Robertson, Oscar Palmer

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ROBERTSON, Oscar Palmer

(b. 24 November 1938 in Charlotte, Tennessee), one of the greatest basketball players of all time, the highest-scoring guard in National Basketball Association (NBA) history, and the only player ever to achieve "triple-double" averages for an entire season.

Robertson was the youngest of three sons born to Henry Bailey Robertson and Mazell Bell Robertson. When Robertson was very young his family moved to Indianapolis, where his father became a sanitation worker. His mother worked as a domestic, and later became a beautician. Growing up in abject poverty in a segregated housing project, Robertson was drawn to basketball because of its popularity in his neighborhood, and by his brothers who played at the local YMCA. The Robertson brothers also practiced by shooting a makeshift basketball—a rag-wrapped tennis ball bound with rubber bands—into a peach basket behind his family's home. The young Oscar improvised by shooting with tin cans and tennis balls, and at the age of eleven received his first basketball, which was almost thrown away by the family who employed his mother as a maid.

Mazell Robertson was determined to help her sons make lives for themselves beyond the projects. "People were doing all kinds of wrong things," she recalled, "I had to tell my children why they had to be different." She made sure they stayed out of trouble by keeping busy with schoolwork and sports. Her son Bailey, Oscar's older brother, went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.

Robertson attended Crispus Attucks High School, an African-American institution that was part of Indianapolis's segregated school system. The building had no gym, and white schools refused to play against its teams, but even under these circumstances Robertson's exceptional ability and sharp instincts emerged. His coach Ray Crowe polished and refined his raw talent with intensive fundamentals. The hard work paid off: Robertson led his team to two consecutive state championships (1955 and 1956), a state record of forty-five straight wins, and the first undefeated season in the history of the Indiana state high school system. In 1956, his senior year, Robertson was named Indiana's "Mr. Basketball."

Robertson was not only a basketball star, but also excelled in track and field as a high jumper and in baseball as a pitcher. In spring 1956 he graduated sixteenth in his class of 171 students, and was a Scholar-Athlete and member of the National Honor Society. He was also chosen for three All-America high school teams. More than thirty colleges recruited him, but Robertson chose to stay close to home and attend the University of Cincinnati because its flexible system enabled him to study part-time, work part-time at the Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company, and play full-time basketball for the Bearcats.

Robertson was the first African American to play basketball for Cincinnati at a time when the Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation throughout the South. Even though he was brilliant on the basketball court, Robertson experienced off-court discrimination at both the university and on the road. Though initially barred from college locker rooms, he was allowed entrance once the other players saw his abilities. Robertson was frequently denied entry to whites-only establishments, such as theaters and restaurants, even in Cincinnati. Traveling through the Midwest and South as part of an integrated college sports team was also dangerous. Unable to stay in hotels with his team until his junior year, Robertson often was forced to stay alone in college dorms. Especially while in the South, Robertson coped with fears of the Ku Klux Klan, who had attacked and lynched individuals involved in the Civil Rights Movement; he nearly dropped out of college because of the emotional distress.

At six feet, five inches tall, and 215 pounds, Robertson excelled at all aspects of basketball. He set nineteen school and fourteen National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) division scoring records. He led the Bearcats to a 79–9 record and two straight NCAA tournament third-place finishes in 1959 and 1960, tallying 62 points against North Texas State University his senior year. Robertson's scoring, which averaged 33.8 points per game and totaled 2,973 points, placed him seventh on the all-time NCAA scoring list. It was during his college days that Robertson earned his nickname "the Big O" for his relentless offense. He possessed not only a deadly outside shot, but also worked tirelessly to create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.

In 1960, after graduating with a degree in business administration, Robertson and future NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West led the 1960 U.S. Olympic basketball team to a gold medal, a team that many consider one of the most talented ever assembled. That same year he began his fourteen-year National Basketball Association (NBA) career with the Cincinnati Royals, earning $33,000 his first year. From 1960 to 1967, Robertson also served in the United States Army with the rank of Private first class.

In his first season, 1960–1961, Robertson finished third in the league in scoring with an average of 30.5 points per game. He also won NBA Rookie of the Year honors, and was named the All-Star Game Most Valuable Player (MVP) after scoring 23 points and making a record 14 assists. Robertson's second year was even more spectacular: he became the only player in NBA history to average a "triple-double"—double-digit averages in scoring (30.8), rebounds (12.5), and assists (11.4)—for an entire season.

