This NBA Finals has been chased by history. There’s Kobe Bryant, and, inevitably, there are the comparisons with Michael Jordan and Bryant’s hunt for Jordan’s legacy. There’s Paul Pierce and the comparisons with the great Boston Celtics legends. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were brought together by the NBA before the series began to discuss the great Celtics-Lakers rivalries of the 1980’s. Images of Wilt, Kareem, Shaq, Russell, Cousy and Havlicek have hovered over the games, ghosts of the legendary past.
I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve watched the series. These teams have accounted for half the championships in the history of the NBA, produced most of the so called memorable moments, maybe even some left in the next week.
But as I watch these great players and recall their incredible basketball ancestors, I wish everyone could have seen more of the player whom I consider the most perfect in NBA history, Oscar Robertson.
I’m perhaps not the ultimate judge, though I was fortunate to have seen in person more of Jordan’s games than any journalist. I am old enough to have seen Wilt and Russell Sunday afternoons on TV and have seen the likes of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain in Madison Square Garden, near where I grew up.
That’s the good news compared with most of the fans today who missed that era. The bad news is they’ll likely live much longer. Yes, there’s always a but.
Everyone around sports is asked at one time or another about the best ever, and in basketball we generally agree it’s Jordan, the championships being the dividing line. Wilt was more dominant and his statistical achievements remain effectively out of reach. Of course, it’s impossible to compare between eras. Was Willie Mays better than Babe Ruth?
Was Joe Louis better than Muhammad Ali?
I recently spent some time talking with Robertson, who turns 70 later this year.
If I owned an NBA team, I’d hire him as team president or general manager because Robertson still knows the game as well as anyone I’ve spoken with in the last 30 years.
Not that Robertson even would accept. But the NBA should in some way acknowledge the effective blackballing of Robertson for his principal role in the labor action – the Oscar Robertson suit – that granted free agency to NBA players. Robertson even found himself forced off network TV after his career ended, in large part, because of his labor activity.
It seems difficult to believe that no one would ever give Robertson a chance to coach or run a team, something that just about all the great players in the game have done.
Yes, Robertson was an outspoken figure. But there are few people in the history of the game I’ve ever found who were both able to play the game to its highest level while also understanding how that is accomplished.
Sure, Robertson notices. He’s been the successful owner and CEO of his own chemical company in Cincinnati, married for almost 50 years, a devoted father who a decade ago donated a kidney to his daughter. He does some appearances for the NBA and the Basketball Hall of Fame, though always has remained more on the periphery, the name always mentioned when someone in today’s guard-dominated NBA achieves something.
Then it becomes something like, “The first since Oscar Roberston in…” Or Joins Oscar Roberston with…”
“Kobe, LeBron, they are very good players, no doubt,” says Robertson. “But they are what the ESPNs of the world are pushing all the time. It behooves them to push these guys. I understand. They’re always saying who is the greatest and asking guys who weren’t around and never saw guys play, like it all just began.
“I give them this. They make the guys seem so glamorous they seem so much better than everyone else,” says Robertson. “But here’s a guy (Chamberlain) who averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds. I averaged a triple double one season (Robertson averaged a triple double in his first five seasons combined). And while I’m also averaging 30 points (with only about 18 shots per game). Now guys get triple doubles with 10 points.
“There’s no question guys like Kobe, LeBron, Chris Paul could play against anybody,” Robertson continued. “But they’ve got guys averaging one or two points a game making $5 million. And some guys getting a million dollars who don’t even get in the game. And they think they deserve it.”
Robertson laughs at his own observation. He knows he can sound bitter, though he isn’t.
“I’m grateful for the life I have,” he says. “The family is doing fine. I’m working hard every day, going out and competing.”
Would he still like to in basketball?
“I never was given a chance to get involved in a managerial position,” Robertson observes. “Life goes on. But like an elephant, you never forget. You just bring up what happened and go on.”
It’s likely one reason Robertson never was fully embraced by the NBA establishment. He was always direct, and always black. And that combination wasn’t popular or acceptable for a long time.
Though not the first black player, Robertson perhaps was the most outspoken and active. He took on the players’ association presidency when most declined in the era of the game’s reserve clause and few rights for players. His wife marched at Selma. He regularly suffered through segregation and discrimination because of his color growing up in Indianapolis and playing ball in Cincinnati, both southern style cities. He believes he was ignored by Indiana U. for a scholarship, despite being the state’s Mr. Basketball, because “they had too many (blacks) on the team.”
He fought always and it led to eventually a trade from Cincinnati to Milwaukee, where he would get his one NBA championship, to a bitter parting there as well when he felt pushed out of the game because of age at 35 and the longtime effects around the NBA of his labor activity.
Through it all, he retained his dignity and pride, but most of all to me played the game as perfectly as it could be played.
Tim Duncan is now renowned for his fundamental play, but longtime observers of basketball will tell you no one was more fundamentally sound than Robertson, the ultimate quarterback in the ultimate team game.
Certainly, the statistics alone bear that out in his triple doubles, effectively accounting for more points per game than everyone but Chamberlain.
