The National Basketball Association (NBA) has seen many unique talents in its nearly eight-decade-long existence. Some of the notable names include six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan, who historians credit with elevating the league into the global phenomenon it is today, NBA All-Time points leader LeBron James, who has been the face of the league for 20 years and was tipped for greatness while in high school, former Los Angeles (LA) Lakers trio Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal who defined the point-guard and center positions in their eras, and Boston Celtics legends Bill Russell and Larry Bird who jointly won the franchise 14 of its 17 NBA World Championships. Another player often mentioned in the same breath, and rightfully so, is former Milwaukee Bucks point guard Oscar Robertson, arguably the most underrated player in the history of the NBA.
Is Oscar Robertson a top 10 player? Despite coming in at number 12 in the recently compiled NBA 75 list, many NBA historians, pundits, and commentators agree that Oscar Robertson is indeed a top 10 player. “The Big O” revolutionized the point guard position in the 1960s and 1970s while setting and breaking many NBA records including registering an impressive 181 career triple-doubles in his illustrious 14-year career and leading the league in assists for six of his first nine years in the league.
Like many African-American youths from his day, Robertson grew up in a housing project. Rather than succumb to the deplorable conditions that surrounded him in a time when racial segregation was the order of the day, the Charlotte native found solace in playing basketball with the tools that were available to him – a tennis ball and a peach basket in their backyard.
Robertson first shot onto the national scene during his high school years as part of Crispus Attucks High School’s basketball team where he thrived under the tutelage of former coach Raymond Crowe to become one of the top players in not only Indiana but the country. His stellar play allowed the team to win two state championships and earn him the esteemed Mr. Basketball USA Award in 1956.
The future 12-time NBA All-Star then joined the University of Cincinnati where he went on to set more than 10 NCAA and school records including those for career points, rebounds, and career triple-doubles – records that stand to this day. In his three years with the Cincinnati Bearcats, Robertson averaged just shy of 34 points per game and led the nation in scoring.
Early Dominance and NBA MVP
Having proven himself on the collegiate level, Robertson entered the 1960 NBA draft where he was selected by the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings). The three-time Sporting News College Player of the Year hit the ground running and had arguably the best debut in NBA history by registering 21 points, 12 rebounds, and dishing out 10 dimes in a 140-123 routing of the Minneapolis Lakers.
The maestro had multiple triple-double games and scored a then-career-high 44 points en route to averaging a near tiple-double (30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.7 assists) to win the coveted NBA Rookie of the Year award. Robertson also earned All-NBA First Team honors and became one of only three players to win NBA All-Star Game MVP in his rookie season (the other two being Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor in 1960 and 1959 respectively).
In his sophomore campaign, Robertson became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double in a single season (30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists) and averaged a near triple-double in his third and fourth years in the league. His fourth season (1963-64) was arguably his best as a Cincinnati Royal as he won the prestigious NBA MVP award and his second NBA All-Star Game MVP crown.
To put his dominance into perspective, Robertson averaged a triple-double over his first five seasons and was the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell to win the NBA MVP award for most of the 1960s – an era that was defined by the rivalry between the two centers.
Move to Milwaukee and NBA Championship
Aside from his personal accolades, Robertson found very little success with the Royals who were a small market team that was incapable of attracting stars to play alongside him and unwilling to be aggressive in the trade and free agency markets.
His last six seasons with the franchise were particularly disastrous as the Royals were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in the first three seasons before missing the playoffs altogether in the last three – a development that many feel wasted most of the nine-time All-NBA First Team honoree’s prime years.
Off the court, Robertson and the Royals had a rather tumultuous relationship characterized by many run-ins with the team’s management, including with then-head coach Bob Cousy. The former Celtics star had even attempted a comeback at 41 years old in Robertson’s final season which did not go as planned with many claiming that the six-time NBA champion was “jealous” of the Big O.
In a shocking trade ahead of the 1970-71 season, the Royals sent Robertson to the Milwaukee Bucks where the six-time NBA assists leader joined a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) to form a formidable duo.
The two went on to dominate the league that season and led the Bucks to a league-best record of 66 wins. Robertson and Alcindor capped off their impressive run by clinching the 1971 NBA title by sweeping the Baltimore Bullets in a lopsided NBA Finals matchup. Robertson averaged 22 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists in the finals.
An Equally Legendary Off-Court Legacy
Despite being on the tail end of his prime, Robertson continued to be a consistent presence on both ends of the floor and helped the Bucks win a pair of division titles over the next two seasons and to the 1974 NBA Finals where the then western conference champions lost to the Celtics in seven games.
In his nine-year tenure as president of the NBA Players Association, Robertson championed major changes led by the antitrust suit he filed against the league in 1970 which frustrated the NBA’s merger with the American Basketball Association (ABA) and forced the warring parties to engage in talks which birthed reforms such as player free agency and the incorporation of the college draft.
Even after his retirement from the sport in 1974, Robertson continued to contribute to the growth of the game by joining CBS as a commentator. He also undertook projects in his childhood neighborhood of Indianapolis which were aimed at helping disenfranchised African-Americans as his way of giving back to the community.