The 1963–1964 season was another banner year for Robertson. He earned both regular-season and All-Star MVP honors, cementing his place as one of the NBA's dominant players. No other player excelled in as many categories as Robertson did. Sports fans marveled at his intense work ethic and hard-nosed play. New York Knicks guard Dick Barnett once said, "If you give him a twelve-foot shot, he'll work on you until he's got a ten-foot shot. Give him six, he wants four. Give him two feet and you know what he wants? That's right, man, a layup." Over his first five seasons (384 games), Robertson averaged a cumulative triple-double (30.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 10.6 assists), an amazing series of averages.

In 1970 Robertson, who was president of the players' union from 1963 to 1974, filed an antitrust suit against the league to stall the proposed merger of the NBA and the American Basketball Association. He challenged not only the legality of the merger, but also the legitimacy of the college draft and the NBA's prohibition against free agency. Six years elapsed before the NBA finally settled the case, and by then the leagues merged and the draft remained intact. Drafted players won the right, however, to ignore their prospective employers for a year and reenter the draft. In addition, teams were no longer required to provide compensation when signing a free agent. This allowed more players to negotiate as free agents and eventually led to higher salaries for all players.

In the 1970–1971 season, the Royals stunned the basketball world by trading Robertson to the Milwaukee Bucks. Rumors flew that the Royals coach Bob Cousy instigated the trade out of jealousy that Robertson had broken all of his records. A more likely reason, however, was Robertson's search for a championship.

The move to the Bucks was the right one. Robertson and teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Bucks to the NBA title in the 1970–1971 season. Robertson played three more years with the Bucks, but managed to get to the playoffs only in his last season. The classic contest, which pitted Milwaukee against Boston, stretched over seven games before Boston sealed its fifteen-point victory.

Robertson left the NBA in 1974 with 26,710 points, 9,887 assists, and 7,804 rebounds, which he collected in 1,040 games. He shot .485 from the field and .838 from the line. In 86 playoff games, Robertson averaged 22.2 points, 8.9 assists, and 6.7 rebounds. He made 12 consecutive trips to the All-Star game, and led the league in assists 6 times and in free-throw percentages twice. His team made the playoffs in 10 of his 14 years in the league. With superior offensive and defensive skills, he single-handedly redefined the role of the guard position and was considered the first "big guard" in the game.

Since Robertson's retirement from basketball he has worked as a broadcaster and served as president of the retired players association. He also served as national director of the Basketball Hall of Fame from 1987–1989. Married to Yvonne Crittenden Robertson since 25 June 1960, Robertson is the father of three daughters; in 1997 he donated a kidney to one daughter who was suffering from lupus to save her life. Robertson wrote The Art of Basketball : A Guide to Self-Improvement in the Fundamentals of the Game (1998), with Michael O'Daniel. In 2001, Robertson ran five companies, with interests in chemicals, packaging, media, and real estate.

Robertson has taught and mentored hundreds of youngsters through various organizations. He also became involved in numerous charitable and community activities, including the NBA Legends Foundation, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), American Red Cross, American Cancer Society, Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the National Lupus Foundation, and the National Kidney Foundation, for whom he acts as an advocate for organ donation.

Whenever basketball discussions turn to naming the greatest player in history, Robertson's name is always one of the first to be mentioned. Sports Illustrated and ESPN listed him as one of the greatest athletes of the twentieth century. Red Auerbach, former coach of the Boston Celtics, rated him as the most versatile player he had ever seen on a basketball court, and most basketball experts agree. In 1998 the United States Basketball Writers renamed their Player of the Year Award the Oscar Robertson Trophy in his honor.

Biographical information on Robertson can be found in David L. Porter, African-American Sports Greats: A Biographical Dictionary (1995); and Bert Randolph Sugar, The 100 Greatest Athletes of All Time: A Sports Editor's Personal Ranking (1995). A useful website is <>. Biographies for young readers include Les Etter, Basketball Superstars: Three Great Pros (1974), and Joel H. Cohen, Oscar Robertson (2001).

Johnnieque B. Lovem

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