[Jerry Izenberg spent more than a half century writing about sports for at Newark Star-Ledger. In between his newspaper deadlines, Izenberg wrote many excellent magazine articles, including this one pulled from Complete Sports’ 1964 Basketball Preview. Here, Izenberg starts from the conclusion that everybody knows Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson are the two greatest basketball players alive. Which one is better?
Spoiler alert: Robertson takes home the prize. Here’s why, according Izenberg with lots of help from his NBA friends.]
Number 14 hangs his street clothes in a modest locker at 2250 Seymour Avenue in Cincinnati, Ohio. Number 14 is quiet and self-effacing and reasonably kind to animals. Number 14 is 25 years old, and he can do things with a basketball which run the gamut from gaudy to downright frightening. Given enough chances, Number 14 is going to find a way to beat you.
Number 14’s name is Oscar Robertson, and he is the best basketball player in the civilized world. Now, that covers a lot of territory—but so does professional basketball. Once upon a time, the guy with the hot hand was the guy who scored 10 points. Once upon a time, a road trip meant six guys in a snow-bound auto, and, once upon a time, basketball was a dance hall kind of thing.
That was once upon a time. Today the guy who scores 10 points is just another line of agate type; basketball players travel from coast to coast aboard super jets, and professional basketball has moved out of the dance hall.
This, too, is part of Oscar Robertson’s story because it was the superstars who triggered this move. It is also the superstars who keep it alive.
Once there were the Mikans and Cousys. Now there are the Russells, Chamberlains, and Pettits. But talk to the men who coach and play this game, and they will tell you that mostly there is Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor. Talk to them long enough, and you will come away with this conclusion.
The margin is a little fatter than an eyelash between the two, and the debate over which player is better can turn as violent as a session in the pivot; but Oscar Robertson of the Cincinnati Royals is the man who owns this game.
One hot summer afternoon, Eddie Donovan, coach of the New York Knickerbockers, sat in his Madison Square Garden office and watched Oscar Robertson destroy the Knicks. Only the metallic whirr of the motion picture projector cut through the humid silence as Oscar soared, glided, and pirouetted across the big white screen.
“He kills us,” Donovan said.
“Who doesn’t?” the visitor asked.
“No, that isn’t what I mean. You look at the films, and you see that Oscar has done this and this and this. Then you run ‘em again 20 minutes later, and you find 10 things you didn’t see the first time. You could run them a third time and find something else.”
Things being what they are, he did not run them again.
“I break it down this way. Points? Scoring? Well, you have to give that to Elgin on strength alone. But Elgin needs a Jerry West to start the thing. Who does Oscar need? Nobody. I don’t mean that as a rap because now we are not talking about good basketball players or even great ones. We are talking about the greatest.
“Oscar controls the game and everything in it. He has made a couple of players on his team six to eight points better a game, and he gets his own points at the same time. He gets his assists, too. He simply gets more things done than Baylor does. He gets more things done than anybody else for that matter.
“And with it all, he is an amazing shooter. I know this sounds incredible,” Donovan added, “but I am convinced that Oscar Robertson can take any shot anytime he wants it. If he knows it is up to him, he will get that shot and it will wind up being the shot he wants. He is going to beat you.
“He is simply more basketball player than anybody else around, and he can beat you with or without the ball. Another thing, you have to give him the edge because he plays both ends of the floor. He always takes the guy with the hot hand.
“Now, I know,” Donovan added, “this does not come from the bench. It is the way he wants it to be. And the guy does not have to be a guard. When Willie Naulls was playing the corner for us and he got hot against Cincy, Oscar wound up taking him, too.”
Dolph Schayes develops this thesis even further. Schayes knows all about this business because he was something of a superstar himself with the Syracuse Nats. Now the team has moved to Philadelphia, and he is going to coach it. He gave up being awed roughly a million dribbles ago.
“You watch Oscar in the early stages of a ball game, and it looks like he isn’t doing anything; and if you’re sitting up in the stands, you have to be saying that someone is doing a hell of a defensive job on him.
“But it isn’t so. He just isn’t shooting. He never shoots in the beginning of the ballgame because he is busy controlling the tempo. But he does a job. You could put him with four kids, and he’d make basketball players out of them and get his own points in the process.
“Look what happened at Cincinnati. They had the worst team in the NBA, and Oscar came along and now they are a contender. There are players on that team he made stars out of, and they were just average basketball players.
“If you want to compare him with Baylor, look at it this way. Elgin is a great individual athlete with an unstoppable shot. But Oscar, he’s the team. He is definitely the most complete basketball player I have ever seen in my life.”
With the score tied in the final game of the Syracuse-Cincinnati playoff game last year, the Nats had the ball with four seconds to play. “I was on the bench,” Schayes recalled, “and we were setting up, and I said to myself that if we don’t make this basket, it is all over because Oscar is going to kill us in the overtime.
“So we didn’t—and he did. That’s what he will do to you if he gets the chance. The thing is that you know it all the time.”
Elgin Baylor is the greatest one-on-one scoring threat in the league. When he gets the ball, he goes for the basket and, if you want to go with him, you do so at your own risk because Elgin weighs 230 pounds. He does not believe in peaceful coexistence.
Because Baylor is so strong and so adept at this maneuver, you do not think of Oscar Robertson in these terms. You do not—but you should. “You better,” Schayes said. “But you know, seriously, he can do so much to you. He will rebound at both ends of the court. He will pass better than anybody else in the game, and he’ll score just what he needs to score. That’s a lot more things than Elgin can do. For me, it has to be Oscar in that kind of contest.”
Carl Braun has seen them all—first as a player, then as a coach, and now as a spectator. In assessing the Baylor-Robertson vendetta, he perhaps says it better than anybody else when he explains the difference.
