling John Jackson of The Record "Basketball, to me, was to get the job done." He changed his game to what the team needed to win. Earning $22,000 per year, he averaged 30.5 points per game as a rookie and was named Rookie of the Year. Robertson was also named an All-NBA guard in 1960, beginning a string of nine straight years in which he received this honor.
During the 1961-62 season, Robertson did something that no one has ever done again. He averaged a triple-double over the whole season, meaning that he had double figures in three areas—scoring (30.8 points), rebounding (12.5), and assists (11.4)—while playing an average of 44 minutes per game. This feat has never been matched. At the time, Robertson told John Jackson of The Record, "When I was making those triple doubles, I didn't know anything about that—and I didn't care. I was just on a team that was small up front and needed some rebounding help. I didn't think about it until after I got out of the game." Robertson almost accomplished this feat three other years as well.
The best season of Robertson's career was 1963-64, when he averaged 31.4 points per game as well as 11 assists per game. Only Wilt Chamberlain scored more points that year, but it was Robertson who was named the NBA Player of the Year. The season was also remarkable for another reason: the beginning of the National Basketball Players Association, the players' union. During the All-Star Game, Robertson and several of the other best players in the league threatened to boycott the game before it began. They refused to leave the dressing room until the matter was settled. The players wanted to have a lawyer represent them at collective bargaining negotiations, while the team owners did not want them to have legal representation. Management gave in just before the game began. Some time later, Robertson served a term as the president of the National Basketball Players Association.
In 1969, Cincinnati traded Robertson to the Milwaukee Bucks for Charlie Paulk and Flynn Robinson. At Milwaukee Robertson played with future superstar Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). In 1970-71, the Bucks won the NBA championship, the only championship Robertson ever won. The franchise was only in its third year. In 1971, Robertson was second to Wilt Chamberlain for the All-Time NBA Team voting. He had been twice named to the second all-NBA team by the end of his career, after being named to the first team ten times in a row.
When Robertson retired in 1973, after 14 seasons, he had scored a total of 26,710 points, 7804 rebounds (a record at one time) and 9887 assists (an NBA record at the time). He also set a record for 7694 free throws. Over the course of his career, Robertson averaged 25.7 points and 9 assists per game. He appeared in the All-Star Game 12 times and was the game's Most Valuable Player three times (including two consecutive years). He led the league in assists for six seasons as well. However, his salary was never higher than $250,000 per season.
Life After Basketball
The transition to life outside of basketball was hard for Robertson. He told Thomas Bonk of the Los Angeles Times in 1985, "Of course I had problems adjusting. I'm still adjusting. Players don't understand. They don't realize when they start playing basketball that it comes to an end." Robertson, like others, still had to make a living, though he had some preparation. He had made some real estate development investments while playing in the NBA.
Robertson stayed with the game briefly by working as a broadcaster, the color analyst for games aired on ABC Sports Radio. Primarily, however, Robertson used his college degree to become a businessman in Cincinnati. In 1981, he founded Orchem (Oscar Robertson Chemical), a company that took four years to attain profitability. Orchem made specialty chemicals used to clean the equipment of companies such as Kraft, Pepsi and Anheuser-Busch. Robertson also owned Orpack (which manufactured corrugated boxes), a construction and trucking company. He was a spokesman for Pepsi at one point as well.
Robertson's contributions to basketball were not forgotten. In 1979, he was easily elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Robertson was a unanimous selection in the first year he was eligible. The following year, he was named to the NBC's 35th Anniversary All-Time team, recognition of his prowess on the basketball court. In 1994, a nine-foot-high statue of him was elected at the University of Cincinnati, much to his embarrassment. His college exploits led Robertson to be honored by the United States Basketball Writers Association. They named their college player of the year award the Oscar Robertson Trophy in 1998. When the Associated Press chose the best player of the twentieth century, Robertson received the second most votes. Only Michael Jordan received more.
Robertson was regarded as hero for another gift, one that he gave unselfishly. He was married to a former teacher, Yvonne Crittenden, with whom he had three daughters, Shana, Tia and Mari. In 1997, Robertson donated a kidney to save the life of his daughter Tia, who was suffering from lupus. Doctors had to remove a rib in order to reach the kidney, limiting his mobility for a while. There was much media interest in the event, though Robertson said he was doing what any father should. After this family trauma, he became involved with the National Lupus Foundation of America and the National Kidney Foundation.
