[In his fantastic book, The Champion Bucks, journalist John Devaney describes Oscar Robertson walking off the court on April 30, 1971 after winning his first NBA title as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks:
“Oscar trotted down the long hallway smiling in a self-conscious way, looking at the floor, immensely pleased, yet unwilling to show all of his pleasure, leaking out only a part of it, as is his custom. He was coming off the court in the [Baltimore] Civic Center, where he and the other Bucks had won the NBA championship, sweeping the Bullets in four games. He was letting out shrill yips—yow! yow!—knowing he was supposed to be exultant, but this is not the way he is at all., and he was doing it in the shy manner of an amateur actor playing a role. I wondered when was the last time he had yelled like this after a victory. Knowing Oscar, I thought it might have been some time in grammar school.
In this article, published in the 1970 Pro Basketball Almanac, the Big O is still marooned in fifth-place Cincinnati with no reason to imagine ever letting out a yip or a yow. The mood captured by sportswriter Raymond Hill, then associate editor at SPORT Magazine, is mostly downbeat, a reflection on NBA greatness seemingly destined never to wear a championship ring. It’s a harsh reality that so many NBA stars through the decades have stared down. Lucky for Robertson, a call from Milwaukee offering a chance to team with the young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would be coming relatively soon.
It has become a generally accepted fact among experts that Oscar Robertson of the Cincinnati Royals is the finest all-around basketball player in the history of the game.
Think about it. How many people can claim to be the greatest in history in something—in anything. It should be a great source of pride to Oscar. But if anything, it’s merely a consolation. Oscar is not a happy ballplayer, for above all, Oscar is a competitor who wants to, demands to, win. And he hasn’t won. He’s been in the National Basketball Association for nine years now and has never won a championship. He’s set a whole bunch of glittering individual records, but these, too, are only consolations. Oscar wants to win a championship.
Here’s the kind of competitor Oscar Robertson is. “If you give him a 12-foot shot, he’ll work on you until he’s got a 10-foot shot,” said Dick Barnett of the New York Knicks, a man often in the unfortunate position of having to guard the Big O. “Give him 10, and he wants eight. Give him eight, he wants six. Give him six, he wants four. Give him four, he wants two. Give him two, you know what he wants? That’s right, baby, a layup.”
In essence, Barnett’s message is that Oscar is never satisfied. But because he has had an inferior supporting cast, particularly at the critical center position, he’s had to be content all these years with finishing back in the pack and listening to all the kind things being said about him.
Like what a fleet Royal rookie named Gary Gray said after he tried to guard him in a preseason inter-squad scrimmage. Oscar was supposed to be out of shape—”He looked a little soft,” said one spectator. “He looked like a bullfrog, in fact. Unk-unk-unk.” But after an hour, it was fleet rookie Gray going unk-unk-unk. “I couldn’t say I guarded Oscar,” Gray gasped. “I kind of watched him.”
Writer Ed Linn put it this way, “What impresses you about Oscar when you are watching him from floor level is the ease and rhythm with which he moves. His style is to change speeds, to fake and feint, to move in bursts. Watching him from above, there seems to be jerkiness in his movements. It is only from the floor that you can see the smoothness with which he operates. He never seems at all to be rushed. Never seems to hurry, never seems ruffled. He starts to drive in, finds himself in a pack of three opposing players and, without seeming to blink his eyes, amid all that arm-waving, he just bends his head way over and bounces the ball through all those legs to (teammate Jerry) Lucas for the basket.”
Oscar’s gliding moves and sure ballhandling have made him the foremost playmaker in the NBA. In a moment of self-analysis, he says, “. . . A playmaker has to create situations. A lot of guys have the ability to be good playmakers, but they don’t force the ball in.” No one forces the ball in more effectively than Oscar. He led the league in assists last year with 772, and is second only to Milwaukee’s Guy Rodgers in lifetime assists by an active NBA player.