“Elgin gets the help. They give him the picks, they play to him. Oscar gets his team to run. He will beat his man one-on-one. If they switch off, he will hit the free man. In the meantime, he will get 25 points and 11 assists and 11 rebounds. Now Cousy couldn’t rebound that way because his size was against him.
“And consider that all the while, Oscar is bringing the ball down. If they start to press, Oscar is the guy who has to beat that press. He cannot score the way Elgin can—nobody can—but he can do this . . . he can take Wayne Embry and Jack Twyman and make them so much better.”
Braun remembers the way it was in his final year with the Celts. He remembers that in a man-for-man matchup, Wayne Embry couldn’t beat Bill Russell without the aid of an axe. But he also remembers that when Oscar shot by his man, Russell had to come over to help out.
Bang—there was Oscar slipping that needle pass off to Embry, who was all alone for that 10 or 12-footer. “But if Oscar doesn’t make Russell move,” Braun explains, “forget it.”
Then there is Jack Twyman, who can shoot the eyes out of the basket but cannot freeze the calendar. Twyman is 29 years old, and, when the ball goes up now, Jack starts to sneak. “He is halfway down the floor,” Braun said, “when it comes down, and he knows that Oscar is going to get it to him. How many points do you think that means a ball game?”
The men who play this game for money do not palpitate over college box scores. Nor do they think that it means very much to be an All-America. Professional basketball is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of war. They have to be shown.
“The first time I saw Oscar Robertson,” Braun recalled, “he was playing for the University of Cincinnati, and I was there to scout a kid named Ralph Davis. We knew Oscar was gone in the territorial draft, but Davis had a big reputation and I flew down to Cincy to look him over. I’ll admit, I was awfully curious about Oscar too.”
Cincinnati was playing North Texas State that night, and Oscar scores something like 30 points. Braun said something like “that’s nice.” He said this because North Texas State was not exactly the toughest college basketball team in the country.
“They had some kid playing Oscar and when he came busting down the middle, it was almost like the kid played him apologetically. He just stepped aside.”
“What,” a visitor wondered, “was your impression?”
“My impression,” Braun laughed, “was that I wanted to see what happened the first time he came down the court that way in the pros and he got rapped. I wanted to see him come against a [Richie] Guerin, who would belt him and say, “Time out, buddy.”
That summer, Carl Braun saw him against a pro. He did not see him against Richie Guerin. He saw him against Carl Braun. It was at Kutsher’s Country Club in the Catskills, and the pros were playing their annual benefit game for Maurice Stokes.
“I was starting to play like an old man by then,” he recalled, “but I wanted to see. Oscar doesn’t look strong and, the first time he came down the court with the ball, I tried to force him over to the corner with my body.”
“Nothing,” Braun said. “Nothing. He just kept coming. I began to believe a little then.”
The pro-Robertson people in this controversy make much more out of Oscar’s ability to rebound. Naturally, he is not going to come out ahead of Baylor in that department. Elgin plays the corner. He is heavier by some 20-odd pounds, and his raw strength is positively intimidating.
But when it comes to rebounding, Oscar Robertson gets his share—which is considerably more than any backcourt man has a right to get. “Remember,” Braun pointed out, “that a lot of effort goes into those rebounds because Oscar doesn’t get around the hole that often. But he gets them. So, you’d have to say that Baylor is a better scorer and a better rebounder, but Oscar is still fantastic in both those departments and look what else is going to do for you.
“I’ll take Oscar, but it’s still a DiMaggio vs. Williams argument. Who is going to turn down either guy?”
There is yet another factor in this controversy. The gap is wafer-thin now, but it is going to widen. Oscar is three years younger, and, in a game of coast-to-coast traveling and stop-and-go running, this is no small advantage.
Secondly, Oscar is going to widen that gap by taking a page from Baylor’s own book. Never before had there been a concentrated competitor like Elgin Baylor. His intense desire and his magnificent physical equipment made him the best stretch player in basketball.
Slowly, but steadily, that aggression has worn off on Oscar Robertson. Today, he is far more of a “give-me-the-ball-I’ll-do-it“ performer than ever before. Like Baylor, he has learned to do more in the last six minutes of a ballgame. When you blend that with his amazing assortment of skills, you have the answer to the complex composition of greatness.
In college, there were so many nights when Oscar Robertson simply did not want to shoot the ball. You remember a night in Madison Square Garden when the University of Cincinnati was locked in a pressure cooker with Iowa in the Holiday Festival final.
As always, Robertson had moved the club. He threw the needle passes. He engineered the fastbreak, and he shot very little. Then, suddenly he realized that Iowa was winning the ballgame. Just before halftime, Oscar shrugged and went to work. He shot from the outside. When they came up on him, he drove for the basket. Oscar went to the free throw line and, in the space of a few minutes, he took the heart right out of a fine Iowa team. By intermission, the Hawkeyes were mortally wounded, and Sharm Sheurman, the fine young coach, was looking for someone to explain what hit him.
In the second half, with the game and the championship won, Oscar Robertson hung back, made the passes, and ran the ballclub. You left the Garden with the feeling that, if he wasn’t a modest fellow, he could have scored 70 points.
It has taken a while for Robertson to shed that habit. This season, he will score more. He will do all the old things, but he will still get more points because now he has tailored Baylor’s intense point making philosophy to his own needs.
The gap between the two superstars will start to widen.
Oscar Robertson is king of the hill, Dick McGuire says: “Robertson is better than Cousy ever was.” Wilt Chamberlain says: “If I had the pick of all the players in the league, I would take Oscar.” And Dolph Schayes says: “He is the most complete basketball player ever.
“Of course,” Schayes adds, “if I could get any one player in the league today, I’d have to take Bill Russell. “
But that’s yet another story.