Because We Always Forget Oscar Robertson

A Sports Scribe, Basketball — By on February 21, 2013 at 5:00 am

oscar robertson shoots over wilt chamberlain

The tidal wave of commentary in Michael Jordan /LeBron James discussion may have angered, excited, or at least exhausted fans, but it has appeared to solidify what has been a remarkable shift in views on James’ career. A player once viewed in the vein of Magic Johnson when he was a high school junior because of his all-world versatility is now perceived as having a bit more than a high-wattage smile and genetic unselfishness.

There are few questions anymore about James’ jump shot, defense, and killer instinct as the taunts about his early postseason fourth-quarter struggles and venom over The Decision forged his already powerful game in fire. He doesn’t need to be Jordanesque, but because it’s impossible to appreciate someone in the moment, it won’t stop some people from asking him to be exactly that.

The narrative (to borrow sports media’s most clichéd term) has shifted, but along the way, it shed something rather unfortunate. When it comes to discussing James’ growing legacy in the NBA, people have managed to put aside the Hall of Famer that casted the mold for the ultimate versatile player, Oscar Robertson. A major reason why it seems that Robertson is ‘forgotten’ in this era isn’t just because of the immediacy of our current society. It’s because  he was overlooked in his own time.

As a player, Robertson had non-stop motion, machine-like efficiency, spectacular vision and a mean streak on the court that would have been packaged as ‘competitive’ if he chose to curry favor with the media.

The problem was that he wasn’t a shrinking violet. In fact, whether it’s in his autobiography or on later media like ESPN’s SportsCentury, you could tell that he had an understandable mistrust of his environment. His life-long love of basketball seemed to have been strangled with the forces that had nothing to do with his game. The Robertson that fans and media saw was one affected by the outward racism he endured, the stances he took for the player’s union as its first president, and his struggle as a color commentator with CBS.

As the years faded, and more media-amiable players began to emerge for the Association, Robertson’s legacy seemed to have been boxed up to make room for Johnson’s Lakers, Julius Erving’s 76ers, Larry Bird’s Celtics, and of course, Jordan’s Bulls. It’s unfair because the man set new standards for guards like no one before him; even a man who would coach him, Bob Cousy.

Just watch this YouTube clip where Robertson dropped 37 in Game 5 of the 1966 Eastern Division Semifinals in Boston. His Cincinnati Royals would lose that game and the series, but not without he and Jerry Lucas giving the Celtics hell on offense.

Some folks will let the black and white film fool them, but while his era lacked the aerial power that has become standard in today’s NBA, the speed of the game has barely changed. Two things that stood out from this clip; his ball movement and body form when shooting. Without a crossover or too-wide handle, he was quick and fast enough to move the ball down the court. As for his shooting, he used the same quickness in spinning around for an uncanny fadeaway despite constantly keeping his back towards the basket.

Robertson’s game appears so basic when juxtaposed to any of the great players in later years. And yet, no one could stop the man and his style for fourteen years. There was lateral quickness of the Big O in Magic Johnson’s game, understated rebounding prowess passed along to Jason Kidd, and pickpocket quickness translated to Gary Payton’s ‘gloves’. Observe Magic’s years with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and it’s likely that you’d see near-facsimiles of Robertson’s years with the former Lew Alcindor in Milwaukee.

In those very first five years of LeBron’s career, his name was parallel parked with not only Magic Johnson, but Oscar Robertson. With every statistical tally James notched, you heard more about Robertson than ever before. Even as Jason Kidd was collecting triple-doubles in his prime, the default story went that he was chasing Magic because the statistic wasn’t officially tracked until 1979-80 (Johnson’s rookie season), despite Robertson having 43 more. The most common thread between Robertson and James, however, was the ability to do so much on their own with so very little help in their early careers.

For too many years, mentioning The Big O in the same breadth of Jordan, Johnson or even James reads more like “don’t forget” rather than “always remember”. This isn’t just the fault of current generations, but those who we able to tell us his story first hand. It’s quite a shame because Oscar Robertson should never be an afterthought when it comes to discussing greatness in the NBA.

