When thinking of an NBA player’s accomplishments, several thoughts immediately spring to mind: Championships, MVP awards, All-Star Game selections and so on. But another meaning of accomplishments refer to the lasting legacy left by a player due to their impact not only as an NBA player but as an esteemed individual and member of community and society. Oscar Robertson was one such player who has left a lasting legacy in how NBA players should see themselves in the world.
What did Oscar Robertson accomplish? Oscar Robertson played in the NBA for 14 seasons between 1960 and 1974, and was a star for the Cincinnati Royals and a champion with the Milwaukee Bucks. Robertson was accomplished on the court, as his dominance and versatility allowed him to rake in individual awards and honors as well as set NBA records.Robertson’s biggest accomplishment took place off the court: in 1970, as the President of the NBA Players Association, Robertson filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NBA. Known as ‘Robertson v. National Basketball Association’ the lawsuit would stall the planned merger between the NBA and the American Basketball Association (ABA), the other North American professional basketball league at the time.
The case was successfully settled in favor of Robertson and the NBAPA, resulting in several rule changes, one of which is known as the “Oscar Robertson rule”: This rule meant that teams did not have control over a player during contract expiry, otherwise known as the “reserve” clause. Eliminating the reserve clause resulted in true free agency, meaning that players were free to sign with any other team once their contracts expired. Previously they had been bound to the team that had held their previous contract. The Oscar Robertson Rule resulted in the seeds of player empowerment being planted. It also had major financial implications to the league and owners, and its effects are still felt today in the NBA as well as other pro sports leagues such as the NFL, MLB and right across the globe. With European Soccer eventually adopting a similar stance through the “Bosman Rule”.
What did Oscar Robertson accomplish as an African-American athlete?
A solid chunk of Oscar Robertson’s NBA career was spent in the 1960s, during which segregation and racism were still rampant in the United States of America. Robertson, who is African-American, and other prominent black athletes of the era such as the legendary Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, faced severe racism during their time in the NBA from internal and external parties. Despite the fact the league was one of the most progressive in North American sports in accepting black players as early as the 1950s. Not only was Robertson’s on-court success a huge benefit to breaking the race barrier in pro hoops, he also made a major impact by becoming the first African-American President of any players union across the major North American professional sports leagues. A power which he wielded with great fairness and to huge success.
For Robertson in particular, most of the heavy racism he faced was in his high school and college days. Born in Tennessee, Robertson came from a very poor background, which led him to basketball as his choice of sport due to the low financial commitment needed to take part. He attended Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, an all-black high school. Robertson was the face of the basketball team, and led them to winning the state championship in 1955, the first time ever an all-black high school had won a state title anywhere in the United States. Despite the historic achievement, Robertson and the rest of the Crispus Attucks High School basketball team had their celebration moved to outside the city by officials due to fear that “blacks were going to tear the town up”, and the “thought that whites wouldn’t like that” according to Robertson himself.
Robertson’s dominance extended to his time in college basketball, but racism still plagued him. Some traditionally strong college basketball programs such as Duke and Kentucky did not recruit black athletes, and Robertson often had to play games in segregated cities, which meant he would not be allowed to sleep at hotels, and he would receive threats from teammates, students, and fans alike. One particular incident in Denton, Texas deeply angered Robertson, when a game against a conference rival saw him receive threats via a black cat placed in his locker room, and was pelted with hot dogs and verbal abuse from a record-sized crowd who were there mainly to attack him. Robertson also felt that his teammates did not do enough to be by his side and show support against the vile and dangerous rhetoric and abuse thrown at him in hate-filled, segregated towns during an incredibly racially-tense era.
Robertson’s breakthrough talent alongside the heavy racism he faced in his younger years shaped Robertson’s approach to not only basketball but to life itself. Robertson has been recognized and praised for his social justice contributions in the decades following his retirement from the NBA. When the US was once again hit by a period of racial tensions fueled by police brutality, NBA stars such as LeBron James turned to Robertson for his advice on how to navigate the situation.
What did Oscar Robertson accomplish on the court as an NBA player?
Despite Robertson’s notable contributions to social justice and race relations, his fame stems from his time in the NBA, during which he established himself as one of the greatest guards in all of NBA history. Drafted by the Cincinnati Royals (now known as the Sacramento Kings) in 1960, Robertson showcased an extremely impressive mix of dominance and versatility, making the triple-double his statistical achievement of choice. Despite a decade’s worth of individual awards and honors, Robertson did not see any postseason success until he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks. Paired alongside a young Lew Alcindor (now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Robertson won his sole championship in 1970, adding the ever-elusive NBA title to his resume which also consists of 1 NBA MVP award, 12 NBA All-Star Game selections, 6 assist titles, the 1961 NBA Rookie of the Year award, and 9 All-NBA First Team honors, among other awards. Robertson retired in 1974 and was subsequently inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1980.
An exemplary athlete is one who excels at the sport that they play, and also uses their platform to make a positive impact on society. Oscar Robertson, despite all the racial adversity he faced in his life, chose instead to be a shining example of excellence on the court and off of it. Despite retiring nearly 50 years ago, Robertson is still held in very high regard today not only for what he did on the court but what he did, and continues to do, off the court.