Oscar Robertson: Why He’s the Best Ever, 1968

[The basketball magazines of the 1960s ran lots of articles about Oscar Robertson and his high place in the game’s pantheon of stars. Here’s another one, and it’s an interesting read from 1968 that names Robertson as the greatest of them all. But it’s not the writer doing the naming. It’s some of the game’s former greats, all of whom are highly respected. The article, which had no byline, ran in the Pro Basketball Almanac. Here’s to the Big O!]

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Choosing the greatest basketball player of all time sounds like a formidable task—and so it is. But there is one way to make a judgment, a way that isn’t easily done in other sports. 

Basketball has come alive only in the last two decades—nobody can seriously argue that. And it is in the last 20 years that the greatest basketball players ever developed came along. So that makes a solid basis for an accurate evaluation as to the best player ever. And what better method for a selection than going to some of the greatest former pros, the men who played from the Mikan-Pollard-Mikkelsen era in the early ‘50s, down through the Russell-Chamberlain-Baylor-Robertson era of the 60s?

We did just that, we talked to such former stars as Bill Sharman, Richie Guerin, Jack McMahon, Gene Shue, K.C. Jones, Al Bianchi, Dolph Schayes, and Tom Gola. And they told us, almost without a dissenting word, that Oscar Robertson is the best ever. 

Remember, too, these are men who played with Oscar, who played against him, coached him, marveled at him. They are looking beyond the statistics, even though Oscar’s stats are super (a lifetime scoring average of 30.4, second only to Wilt Chamberlain; a 10.7 assist-per-game mark that tops the list; and a 9.4 rebounds-per-game record that is unmatched by any other guard in the history of the league over a comparable period).

But it’s more than that. Former Boston Celtic sharp-shooter Bill Sharman, eight times an All-Star, calls Oscar “the most-complete player the game has ever known.” Says Bill: “As great a force as Bill Russell is defensively and Wilt Chamberlain is offensively, they just can’t be considered complete players. Their very height, which helps to make them these fantastic forces, goes against them when picking the best ever. Their size makes it impossible for them to develop their dribbling and ballhandling skills to the extent that a more-competent player like Oscar can. 

“On the other hand, I’d like to consider Cousy among the best ever; but again, the difference between “Cooz” and Oscar is size. Oscar has the perfect build at 6-foot-5, 205, and can go up front and get that rebound. Cousy, who could do everything else, was only 6-foot-1, 180, and because of his size, couldn’t go to the board. 

“I break it down to five categories when judging a player,” explained Sharman. “Shooting, passing, rebounding, dribbling, and defense. Oscar has no weakness in any of them. In fact, he excels in each individual category. How can you beat that?”

Richie Guerin, the recently retired player-coach of the St. Louis Hawks who has bumped heads with Robertson often enough to know, insists that Oscar can score at will. “He can get off a shot—and I mean a good shot—anytime he wants to,” said Guerin in awe. 

Jack McMahon, one of the finest guards in the league from 1952 to 1960, who had coached Robertson for the last four years in Cincinnati, agrees with Guerin, but puts it this way: “What makes Oscar the best ever is that he can get to the spot he wants on the floor, at the moment he wants to get there, for the shot he wants to take, and can do it better than anybody who ever played the game. And when he takes that shot, he’ll make it.

“Another thing. It just doesn’t occur to Oscar that someone can take the ball from him. In fact, they can’t. Oscar is deadly from about 18 feet on in. But when he gets to 18 feet, he wants the foul line, then 10 feet, and he keeps right on moving in until he forces a double-teaming situation and gets off the pass or the shot he can’t miss.”

An All-Star for five consecutive seasons with the Detroit Pistons and a 10-year NBA veteran who retired after the ’63-64 season, Baltimore Bullet coach Gene Shue thinks of two men as the best ever. “To me, the top two are (Elgin) Baylor and Robertson. Oscar has the edge in passing, dribbling, and shooting. Elg off the board. If I must pick one, I pick Oscar. But who’s to say that Elgin wouldn’t be as good if he played backcourt?”

K.C. Jones, who carved a career out of guarding the most-dangerous backcourters in basketball, retired at the end of last season to take over the coaching reins at Brandeis University. Says K.C., “One-on-one, Oscar is the best I’ve ever seen. And that’s the idea of the game: to isolate your man and beat him. Then you’ve got a free shot or you’ve forced a double-team, opening up a teammate for an easy basket. And Oscar is the deadliest shooter and the top passer in this situation. That’s why he’s the best.”