Robertson will be best remembered for his accomplishments on the basketball court. As Jack McCallum wrote in Sports Illustrated, "He was America's first Mr. Basketball, a player whose nonpareil skills—and nickname—were known even to people who knew little or nothing about the game."
African-American Sports Greats: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by David L. Porter, Greenwood Press, 1995.
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Pluto, Terry, Tall Tales: The Glory Years of the NBA, in the Words of the Men Who Played, Coached and Built Pro Basketball, Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Capital Times, April 11, 1997.
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Fortune, September 26, 1988.
Jet, August 2, 1993.
Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1985.
Newsday, January 5, 1997; July 31, 1999; May 16, 1999.
People Weekly, May 26, 1997; December 29, 1997.
The Record, April 14, 1991.
Sports Illustrated, November 15, 1999.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 27, 1997. □
"Oscar Robertson." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404707663.html
"Oscar Robertson." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Retrieved June 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404707663.html
American basketball player
Oscar Robertson is known as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. A standout at the University of Cincinnati, he went on to become a star National Basketball Association (NBA) player for the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) and the Milwaukee Bucks, and a co-captain of an Olympic team considered by some to be the greatest group of amateurs ever assembled for the games. Known for his versatility, Robertson is the only professional player to ever accomplish an entire season of triple-doubles—double digits in scoring, rebounds and assists. In addition to his on-court challenges, Robertson, an African American, faced many obstacles his white teammates could have never imagined. Rather than turn his back, however, Robertson became an outspoken advocate for civil rights. He was also active in securing fair treatment of players, serving as president of the NBA players' union for a decade.
Defying the Odds
Growing up in Indianapolis, where his family moved when Robertson was four years old, Robertson learned the game of basketball at a run-down neighborhood court known as the "dust bowl." Robertson's father worked for the city sanitation department and his mother worked as a maid. Their salaries were small and they could not afford a basketball for their son, so he threw tin cans and old tennis balls through the hoop at the dust bowl. When he was eleven his mother gave him a basketball that one of her employers had planned to throw away, and his career began in earnest.
Robertson joined the basketball team at Crispus Attucks High School and found he still had to improvise—the all-African American school had no gym. His self-taught skills and ability to adapt, coupled with sound lessons in the basics from coach Ray Crowe, set Robertson up as a team leader early on. In his junior and senior years, he led the team through a 45-game winning streak and two state championships, making Crispus Attucks the first African American high school to capture that honor. In 1956 Robertson was named Indiana's "Mr. Basketball" and he was recruited by more than thirty colleges.
|1938||Born November 24 in Charlotte, Tennessee|
|1942||Family moves to Indianapolis|
|1952||Enters Crispus Attucks High School and joins basketball team|
|1955-56||Leads Crispus Attucks Tigers to 45-game winning streak and two Indiana state championships|
|1956||Named Indiana's Mr. Basketball|
|1956||Enters University of Cincinnati as recruit for the Bearcats|
|1959-60||Leads team to NCAA Final Four|
|1960||Co-captains U.S. Olympic basketball team and wins gold medal|
|1960||Signs with Cincinnati Royals|
|1960||Marries Yvonne Crittenden on June 25|
|1961||Named NBA's Rookie of the Year|
|1961-62||Averages triple-double for entire season|
|1964||Named league MVP|
|1964||Becomes president of NBA players' union|
|1970||Traded to Milwaukee Bucks|
|1971||With Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), leads Bucks to NBA championship|
|1974||Leads Bucks to NBA Finals|
|1974||Retires amidst pressure from team management|
|1976||Settles union lawsuit with league, resulting in "Oscar Robertson Rule" regarding free agency|
|1979||Named to Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame|
|1997||Again makes national headlines after donating kidney to daughter Tia|
On to Cincinnati
Robertson elected to stay close to home and attend the University of Cincinnati. He took the team by storm, leading them to the NCAA Final Four during his junior and senior years, although each time the team lost to the University of California. Still, Robertson, who came to be known as "The Big O," set fourteen NCAA records during this time and averaged nearly thirty-four points per game. He was the NCAA's top scorer three years straight, and was named both an All-American and College Player of the Year in his last three seasons. He was the first player to ever win the latter award three times in a row and in 1998 it was renamed the Oscar Robertson Trophy.
