Oscar Robertson: Why the Big O’s the Perfect Pro, 1968

[Basketball magazines of the 1960s ran lots of articles explaining exactly why Oscar Robertson was the greatest pro of them all. The blog has already run a few of them. Here’s another one, and this article from journalist Sam Goldwater is pretty well done. It ran in Sports Review’s 1967-68 Basketball Annual.]

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In professional basketball, Oscar Robertson is what they call a made-to-order player. But that is hardly the best way to describe the man who is the most-complete and effective basketball-playing machine of all time. 

It might better be done artistically. For argument sake, if a sculptor was asked to lump together into one composite form all the elements that make a perfect basketball player, he would get no less than Oscar Palmer Robertson, the Cincinnati Royals’ court magician. 

The said sculptor would never have needed to see Oscar play. He would just have to listen to descriptions by Robertson’s former teammate Jack Twyman, former Boston Celtics star Bob Cousy, New York Knickerbocker general manager Eddie Donovan, and Red Auerbach, the front office boss of the Boston Celtics. 

They would tell him that his shooting touch is second to none. That it was an inborn talent, similar to a football player’s broken-field shiftiness, a boxer’s ability to take a punch, or a pitcher’s strong arm. 

“There is nothing this clever player can’t do,” Auerbach said. “No one comes close to him or has the ability to break open a game as does Oscar. He’s so great, he scares me. He can beat you all by himself—and usually does.”

Twyman would add that Robertson’s body control is even more amazing than his shooting touch. “You can’t stereotype him,” said Twyman, who has traded his basketball sneakers for a TV microphone. “Whatever is needed at the time against a particular opposition, comes out, because he has complete physical control of his body. It’s not any one thing, it’s his overall completeness that amazes you. 

“Basketball is a game of feints and fakes, and advantages are gained in the first step past an opponent. Oscar is the one who can keep his balance to an exceptional degree, can change direction in midair, and can coordinate his lightning-like reflexes. 

“It would be hard to say he still improves with every game because he’s so good to begin with. But on any given night, he can always show something new, something different.”

That, Oscar has done as one of the most-heralded high school players at Christus Attucks High School in Indianapolis; for three years as an All-America at the University of Cincinnati; in leading the United States 1960 basketball team to the Olympic gold medal, and for seven seasons in the National Basketball Association. 

In high school, Oscar was fabulous as he turned his team into a bunch of phenoms, who won 45 games in a row. It was the first time an Indianapolis school won the state title and the first Black school to perform and repeat as champions.  

At the University of Cincinnati, he remained peerless in an era boasting a fine crop of players. In his freshman season, he averaged 33.8 points per game. Then, during his next three varsity years, the Bearcats won 79 of 87 games, while Oscar established 13 individual NCAA records. 

One of his greatest nights was a record 56-point performance in the Holiday Festival Tournament against Seton Hall and in the best place for such a display of scoring wizardry—New York City’s Madison Square Garden. 

Oscar’s smooth and effortless manner of play, his deliverance of the ball with the simplest flick to the open man, plus his uncanny scoring feats, brought the University of Cincinnati fans flocking. The Bearcats drew 800,159 during his collegiate stay. 

Robertson did much of the same for the Royals. When Oscar was a Bearcat senior, the Cincinnati Royals drew 58,244 customers to some 30 home games. In his 1960-61 freshman pro season, when he averaged 30.5 points per game, the Royals’ attendance jumped to 207,020. 

One hot summer afternoon when general manager Eddie Donovan was still the Knickerbocker coach, he sat around his Madison Square Garden office and watched Robertson destroy his Knicks—on film. “He kills us,” Donovan said. “You look at the films and you see that Oscar has done this, this, and this, then you re-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. 

“Oscar controls the game and everything in it,” added Donovan. “He has made a couple of players on his team six to eight points better a game, and he gets in his own points at the same time. He’s simply more basketball player than anybody around, and he can beat you with or without the ball.”

Added to all these accolades is consistency. Last season, his seventh with the Royals, Oscar poured in 2,412 points for a 30.5 average, second in the NBA to San Francisco’s Rick Barry. He was fourth in field goal percentage (.493) and free throw percentage (.873), and second in assists with a 10.7 norm. These figures vary only slightly from his career marks. 

“You watch Robertson in the early stages of the game,” said Dolph Schayes, who once tallied 19,249 points in 16 pro seasons (third best all-time) “and it looks like he isn’t doing anything out there. Actually, to the average fan in the stands, they have to be thinking that someone is doing a helluva defensive job on him. 

“Forget it. It just isn’t so. He just isn’t shooting. He never shoots in the beginning of a ball game because he is busy controlling the tempo.”

Comparison is a sports fan’s delight. When the basketball fans saw the likes of Robertson come along, the natural thing was for them to compare him to Bob Cousy, the retired all-time playmaker of the NBA. 

Robertson broke into the NBA, winning Rookie of the Year honors. Then, when he was named Most Valuable Player by a vote of his fellow athletes, the shouts of comparison—Cousy vs. Robertson—started.

With an assortment of fullcourt, blind and behind-the-back passes, Cousy was the master of setting up a play. Although he was not a scorer to the degree Robertson is, Cousy’s 16,955 points in 13 pro seasons ranks him fourth in NBA career totals. He also had 6,949 assists, leading the league in that category for eight straight years over one stretch. 

“There are always attempts to compare Oscar and me,” said Cousy. “There’s no yardstick. We don’t play the same kind of game. Oscar does more things than I ever did because of a superior height. In my playing days,” added the Boston College coach, “I could do things perhaps he never can. It holds true both ways. 

“I will say this, Oscar is the best backcourt man to come into the league since I’ve been playing. In fact, I think he’s probably the best all-around player in the game right now.”

“Robertson is the only guy I’ve ever seen who can go under the basket and make a layup on Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain,” said Tom Gola during his playing days with the Knicks. 

“Robertson is better than Cousy ever was,” Wilt Chamberlain has often said. 

“Yes, Oscar is the greatest,” said Red Auerbach. “And, I don’t mean to shortchange Bob Cousy, who played brilliantly for me. It’s not because Oscar is still playing and Cousy is not. Robertson has it all. I don’t visualize anyone coming along for years who would be able to supplant or pass him. He’s a dominant figure at his position.”

Auerbach once asked to draw up a rating sheet on Robertson, turned in this one. 

SHOOTING—A great shooter. He has beautiful form and balance, strength, and follow-through. 

DRIBBLING—He has complete control of the ball at all times. This control enables him to keep his head up and watch everything that develops around him. 

REBOUNDING—The key, of course, is his strength. He can help place smaller men going for the ball. And he can outmaneuver the bigger ones going to the boards. 

VISION—His is great. He knows where everyone is and what they are doing all the time. He has amazing perception and knowledge of the game. What’s more, he takes quick advantage of what he sees. 

DEFENSE—Oscar has a great feel for the game. He knows the man he’s guarding and what he’s asked to do before he does it. He’s seldom fooled—and then he recovers quickly. 

BODY CONTROL—His feints and fakes are something to watch. He uses his arms, head, hips, everything at his command. In an instant, he can take advantage of anyone’s mistake. And if he can fool you, he’ll kill you. 

What it all amounts to is that Oscar Palmer Robertson makes a beautiful picture on the basketball floor—perhaps, even more than Dr. James Naismith thought possible when he knocked the bottoms out of a couple of Peach baskets some 75 years ago. 

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