Today’s media would probably describe a player like Oscar Robertson as arrogant, selfish, undiplomatic, and at times an outright dick. In truth, this account of the man we remember today as ‘The Big O” isn’t necessarily wrong. Oscar was brash, abrasive, rude, and downright frightening. Despite his immense talent, he was a nightmare to play with, coach, or even cheer for. Even now, the Big O doesn’t make the best case for himself in this department. His reputation as a bitter old man persists, often at his own doing. As great as he is, he remains a figure to be feared as well as revered, admired but left alone.
As a result, much of the sports world does just that: leave Oscar Robertson alone. It remembers him as one of the greatest NBA players of all time, but at a distance, because he was also one of the most volatile. We forget the man behind the numbers, the man who was disregarded, spat on, and treated like trash for the entirety of his basketball career and his life. His legacy is one of unprecedented greatness paired with lasting bitterness. He bore the gauntlet of racism and discrimination like no other superstar in the NBA’s history, and he bore that gauntlet unimaginably well.
From early on in life, the Big O faced hardships that few other athletes have ever had to experience. He crossed bridges and fought battles Jordan and Lebron couldn’t even imagine, and emerged as one of the most dominant players in the history of any sport. Growing up in a segregated, poor neighborhood, Oscar’s fascination with basketball began not out of convenience, but out of necessity. In his childhood, basketball was just what the black kids were supposed to play, and so began the tremendous road to Oscar’s remarkable career. As it turned out, he wasn’t so bad at this game. In fact, he quickly became the most dominant player the state of Indiana had ever seen. Attending a segregated high school that didn’t even have a basketball team his freshman year, Oscar graduated having led his team to two straight state championships, the first repeat winners in state history. During this period Oscar’s team lost a grand total of one game. Nothing about his success on the court, however, could change the color of his skin. Even as he was slowly becoming the best basketball player in the country, he was disrespected both by the town he put on the map and the college recruiters that should have been tripping over themselves to bring him to their universities. Eventually, Robertson attended the University of Cincinnati, refusing to attend his home school of Indiana University due to an insult from the head coach.
Once he settled in college, however, the Big O felt the brunt of segregation more than ever. When his team travelled, he would routinely be denied at the hotels at which the rest of the team stayed. He would get death threats from the KKK and be denied service at restaurants anytime he dared cross into the South. It was constant, it was relentless. All the anger, all the hate, however, did nothing more than motivate Oscar to make it. And make it he did. In his years at the University of Cincinnati, Oscar led his team to four final four appearances and averaged over 30 points a game. No matter what controversy his race brought on, no one in the country could deny his talent, as Oscar went on to break countless NCAA records.
Despite his logicdefying success, however, Oscar’s personality was molded as much as his skills. He had encountered hatred at every corner of his life, and no matter how good he was or how much he accomplished, he couldn’t escape the limitations people had put on him due to race. His time in college turned him into a fierce competitor who would not tolerate failure.
Somewhere along the way Oscar realized the only thing within his control was how he played the game, and the only place he was truly free was the basketball court. As a result, he became a nightmare to play with for most of his teammates. He pushed relentlessly, and he would simply not accept inadequacy for him or his team. He became the iron fist of whatever team he played for, and he was not afraid to hit, scream, or shout to bring his teammates to the level he expected from himself.
The Big O took his relentless thirst for victory into the NBA, where he broke just about every record there was to break at the time. He shattered the assist record previously set by the great Bob Cousy, and even as a rookie he almost became the first NBA player ever to average a triple double. Playing for the Cincinnati Royals, Oscar remained the same player who pushed his teammates to their limits and refused to accept their failures. Along the way, Oscar became the first player in NBA history to average a triple double for a whole season. Beyond that he led the league in assists seven times. When the Royals traded him to the Bucks, Royals’ fans were completely and utterly confused. The only explanation possible was that the Big O’s offthecourt persona finally became too much for his talents on the court, and Oscar simply couldn’t share the backcourt with Bob Cousy. To quote Top Gun, Oscar’s ego began writing checks his body couldn’t cash. The story had a happy ending, however, as Oscar won the title he had fought tooth and nail all his life to get with the Bucks, closing out the Big O’s career with a ring.
Oscar Robertson’s career is one for the ages. He became the best player of his era and to most, a top ten player all time, despite the hatred he encountered at every corner of his life. He ended his career averaging 26 points and ten assists, numbers that just didn’t make sense in his era. He was the best at what he did, and he knew it. Today Oscar is remembered for his fiery attitude and his relentless desire to improve. He still works to rid society of the racial stigmas that held him down for so long, the same stigmas that leave him scarred. Scarred, but still fighting.Photo: Steven Shundich/Flickr