All was not smooth for Robertson, however. As the first African American to play for Cincinnati, he was subject to intense racism, especially when the team traveled in the south. As a matter of fact, he had originally wanted to attend Indiana University, but after meeting with coach Branch McCracken, suspected he was not welcome because of his color. He often was not permitted to stay with the team at their hotel during away games, and instead had to stay alone in dorm rooms at nearby black colleges. At a game at North Texas State, the crowd threw programs at him. Back in Cincinnati, he was often barred from theaters and restaurants. Robertson felt his teammates and coach, George Smith, were unsupportive as well and, at one point, he considered leaving Cincinnati and joining the Harlem Globetrotters. Instead, he decided to stay and graduated with a degree in business in 1960.
Olympic and NBA Star
After graduation Robertson joined the U.S. Olympic basketball team as a co-captain with University of West Virgina's Jerry West . Many regard this team as the best group of amateur men's basketball players ever assembled. The team captured a gold medal and Robertson emerged as a standout. Following the victory, he was offered a $100,000 three-year contract with the Cincinnati Royals.
Robertson proved equally valuable to the Royals' organization. He was named Rookie of the Year for the 1960-61 season and received Most Valuable Player honors for his first of twelve consecutive appearances at the NBA All-Star game. The following season Robertson achieved his legendary season tripledouble when he averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game. This feat has yet to be matched by another professional player. He fell just shy of repeating his accomplishment the next four years. Other players marveled at the ease with which Robertson appeared to accomplish such feats. "It took me five or six years to become an accomplished player," West told Sports Illustrated. "But from the first game Oscar played, he looked as if he had been in the league for 10 years. There was nobody like him."
In 1964 Robertson was named league MVP and he won MVP honors at the All-Star game as well. That same year he became president of the NBA players' union, a post he held until he retired a decade later.
Moves to Milwaukee
When Bob Cousy took over the Royals during the 1969-70 season, he wanted to trade Robertson to the Baltimore Bullets. Robertson staged a two-week hold out and was instead sent to the Milwaukee Bucks. There, he joined teammate Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to lead the Bucks to an NBA championship in 1971. The pair also spearheaded the team's second visit to the Finals in 1974, where they eventually lost to the Boston Celtics in a seven-game series. Robertson retired at the end of that season, giving into what he saw as pressure from team officials. The "Oscar Robertson Night" staged by the team appeared to be a request for him to say farewell, Robertson claimed.
Even off-court, Robertson continued to make his mark on the NBA. In 1976, a lawsuit he had filed against the NBA when he was still union president was settled. The lawsuit sought, among other things, removal of a clause that essentially prevented free agency. The ruling in Robertson's favor is today known as the Oscar Robertson Rule. Robertson also became president of the retired players' union.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1958-60||Sporting News College Player of the Year|
|1958-60||Sporting News All-Star First Team|
|1960||Gold medal, U.S. Olympic basketball team|
|1961||NBA Rookie of the Year|
|1961-69||All-NBA First Team|
|1961, 1964, 1969||NBA All-Star Game MVP|
|1979||Named to Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame|
|1980||NBA 35th Anniversary All-Star Team|
|1984||Named to Olympic Hall of Fame|
|1994||Oscar Robertson statue erected at University of Cincinnati|
|1998||College Player of the Year award renamed Oscar Robertson Trophy|
|1999||Named one of Sports Illustrated 's Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century|
|1999||Named Indiana Living Legend|
|1999||Named one of ESPN's 50 Greatest Athletes of the Century|
|1999||Ohio Governor's Award|
Where Is He Now?
When Oscar Robertson returned to the Cincinnati area following his retirement from basketball in 1974, he applied the same drive he had displayed on the court in the business world. Today, he is principal owner of three successful companies: ORCHEM, which sells chemical used for industrial cleaning; ORPACK, a corrugated box manufacturer; and ORDMS, a firm that helps companies reduce their paper flow. He also serves on the boards of community groups and is active in charity events. Often quoted on matters related to both basketball and civil rights, Robertson made headlines again in 1997 when he donated a kidney to his daughter Tia, who suffered from lupus. While Robertson and his daughter attempted to keep the medical procedure quiet, they faced a media onslaught when they left Cincinnati's University Hospital following the successful transplant. Robertson broke down as he spoke to the press. "I'm no hero," he told them, as quoted in People. "I'm just a father."