And, of course, Oscar is a magnificent shooter. He finished the 1968-69 season with a total of 20,261 career points, making him the third-highest scorer in league history. Only Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor have produced more points than he, and they are bigger and stronger men. Oscar’s no weakling, but he depends more on agility and deception to put the ball in the basket. Says Jerry Lucas, Cincinnati’s star forward: “Oscar has such absolute control of the ball and his body that he can put a defender where he wants to with a fake, and, if he can’t, he’s so strong that he can muscle his way by him. Even if a big man covers him under the basket, he can get him going up and down with head and shoulder fakes, so that Oscar is finally going up while the other guy’s coming down . . . If Oscar ever really sets out to see how many points he could score in a single game, there’s no telling how high he can go.”
One of the most remarkable things about Robertson is his almost complete domination of any game in which he plays. With his size (6-feet-5, 200 pounds) and his moves, he combines the best of the big and small player. And at age 31, he seems to be getting better. “He’s like vintage wine,” says one of Oscar’s biggest fans, Bill Russell. “He gets better with age.”
But there are two Big O’s. Over his years as the pros’ finest individual, the public has become increasingly aware of the disparity between the dedicated superstar who gives his best for 48 minutes a game and the often unsatisfied, off-the-court Oscar.
One problem is his superstar status. A few of his teammates accuse him of showboating, but the statistics clearly show that the Royals are respectable only when he is in the lineup.
One rival coach once said that he thought Oscar handled the ball too much, but another coach replied, “Who would you rather have handling the ball for you?” Meanwhile, some people think Oscar has grown weary of all the talk—and the frustration of not ever being part of a championship team—and has sort of withdrawn within himself. Says his wife Yvonne, “He doesn’t voice these things, even to me. But I have the impression that he is competing against himself now, even more than against another player or a team. Just to see how much better he can be, how he can do something a little differently and still do it well.”
Robertson has been a center of attention since his days at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, then a three-time All-America at the University of Cincinnati. But only after he signed with the Royals in 1960, did he expect to reap great material gains from his fame, and over the past nine years, he and the Cincinnati administrators have fought a running battle over his salary. He has stated: “When I get 30 points, 10 assists, and 10 rebounds . . . they say, ‘Oscar played his usual game.’ But if that’s my usual game, let them pay me for it.” And: “I’m a professional. I’ve been indoctrinated. I play for the money. If the money is not there, I will not play.” And: “If they cannot afford to pay me, they should trade me.” Robertson has been getting pay hikes, but he has had to threaten to sit out a season or hint at a jump to the American Basketball Association to prod the Royals. The attitude of the Royal front office has been one of, “You’ll get your salary demands met when and if the team captures a championship,” which, of course, is rubbing salt in an open wound.
“I’m getting used to having them say it is my fault they’re not winning,” is a weary retort. “They’ve said a lot of things about me . . . that I never won the big game for them.”
Make no mistake; Robertson is no pauper. But he makes militant money demands because he feels he has been slighted in other areas of income usually open for pro athletes. He does not, for an instance, receive the same number of offers to plug products that other players do. He feels he has missed opportunities because he is Black. “You sign up the guy who’s doing the job; that’s the way sports are supposed to be,” says the Big O on the subject of advertisers’ preference for white athletes. “You take the guy at the top or you take the one who is very popular or colorful. But to ask for the white player just to have someone white, I think that knocks everything that I stand for.”
Oscar Robertson is a complex man playing a complex game in complex times. He has mastered the game as no one ever has. He flows with the times. Himself? Oscar’s drive for perfection takes him through many moods. He is often introspective off the court. (“He’s somewhat within himself,” says Jerry Lucas.) On the court, he looks perpetually perturbed. “Most of the time I look mad,” explains the Big O, “it’s not anybody else I’m mad at, just myself. I know I should be doing better.”
Oscar wants more than anything to win. Winning—going all the way to an NBA title—would go a long way toward solving many of his problems and help ease the tension that comes to a superstar on a stumbling club. Winning would draw more people into the empty caverns of Cincinnati Gardens. Winning would add weight to his salary demands and perhaps bring the companies to his door begging for his endorsement of their products. “Winning is all that matters,” says the Big O. “As long as you win, that’s all people care about.”