J. Clinkscales

Jason is the co-host of The Exchange on BlogTalkRadio with Sumit Dasgupta (@skd_thExchange) and spent seven seasons as the New York Beacon's beat writer for the New York Giants. Also a vastly undersized PF.

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  • Kenny says:

    Right on, brother. The Big O may be an afterthought with some, but folks who truly appreciate basketball in its purest form revere him. It’s a shame that he doesn’t get his due. Much to your chagrin about GOAT discussions, a legitimate case can be made that he is the greatest player who ever lived.

    • Kenny, he’s the definitive reason why I stopped going into those discussions with fevror. What always got to me was how baseball fans could immediately take to Babe Ruth being the GOAT based on stats and an uncanny legend, but for an athlete that wasn’t too far removed from the public conscious, he was overlooked at nearly every turn. I respect what Jordan, Johnson, Erving and others have done, but even they would be quick to tell us where The Big O stands in the pantheon of greats. Why can’t we consider that?

  • But its not just him, its plenty of players of his era and later into the 70s/80s. One team that always stands out is the Milwaukee Bucks teams of the 80s, they were VERY GOOD and if you could somehow envision the talent they had then and transpose it now they would be a dominant team, but no one ever mentions them because they normally came up short in their playoff battles with the Sixers and Celtics.

  • JAG says:

    Q is correct. Those Milwaukee teams were very good but overlooked. In the playoffs, they would beat the Celtics and lose to the Sixers one year, then reverse it the next year. They never broke through to the Finals.

    The Cavs of the late 80’s / early 90’s were very good too. Price, Harper, Hot Rod, Nance, Daugherty – that was a great team that was second to the Bad Boys and then second to the Bulls. C’est la vie.

    Oscar was the first of the “big guards”, players with forward size and point guard skills. When he arrived, the game took an evolutionary step ahead.

    As Ed has mentioned in the past, Oscar has a chip on his shoulder and he paid a price for being the face of the Union when they stood up to the owners and refused to come out for the ’64 All Star Game until they received pension benefits.

    The rules for awarding assists has been completely relaxed. Back in Oscar’s day, if you passed the ball to someone who still had to beat his man one on one, you did not get an assist. Oscar thinks it was a plot to allow others to pass him but the NBA realized that they could market PG’s better if they made assists easier to get. Fans love to watch numbers.

    Baseball does a great job of treating their legends with reverence. Basketball could learn from this.

  • J. Tinsley says:

    I thought it was common knowledge The Big O was considered one of the 10-12 best players ever.

    Granted, I never saw buddy play, but still. I’m just glad he got him a ring towards the end of his career with Kareem.

  • Vance says:

    Another one who has it rough is Kareem. His problem is that no one saw him play at 27 and everyone saw him at 37. It’s like less than impressed Ali fans who didn’t see him fight before he beat Foreman.

    When NBA popularity exploded in ’84, he was still effective. Yes, he picked his spots and didn’t run the Showtime fast break, but he still anchored the defense and was the first option in the half court offense. He delivered three titles at ages 38, 40, 41. Jordan, Shaq, Bird, Magic, Wilt, – no one else can make that claim.

    I have never been convinced that anyone deserves to be placed above Kareem. His discipline regarding diet, lifestyle, yoga etc. allowed him to enjoy a career that no one can rival as far as length and overall effectiveness is concerned. No cigars, no running around in casinos, no 36 holes of golf before playoff games, none of that. He put in his work and is quite underappreciated.

  • I would just like to co-sign this post from top to bottom. Great work, Jason.

  • The thing about Oscar is that still, to this day, when I bring him up to my Father, Godfather or other people of that generation, they consider him to not only be the second best shooting guard ever, they put him as the second best point guard as well. I get the strong feeling that if Michael Jeffery Jordan had never been born, they’d still speak of him as the best guard ever.

    A lot of his legacy gets lost because there’s not a clear team to identify him with in these later years, like there is for Kareem, Russell or Jerry West. But make no bones about it, along with Magic and LeBron, nobody has ever dominated more parts of the game at once than O.

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