Returning to Cincinnati, Robertson became a successful businessman and became involved with several community and charity organizations. He also remains an outspoken champion of civil rights—both in word and in practice. In 1999 he refused an endorsement offer from Converse, reasoning "Converse was there for a lot of white athletes when I was playing, but they never came to Oscar Robertson." He also told Sports Illustrated that he believes his race and his involvement with the players' union precluded careers in broadcasting or coaching. While Robertson provided color commentary for CBS after retirement, he was fired after one year.
In 1997 Robertson lamented the fact that his off-court legacy to contemporary players seems to have been diminished. "The players today don't know anything about racism," he told People. "So few of today's players have any idea what he fought for, what he stood for," Robertson's wife, Yvonne, told Sports Illustrated.
As for his contributions on the court, though, Robertson still remains a legend. As the year 2000 approached, numerous sports writers named him among their greatest athletes of the 20th century. "He was so smart on the court that whatever he told you to do you just did it," former teammate Adrian Smith recalled for Sports Illustrated. "It always seemed to be the right thing. I guess he made mistakes from time to time, but I don't remember any."
Address: c/o Orchem Corp, 4293 Mulhauser Rd., Fairfield, OH 45014-5450. Online: www.thebigo.com.
|CIN: Cincinnati Royals; MIL: Milwaukee Bucks.|
SELECTED WRITINGS BY ROBERTSON:
The Art of Basketball, Oscar Robertson Media Ventures, 1999.
"Oscar Robertson." Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 26. Edited by David G. Oblender. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000.
Jerome, Richard. "A Father's Gift." People (May 26, 1997): 52.
McCallum, Jack. "King Without A Castle." Sports Illustrated (July 15, 2002): 78.
Sketch by Kristin Palm
Palm, Kristin. "Robertson, Oscar." Notable Sports Figures. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407900462.html
Palm, Kristin. "Robertson, Oscar." Notable Sports Figures. 2004. Retrieved June 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407900462.html
Oscar Robertson, 1938–, U.S. basketball player, b. Charlotte, Tenn. Passionately devoted to basketball as a youth, Robertson led his high school team to 45 consecutive victories. After an athletically brilliant college career at the Univ. of Cincinnati, Robertson, known as the "Big O," joined the Cincinnati Royals of the National Basketball Association. Robertson, only 6 ft 4 in. (193 cm) in height, scored 26,710 points for the Royals (1960–70) and the Milwaukee Bucks (1970–72). His career total of 9,887 assists marks him as a superb playmaker.
"Robertson, Oscar." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-RbrtsnO.html
"Robertson, Oscar." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Retrieved June 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-RbrtsnO.html
Robertson, Oscar 1938–
Oscar Robertson 1938–
Former basketball player, businessman
Considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Oscar Robertson has triumphed off the court as well. He oversees three successful businesses in Ohio and is often asked to provide commentary on issues ranging from civil rights to the current state of basketball. His 1999 book, The Art of Basketball, showcases the basic fundamentals that Robertson believes a good basketball player must possess. It was these fundamentals that allowed Robertson to achieve the unsurpassed feat of averaging a “tripledouble” during the entire 1961-62 season. The tripledouble is achieved by reaching double digits in points, rebounds and assists during a game. Many players have accomplished a tripledouble during a game, but nobody has maintained the average for a whole season except Robertson.
Born Oscar Palmer Robertson in Charlotte, Tennessee, the Robertson family moved to Indianapolis when Oscar was four, where his father worked for the city sanitation department. Near his home in the city’s African American ghetto was a rundown basketball court known as the “dust bowl.” It was here that the young Robertson shot tin cans and then old tennis balls through the hoops because the family couldn’t afford a real basketball. At the age of 11, he received his first basketball, which was going to be thrown away by a family for whom his mother worked as a maid. The basketball and Robertson became inseparable.