Al Bianchi, who made a living for 10 years in the NBA as the “other” guard (the steady guy who doesn’t score too much, but covers the opposition’s big threat), claims there is just no way to stop Oscar. “Don’t get him mad,” cautions Bianchi, head coach of the NBA’s new expansion club in Seattle. “Last year at Chicago, Jerry Sloan blocked one of Oz’s shots, and he began to steam. Suddenly, Oscar wasn’t dribbling anymore. He was pounding the ball into the floor like a piledriver and moving deliberately toward the basket, time after time, pouring through point after point. I never used to get him mad when I played him. 

“Now, I’ve got a standing order on my club. When Oscar’s mad and starts for the basket, I want the three nearest guys to forget their own men and help out. Don’t let him get a streak going. Make him give up the ball. It has to be better for you in the long run.”

Dolph Schayes, 12 times an All-Pro selection with the Syracuse Nationals and a 16-year veteran of pro ball, played against Minneapolis Laker aces George Mikan and Jim Pollard in the early ‘50s, and against St. Louis great Bob Pettit into the ‘60s. “Mikan was named ‘The Greatest Player of the First Half Century in Basketball,’ and deservedly so,” said Schayes, currently the NBA’s supervisor of officials. “But George was strictly a pivot man. Pollard was a really great all-round player who could do everything, but Oscar is a better shooter and passer than Jim was.

As for Pettit, he was a fabulous shooter and rebounder. At 6-foot-9, he moved, passed, and ballhandled more than adequately for a big man, but you just can’t do those things as well as a man 6-foot-5, like Oscar, even if you do them superbly for a forward.” That criticism would probably also apply to the 6-foot-8 Schayes himself, who is also considered to be one of the finest and most-complete talents in the game’s history. 

“If Oscar just concentrated on scoring,” Dolph continued, “he’d lead the league every year. If he just concentrated on playmaking, he’d own all the assist records. And if he were put in the corner and told to play the boards, he’d probably be the fourth best rebounder in the league next to the giants—Chamberlain, Russell, and Thurmond. And if he just concentrated on defense, his quickness, reflexes, and long arms would put him on a par with the tops. That’s why Oscar’s the best—he can do everything better than anyone who ever played the game.”

From another vantage point, sportscaster Jack Twyman, a perennial All-Star and a teammate of Robertson’s for six years, sees Robertson in other way. “That Oscar has mastered every facet of the game is universally acknowledged,” says Twyman. “But Oscar does more. Oscar moves the ball, and he makes everybody else move with him. If you move without the ball and get free for your shot, even for an instant, Oscar will get the ball to you. It’s almost impossible to defend against a team that moves, and he makes any team move. Besides his own obvious assets, his style of play maximizes the abilities of his teammates.”

Former Knick and Philadelphia Warrior star Tom Gola, now in the Pennsylvania legislature, stumps for Robertson along similar lines. “He’s won every Stokes charity game in the mountains and every All-Star game but the last one. Whoever plays with Oscar is a winner. Oscar controls the game. Check the records. You’ll see.”

The All-Star records do back up Gola’s claim. In the 1961 game, Robertson led the West to a 153-131 victory over a heavily favored East squad that featured both Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Oscar scored 23 points, picked up 14 assists, and grabbed nine rebounds en route to the Most Valuable Player award. The following year, the circumstances were the same, and Robertson again led a 150-130 rout, this time with 26 points, 13 assists, and seven rebounds. 

Then in 1963, the Philadelphia Warriors moved West to San Francisco, and the Royals were shifted into the Eastern Division to rebalance the league geographically. And dramatically, with Oscar now on the East squad and with Chamberlain in the West, the East ripped off three straight All-Star victories, emphasizing Gola’s point that the balance of power swings with Robertson. 

Consistency is yet another of Oscar’s countless basketball virtues. He rarely hits for 45 points one night and 15 the next. Oscar is always around the 30-point mark, and his playmaking and rebounding figures are always close to his career norm. Even during the playoffs, which tend to set the adrenaline flowing and force some players to play over their heads (and which also tend to choke off the individual brilliance of others under the intense pressure), Robertson rolls merrily along playing his game, scoring his 30 and forcing the opposition to face up to the inexorable pressure his machine-like precision and consistency applies. 

Says a long-time basketball expert, “If Oscar walked into your neighborhood playground for a pick-up game, he’d probably get his 30 and not much more. He’s the most consistent star ever.”

What makes Robertson the best ever? The consensus seems to indicate that it is his perfect build, which gives him the strength and power of a big man and enables him to retain the agility and dexterity of a little man. Then, it is Oscar’s mastery of each of those skills that make up the perfect basketball player more completely than anyone ever has before. And finally, it is his determination and tough-mindedness, combined with that basic unselfishness of his play, that enables him to make the maximum use of those skills. 

But perhaps the best summation is Tom Gola’s: “No matter who he’s playing with or who he’s  playing against, Oscar controls the game. Oscar makes the difference. Oscar is the best ever!”  

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