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.