Robertson’s love for basketball grew when he entered Crispus Attucks High School, an all-African American school that had no gym. Coach Ray Crowe instilled the basics of the game into his team, and when Robertson combined those qualities with his years of incessant street practice, the Attucks Tigers had found a new leader. During his junior and senior years, Robertson led the team to a 45-game winning streak and two state championships. In 1956, Robertson was named Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball.” As the first African American school to win the Indiana state title, Robertson and his Attucks teammates received national attention and Robertson was heavily recruited by more than 30 colleges.
Robertson decided to attend the University of Cincinnati because it was fairly close to his family in Indianapolis and because of the tough schedule that the Bearcats played. He again emerged as a team leader, and took his team to new heights. The Bearcats reached the Final Four during his last two years, but
Born Oscar Palmer Robertson on November 24, 1938 in Charlotte, TN; son of Henry Bailey Robertson and Mazell Bell Robertson; married Yvonne Crittenden, June 25, 1960. children: Shana, Tia, Mari. Education: University of Cincinnati, BBA, 1960.
Career: Co-captain, U.S. Olympic basketball team, 1960; professional basketball player for the Cincinnati Royals, 1960-70, Milwaukee Bucks 1970-74; president of the National Basketball Player’s Association, 1964-74; president and CEO, Oscar Robertson Construction, 1975-; president and CEO Orchem, Inc., 1981-; president and CEO, Orpack-Stone Corp., 1990-; president, NBA Retired Players Association, 1993-99; author, The Art of Basketball, 1999.
Awards: Sporting News College Player of the Year, 1958, 1959, 1960;Sporting News All-Star First Team, 1958, 1959, 1960; Gold medal, U.S. Olympicbasket-ball team, 1960; NBA Rookie of the Year, 1961; All-NBA First Team, 1961-69; NBAAll-Star Game MVP, 1961, 1964, 1969; NBA Most Valuable Player, 1964; Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, 1979; NBA 35th Anniversary All-Star Team, 1980; Olympic Hall of Fame, 1984; Oscar Robertson statue on the campus of the University of Cincinnati, 1994;College Player of the Year Award renamed the Oscar Robertson Trophy, 1998; named one of the Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century, Sport illustrated, 1999; named Indiana Living Legend, 1999; named one of the 50 Greatest Athletes of the Century, ESPN, 1999; OhioGover-nor’s Award, 1999.
Addresses: Office— Orchem, Inc., 4923 Mulhauser Rd., Fairfield, OH45014.
were defeated both times by the University of California. As an individual player, Robertson set 14 NCAA records and averaged close to 34 points per game. He won the national scoring title three times, and was named an All-American in each of his three varsity seasons. Additionally, Robertson was named College Player of the Year three years in a row—the first person to win that award three times—and in 1998 the award was named the Oscar Robertson Trophy. It was also during his years at Cincinnati where he earned the nickname, “the Big O.”
While Robertson excelled on the court and in the classroom, he had no control over the racial tensions which existed in the Midwest and the South during the 1950s. As the first African American to play for Cincinnati, Robertson was subjected to the humiliation of racism on numerous occasions. Often, while on the road with his team, Robertson was not permitted to stay at the same hotel with his teammates and would stay by himself in a college dorm. Even in Cincinnati, where he was a star on the University of Cincinnati campus, there were many theaters and restaurants that refused to serve him. This rampant racism bothered Robertson so much that during his junior and senior years, he considered an offer to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. He stayed in school, however, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business in 1960.
In the summer of 1960 Robertson co-captained the U.S. Olympic basketball team, a team that is considered by some to be the greatest amateur team ever put together for the Olympics. The United States finished the competition with an undefeated record, and won the gold medal. Upon returning from the Olympics, Robertson signed a three-year contract worth $100,000 to play professionally for the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings). As with his previous teams, Robertson was an immediate stand-out.
Robertson earned Rookie of the Year honors for the 1960-61 season and was named Most Valuable Player at the first of his 12 consecutive trips to the NBA All-Star game. The following year Robertson scored a feat which has yet to be matched when he averaged a tripledouble for the entire season (30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists). As Ken Shouler pointed out in his book The Experts Pick Basketball’s Best 50 Players in the Last 50 Years, Robertson just missed averaging a tripledouble the other four of his first five years in the NBA. Robertson credited his high school coach Ray Crowe and his insistence on fundamentals for his success in professional basketball. “Even the so-called ’natural’ has to work on things,” he explained to Shouler. “I did have the fundamentals down when I entered pro ball. Once you get into pro ball, you don’t have time to think, ’If a guy does this, I do that.’ You do things instinctively.”
