In the opinion of many, Oscar Robertson was the best all-around player in basketball history. He scored almost at will, rebounded like no other guard the game has seen, and retired as the leading assist man in NBA history.
Robertson piled up triple-doubles before triple-doubles were cool. During the 1961-1962 season, his second as a pro, "The Big O" averaged a triple-double, registering 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists a game.
Robertson was a three-time UPI college Player of the Year at the University of Cincinnati, was a three-time Most Valuable Player of the NBA All-Star Game, and made first-team All-NBA for nine consecutive seasons. His best season was 1963-1964, when he averaged 31.4 points and won the NBA Most Valuable Player Award.
In 1960, Robertson entered the NBA along with guards Jerry West and Lenny Wilkens. All three eventually landed in the Hall of Fame. Wilkens was the consummate playmaker, West was a jump-shooting wizard, and Oscar was a little bit of everything. He stood 6'5", weighed 220 pounds, and was strong as an ox. He scored from the outside with jump shots and from the inside with either hand.
One of his specialties was the pump-fake. He had a knack for getting his man into the air and drawing fouls, and he was 84 percent accurate from the foul line. During a game in 1964, he went to the line 16 times in one quarter, an NBA record.
Intensely competitive, Robertson yelled at teammates, badgered opponents, and berated officials. He was notorious for complaining whenever the zebras whistled him for a foul. It seemed that The Big O thought he was too good to make a mistake.
Born November 24, 1938, in Charlotte, Tennessee, Robertson grew up in Indianapolis, playing basketball at the local YMCA with his two brothers. The oldest, Bailey, later played with the Harlem Globetrotters. Oscar led Crispus Attucks High School to two state titles and excelled academically.
At the University of Cincinnati, where he was the first African American to play basketball for the school, Robertson set 14 NCAA scoring records. He led the nation in scoring in each of his three seasons with the varsity.
Overall, he averaged 33.8 points and 15.2 rebounds. After his senior season, he won a gold medal with the U.S. team at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. It was a foregone conclusion that Robertson would stay in Cincinnati to play professionally.
The Royals claimed him in a territorial draft instituted by the NBA to help attendance by keeping local stars at home. Robertson assimilated quickly into the NBA's upper crust. A deft playmaker and willful leader, he was considered the heir apparent to Celtics great Bob Cousy.
Robertson did many of the things Cousy did, only on a larger scale. He averaged 9.7 assists as a rookie; Cousy never averaged more than 9.5. Robertson averaged 30.5 points as a rookie; Cousy never averaged more than 21.7. And rebounding? Oscar had a big edge there too. But Robertson never enjoyed the popularity of a Cousy or an Elgin Baylor.
A Cincinnati rock-and-roll band created a dance called "The Big O" ("dribble to your left, dribble to your right..."), and attendance at Royals games surged in the early years, but the glow soon faded. Even with a player as great as Robertson, the Royals were habitual losers and Cincinnati proved to be a lousy basketball town, eventually losing the franchise in 1972.
In 1970, the Royals ran Oscar out of town after he feuded with Cousy, who became the team's coach in 1969. So anxious were the Royals to dump their future Hall of Famer that they traded him to Milwaukee for Flynn Robinson and Charlie Paulk. Cincinnati's loss was Milwaukee's gain.
In 1971, Oscar led the Bucks to the NBA championship in the franchise's third season in existence. He averaged 19.4 points, more than 10 points below his career norm, as he concentrated on controlling the offense and setting up Lew Alcindor inside. In the process, the Bucks became the first NBA team to shoot better than 50 percent from the field for a season.
Robertson's output and effectiveness dipped the next two seasons, leading to his retirement in 1974. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1979 and named to the NBA's 35th Anniversary Team in 1980.