Oscar Robertson: "Players should get the job done no matter how it looks on the screen"
by David Friedman / July 25, 2005
In your February 15, 2004 New York Times column you wrote, 'The game is won between the foul line and the basket, an area where so few players choose to or are able to operate.' You were renowned for your skills in that area. How did you develop that aspect of your game? Why do you think that so few young players have emulated that and added it to their games?"
Oscar Robertson: I was taught to play that way when I was in high school and even before I got to high school. Just fundamental things – I played guard and I played forward, so you get into a position where you are pivoting out on the court. You get the ball 12 feet from the basket and a man is on you, so you have to create space to get off a shot. You can't just turn around and shoot because he might block it. But if he is really playing you that close, you can get by him easily. If he is playing off you, then you can just shoot the shot. It's just something that I learned from playing in high school. All the guys from where I was from played that way, I thought. You look at today, it's a different situation. You have a game that has been transformed into a game where almost every shot is either an outside shot – a three-point shot – or a dunk.
You get that because teams are playing a lot of zone defenses. College coaches want to power the ball inside, they want (their post players) to power the ball up, but no one can shoot from that 15-foot area anymore. You see what happens in college and high school games today – a three-point shot or a dunk. I think that's the reason that you see a lot of that in the pros today. I don't think that players learn how to play any other aspect of the game in high school or college.
Was there a particular player you watched as a kid who you wanted to emulate, who had that type of mid-range game?
OR: Actually I watched a lot of Sihugo Green, who played at Duquesne University. I saw him play a lot. There were not a lot of televised basketball games in those days, but I did get to see him play in films. He was from New York and then he played for Duquesne. A great All-American.
(Sihugo Green, a 6-3 forward who had tremendous leaping ability, scored a game-high 33 points to lead Duquesne to a 70-58 win over the University of Dayton in the 1955 NIT Championship. At that time the NIT title carried as much – if not more – prestige than the NCAA title. Green was the No. 1 pick in the 1956 NBA Draft ahead of Bill Russell. He played nine years in the NBA but never averaged more than 12.7 ppg.
George "Iceman" Gervin told me that a player who really influenced him was Roger Brown. He said that Roger Brown had this great move in which he would get his leg past his opponent's hip and put the defender in a recovery situation. Then, even if the defender could recover, he would be overcommitted and Roger could pump fake and shoot the jump shot. I think that this is similar to what you were talking about in terms of pivoting and setting up your shot. Why do you think that so few players today do that type of maneuver of one quick, hard dribble and then shooting the shot?
OR: Man, they just keep dribbling and dribbling and dribbling. That's the way they play. They want to look good doing it but it doesn't work all the time. I think that basketball players should get the job done no matter how it looks on the screen. When you play against different people from all walks of life you can't do the same thing against every player defensively or offensively. You have to change up the way you go at a player. Some players are more physical than others, some play with more finesse. Some are just really great all-around players. So you have to change your game.
So when you were on offense you would read your defender, read his body type or...
OR: No doubt about it. When you go into a game on offense, you make a couple moves and see what the defender is going to do. Then you pretty much can figure out what he is going to do against you – whether he carries his hands low or high, whether he is bumping or pushing, those type of things.
You played in the ABA-NBA All-Star Games. The first game was in Houston in 1971 and the second game was in New York in 1972. What are your recollections of those games and playing against the ABA players? The ABA players felt that it was a great measuring stick to play against you and the other NBA stars.
OR: It was a measuring stick to a certain point. Basketball is basketball. The game in Houston was really something. It was held in the Astrodome. The court was kind of away from the stands and you got a different perspective on the basket. The basket looked low because the people in the stands were so far away. I thought that it was great for the people in Texas to see that game. There was tremendous hoopla before the game and it was a great game in which to play. The one in New York in 1972, that was a good game. I don't remember all the details. It's been a while. (The NBA won the first game in Houston 106-104-Rick Barry missed a desperation three pointer for the ABA at the end. The NBA won the New York game 125-120.) Well, games like that sometimes become a public relations game in which you play everybody. If you really want to go out and run the score up then you don't play everybody. Just because it is an All-Star Game doesn't mean that you are playing as efficiently as you should. I think that it was entertaining.
What are your recollections of playing against Pistol Pete?
OR: He came in at a great time because he came to the Hawks when they had just won their division the year before. Pete made more money than all the rest of the players on the team. Good offensive player, flashy player, probably really helped save the franchise down there in Atlanta, no doubt about it. He had a good shot. He was not a real skilled player per se.
What do you mean by that?
OR: Defense, rebounding, boxing out, all those types of things. He didn't have the physique for it.
Do you think that it would have changed anything about how he is perceived if he had had the opportunity to play for a championship level team early in his career? He played with Larry Bird and the Celtics late in his career, but he had already blown out his knee by that time.
OR: I hate to say this, but he played for his father in college. He took all the shots. I always thought that ruined him in terms of what you are talking about, becoming the player that he could have become. He might have become a much, much better player. He could score. He scored a lot in college. I don't know what he scored in the pros. I think that he could have become a much better all-around ball player if he had played for someone else other than his father.
In some ways weren't his passing skills a little ahead of his time, which led to him being called a hot dog?
OR: No. The thing about it is almost everyone could pass that way, but we were kept from doing it by our coaches. We could throw it behind our back or look one way and pass another but we only did it in the parks. I'll
tell you why we couldn't do it (in games): our coach said that he didn't want people saying that we played like the Globetrotters. I played on an all-black high school team and we didn't want people saying that we were clowns. Pete could get away with it.
Now everyone does it and it seems to be more accepted. Magic Johnson popularized it in the 1980s.
OR: He threw behind the back a little bit and looked one way and passed another and everyone would go 'Oh!' and think that it's great. Years ago almost everyone could do those things where I played in the parks. Nowadays you'll ask a player to do something and he'll say, 'Coach I can't do that. I've never done that before.' So you have to teach him. I think that teaching coaches are the norm now. You need a teaching coach who understands the game of basketball, not just some guy coming on the court talking about Xs and Os. You have to teach now – tell a kid how to box out, tell him how to pass, teach him footwork. Players don't understand that anymore. They don't have those things. They don't have those skills.
If you were to take a coaching job now, where would you start with a young player? What is the most important thing to teach if you are kind of building a player from scratch?
OR: It all depends what level you are talking about – high school, college or pros. You have to look at a player and see what he needs. Some guys can run, some guys can dribble. I think that everyone should be able to dribble. Everyone should be able to pass. Otherwise, why are you out there? What have you been doing all your life if you can't dribble a basketball, or if you can't shoot a ball with your left hand if you are right-handed or
vice versa? I think that players should master those things and that is how you become a better basketball player.
It really should start at a younger level than high school.
OR: It should, but you might get in a situation in which the player doesn't learn it until he gets to you, so you have to go from there.
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
Tell us what you think about this interview. E-mail us at HoopsHype@HoopsHype.com