In 1964, Robertson was named league MVP while winning MVP honors for the second time at the All-Star game and leading the Royals to their best season ever with a 55-25 record. Still, the Royals could never advance beyond the second round of the playoffs despite Robinson’s efforts. “Oscar always made the big play, the right play,” former Los Angeles Laker Elgin Baylor explained to Shouler. “When you played against Oscar you not only faced an opponent with a tremendous amount of talent and physical skills, but you were also up against a finely tuned pro basketball mind. Oscar was smarter than any pro player I have ever faced.” Also in 1964, Robertson became president of the NBA player’s union, a position he held until his retirement from playing in 1974.
Although Robertson and the Royals continued to post winning records during the late 1960s, they were not a championship caliber team. During the 1969-70 season, new Royals coach Bob Cousy wanted to trade Robertson to the Baltimore Bullets, a trade Robertson vetoed by staging a two-week hold out. In April of 1970, Robertson approved a trade that sent him to the Milwaukee Bucks, a fiery, young team that included Lew Alcindor—who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. With Robertson on the roster, the Bucks advanced to the NBA Finals in 1971. The Bucks went on to sweep the Bullets in four games, and Robinson had won his first NBA championship. In 1974 the Bucks again charged to the NBA Finals, but lost to the Boston Celtics in seven games. Robertson retired from basketball shortly after the defeat.
Although his playing days were over, Robertson was still involved with professional basketball for the next two years as the result of a 1970 lawsuit against the NBA that he filed as president of the player’s union. The anti-trust suit challenged the merger of the NBA and American Basketball Association (ABA), the college draft and the NBA’s reserve clause that prohibited free agency. In 1976, the suit was settled. The NBA and ABA were allowed to merge, while the college draft remained intact. Drafted players were given the option of refusing to join the team that drafted them and reentering the draft one year later. Teams were no longer required to provide compensation when signing a free agent, which encouraged the signing of more free agents and led to higher salaries for players. The issue became known as “the Oscar Robertson Rule.”
Following his retirement from basketball, Robertson returned to the Cincinnati area where he became a prominent businessman and participant in a number of charitable and community activities. He made headlines in 1997 when he donated a kidney to his daughter Tia, who had been suffering from lupus, a disease in which the body’s immune system becomes overactive and attacks tissues and organs, particularly the kidneys. His daughter’s illness prompted Robertson to become involved with the National Lupus Foundation and the National Kidney Foundation, for whom he acts as an advocate for organ donation.
As the 20th century drew to a close, Robertson began to appear on “Greatest Athletes of the Century” lists, including those presented by Sports Illustrated and ESPN. He maintained a vigorous pace in both his business and charitable activities. Robinson also authored The Art of Basketball, a book designed to teach the fundamentals of basketball to youngsters. Like his old high school coach Ray Crowe, Robertson stresses the fundamentals not only in basketball, but in daily life. As he wrote in The Art of Basketball: “Listen to people in authority—parents, teachers, coaches. They can offer you insights and information. Strive to become as good an athlete as you can, but remember, that education is equally important…. Take pride in being a well-educated athlete instead of the alternative. It makes for a more balanced and successful life.”
Bayne, Bijan C, Sky Kings: Black Pioneers of Professional Basketball, Grolier Publishing, 1988.
Robertson, Oscar, The Art of Basketball, Oscar Robertson Media Ventures, 1999.
Shouler, Kenneth A., The Experts Pick Basketball’s Best 50 Players in the Last 50 Years, AllSport Books, 1996.
Cincinnati Post, April 5, 1999.
Indianapolis Star, March 20, 1955.
Jet, August 2, 1993, p.36.
New York Daily News, July 31, 1997.
New York Times, September 17, 1989, p. S-1; November 7, 1998, p. A-15.
People, May 26, 1997, p.52; December 29, 1997, p.148.
Escamilla, Brian. "Robertson, Oscar 1938–." Contemporary Black Biography. 2001. Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2872800051.html
Escamilla, Brian. "Robertson, Oscar 1938–." Contemporary Black Biography. 2001. Retrieved June 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2872800051.html