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Oscar Robertson: The Big O


photo by Malcolm W. Emmons, The Sporting News Archives, 1966, CC Public Domain

Prior to 1960, point guards were barely six-feet tall and usually one of the last scoring options on the court. Then came Oscar Robertson.


The 6’5,” 210-pound Robertson was bigger, stronger and more skilled than any point guard the game had ever seen. This was apparent early on, as the Indianapolis native led Crispus Attucks High School to back-to-back Indiana state championships in 1955-56. It was the first time an all African-American school won a state title in Indiana.


Robertson was even better at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a 3-time All-American and College Player of the Year while averaging 33.8 points per game from 1957-59. In 1960, he led the gold medal-winning United States Basketball Team in scoring at the Summer Olympics in Rome, completing one of the greatest amateur careers in basketball history.


 

The most prized prospect in the 1960 NBA Draft, Robertson was chosen as the territorial pick of the Cincinnati Royals. He went on to have one of the greatest rookie seasons ever, averaging 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and a league-leading 9.7 assists. He earned both All-Star and First Team All-NBA honors, and was named the 1960-61 Rookie of the Year. The Big O also dazzled both fans and peers alike at the All-Star Game, where he won MVP with 23 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds.


Just when you thought he couldn’t get any better, Robertson became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double with averages of 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists in 1961-62. The feat would not be duplicated until Russell Westbrook did it 55 years later in 2016-17. Robertson’s contributions helped the Royals make the playoffs for the first time in four years, and post their first winning record in eight.


 

The Big O continued his stellar play in 1962-63, averaging 28.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 9.5 assists while shooting 51.8 percent from the field. After getting eliminated in the Division Semifinals the previous year, the Royals advanced to the Eastern Division Finals where they faced the 4-time defending champion Boston Celtics. Cincinnati gave the Celtics all they could handle, taking them a full seven games before losing. Robertson was magnificent, averaging 33.4 points, 12.4 rebounds and 8.6 assists in the series.


The 1963-64 season was even better for Robertson and the Royals. Cincinnati won a franchise record 55 games, and Robertson won his first NBA MVP award. The All-NBA point guard averaged 31.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and led the league with 11.0 assists and an 85.3 free-throw percentage. He also won his second All-Star Game MVP.


Unfortunately the Royals would once again run into the Celtics in the Eastern Division Finals. This time, Boston won in five games en route to its sixth of eight consecutive NBA championships. If not for arguably the greatest dynasty in modern team sports, the 25-year-old Robertson might already be a 2-time NBA champion.


 

The Royals would make the playoffs the next three seasons, but never got as far as the Division Finals again. The Big O continued his assault on the NBA, though, averaging at least 30 points and 10 assists all three years. Along with Wilt Chamberlain, Robertson was the most dominant player in the game.


After six straight postseason appearances, Cincinnati missed the playoffs in 1967-68, but Robertson had one of his best individual seasons. He won his only scoring title with 29.2 points per game, and led the NBA in assists (9.7) and free-throw percentage (87.3). He also shot 50 percent from the field for the second time in his career.


The following season marked Robertson’s last First Team All-NBA selection, and his ninth straight. He also led the league in assists for the final time at 9.8, and won his third All-Star Game MVP with 24 points, six rebounds and five assists in the 1969 game.


 

The next year, 1970, would prove to be the most pivotal of Robertson’s career. On the court, the Big O was an All-Star for the 10th straight season after averaging 25.3 points and 8.1 assists, but it was off the court where he made history.


Since the 1963-64 season, Robertson had been head of the NBA Players Association. In 1970, the Players Association brought an antitrust lawsuit against the NBA, seeking to prevent the proposed merger of the NBA with the 3-year-old American Basketball Association (ABA). The suit also challenged the college draft and the NBA’s reserve clause that prohibited free agency.


The NBA-ABA merger was blocked until 1976, when the suit was eventually settled and the merger was approved. The Players Association did win several battles, though. Drafted players were now allowed to sit out one year and re-enter the draft, and teams were no longer required to provide compensation when signing a free-agent, making player movement much easier.


 

The year also brought a change of scenery for Robertson, as the Big O was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks were only in their third year in the NBA, but thanks to reigning Rookie of the Year Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) they were a championship contender after winning 56 games and advancing to the Eastern Division Finals in 1969-70.


With the future Hall of Famer Robertson on board, the Bucks took their play to the next level in 1970-71, winning 66 games and playing in their first NBA Finals. Milwaukee swept the Baltimore Bullets in four games, as the Big O averaged 23.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 9.5 assists while shooting 52.3 percent from the field. In the Game 4 clincher, he led the Bucks with 30 points and nine assists. The 11-year veteran was officially an NBA champion for the first time.


The Bucks remained a contender in Robertson’s last three years in Milwaukee. He played in his 12th and final All-Star Game in 1971-72 and his second NBA Finals in 1973-74. This time the Bucks lost to Robertson’s old foe, the Boston Celtics, in seven games in one of the most memorable Finals in history.


 

Robertson retired following the 1973-74 season, and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1980, his first year of eligibility.


The final numbers for the Big O are arguably the best ever for a point guard: 26,710 points, 7,804 rebounds and 9,887 assists in 14 NBA seasons. His average of 25.7 points per game ranks 10th all-time and his 9.5 assists per game rank third. A master at getting to the free-throw line, Robertson is also fourth all-time with 7,694 made free-throws.

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