There wasn’t anything Robertson couldn’t do as well as any other player in the game, though in a time when dunking was considered an insult and flashy, individual play was frowned upon, Robertson was the most coolly efficient player of the game.
There’s a famous quote from Dick Barnett, who played on the early 1970’s Knicks’ title teams and against Robertson in high school when Robertson’s team won the first of its two state titles, that describes Roberston: “If you give Oscar a 12-foot shot, he’ll work you until he has a 10-foot shot. Give him 10, he wants eight. Give him eight, he wants six. four, two. Give him two, you know what he wants. Right, baby, a layup.”
Robertson knows there’s some old fogy in all the old guys. He laughs about shooting guard and point guard.
“A guy can’t do something, now they create a position for him,” he notes. “He can’t handle the ball so he’s a shooting guard.”
Robertson was just a guard. Oh, what a guard.
No, he didn’t get the championships, so he rarely gets into the discussion of the greatest. Though if you ask him his all-time team the guards are Jerry West and Robertson. His misfortune was to play for a poor franchise in Cincinnati that would have gone out of business if he weren’t available in the territorial draft. The Royals had the misfortune of being moved to the East when the Philadelphia Warriors relocated and spent the 1960’s going against Boston and its six or seven Hall of Famers every season in the playoffs.
Eventually, toward the end of his career Robertson would get to Milwaukee and get Abdul-Jabbar his first championship with what could have been the best team ever. The Bucks were 65-11 when coach Larry Costello rested the regulars for the rest of the season and they lost five of the last six. No one chased record seasons then.
But to hear Robertson talk about basketball skills is to understand what’s missing in today’s game.
In asking Robertson about skills, he doesn’t talk about dunking or shooting or dribbling as much as filling the lane at the proper angle, rubbing off a defender on the pick-and-roll, seeing the court to know where the help is coming from, pacing yourself and your speed (Robertson looked slow because of that but was one of the game’s quickest players), knowing when to hit a teammate with pass the moment he frees himself from the screen and where to get him the ball so he can shoot in rhythm.
Asked about that, Robertson mentions Duncan and Jason Kidd and then is quiet.
Robertson is occasionally at book signings these days for his book, “The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game.”
It’s his life story with interesting tidbits about losing in his first high school season to Milan High School the year it won the Indiana title in the famous Hoosiers story. Robertson also notes how the movie just happened to leave out the part about the team Milan really beat, Muncie Central, was an integrated team.
Robertson changed the game as much as any of the pioneers of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. But if you watched Jordan back his opponent in for a fadeaway or fallaway, that was Robertson. Seeing Johnson spinning on a drive or protecting the ball with his body driving, that also was Robertson.
Robertson was a natural that way. Even as a kid playing against bigger kids, they’d try to trap him to take advantage of his small size then. Robertson said it was then he learned to recognize the double team, where his teammates were to pass and how to blow by to avoid the pressure.
Just speaking with Robertson is like a lesson in pure basketball, what really makes it a game of grace and beauty. That’s not dunking and shooting three-pointers or some behind-the-back pass. Robertson could do all that as a kid, but growing up a black basketball player in the 1950’s you stayed away from that lest you not be considered serious. The Harlem Globetrotters were the clowns of basketball then and a popular act. But they also bordered on the insulting. Many whites looked at the Globetrotters as black basketball, clowns performing for white audiences. You know, “Dance, kid.”
So guys like Robertson avoided the possible comparison by making their plays and then getting into defensive position. This was no joke.
Robertson gives an example of how he saw the game in his book and it should be required reading for every high school and college basketball player and guard.
“Say I have the ball at the top of the key and I am dribbling, keeping my defender at bay with my body as I read the court,” Robertson writes. “Down on the baseline, Jack Twyman is running toward a pick set on the low block by Wayne Embry. Maybe Jack’s defender is trailing him, which means, I hope, Jack will run past the pick, curl tightly around it and pop out in front with his hands ready so I can hit him with a pass in rhythm. I’m watching for this. But I’m also watching to see if the defender is going to aggressively overplay or pop over Wayne’s pick and try to deny that very pass. If he does try to play aggressively, I’m trusting Jack to gauge this and react, perhaps fading to the corner for an uncontested jump shot or perhaps he will slip back door and be available for a bounce pass and a layup. Maybe Wayne, after setting the pick, is going to be able to pop out for an open shot. Or maybe he will roll to the basket. Meanwhile, I’ve got my defender in front of me looking for the first chance to reach in, ruin our plans and head the other way with the ball.”
And yes all this is about two of three seconds.
Robertson also notes the play is just a part since if Twyman is running through picks and not getting the ball or Embry is fighting for position and likewise ignored, how often do they continue to do that and how quickly are they getting back to defend if the guy with the ball is shooting and making plays for himself, no matter how successful.
Robertson was averaging more than 10 assists per game overall through his first nine seasons in the NBA, and that at a time when as assist was only counted if the scoring player did not dribble with the ball. Now, a player can get an assist if the scorer has up to two dribbles.
“Winning is not complex,” says Robertson. “You need good players playing together.”
Somehow you believe Robertson would have gotten it done for some team if he’d only been given the chance. It’s a shame that the NBA has too long wasted one of its most valuable resources.