By Ben Osborne
When I started as E-i-C in the New Year, I promised to post a column “every Tuesday” and be accessible through that column on a weekly basis. I had a nice streak of never missing a Tuesday going but it ended last week, undone by regular-season fatigue and a gruesome week of closing our last issue. I doubt I was missed much with the playoff extravaganza that Sam and Lang have organized, but I’m back just the same, and I think I’ve got good stuff. For the second post in a row, I’m running a q+a with a basketball star who came up in Indianapolis. But this one is not on the cusp of anything; he’s already done it all.
The great Oscar Robertson is in New York this week to talk about a documentary, Something to Cheer About, that opens this Friday (4/27) in select cities across the country. STCA looks at Oscar’s famed high school team, Crispus Attucks, and recaps how the squad won the 1955 state title in Indiana, becoming the first all-black team to ever win a state championship (they’d lost to the “Hoosiers” team in the quarterfinals in ’54, then got a repeat state title in ’56 when Oscar was a senior). The movie, directed and produced by Betsy Blankenbaker, is a sober but inspiring look at a team’s success in a state that, at the time, had many residents cheering against them. For more information about the movie go to http://www.screenmediafilms.net/stca/.
In any event, I was thrilled that the Big O was made available to us, and I jumped at the chance to talk to him yesterday morning. As you’ll see, he definitely has some issues with the current game, but he was in good spirits, and if a guy who has done all this can’t complain about things, who can? Some of topics we discussed are going to be saved for future stories where he will be a phenomenal secondary source (not necessarily a piece on him, since, as Robertson fondly recalled, Scoop Jackson did a great feature on him back in ’97 and we’re not quite ready to do second old-school pieces on retired guys), but most of it is just for y’all, the Slamonline readers. I respect the fact that everyone’s focused on the present (the Playoffs) and the future (Oden/Durant), but let’s never forget the past…
SLAM: Hello, Mr. Robertson [hey, this is a 69-year-old legend; I called him “Mr.”]. Ben Osborne from SLAM Magazine.
Big O: How you doing? I know the magazine well. Where are you guys based? Chicago?
SLAM: No, we’re here in New York. Scoop Jackson, who used to write for us, is based there, though.
Big O: Yeah, Scoop. I remember him from the story he did. He’s not with you anymore?
SLAM: Nope. Went to ESPN about two years ago. I think they pay a little bit better.
Big O [Laughs]: Well, I’m sure that’s the reason he left.
SLAM: Exactly. So tell me a little about the movie.
Big O: It came from Betsy Blankenbaker, whose father knew our high school coach, Ray Crowe, very well. Because of that relationship, she’d thought about this. I’d say she’s been working on this documentary for about three or four years. It’s just about young people, an all-black team, coming up in Indianapolis, Indiana, and the ramifications of that. How you were so central in what you could and couldn’t do, that you didn’t even know anything about it. People think that when you get involved in social issues, like with racism, that you know a lot about it, but you don’t. We thought we were living the greatest life in the world. We were poor, of course, but still…
SLAM: So it was appealing to you to talk about those days…
Big O: Yes. She approached us. She did a lot of interviews with the guys that played in the 50’s just to figure out what direction they wanted to go with for the documentary. You’ve seen movies on TV that came from us. You’ve seen Hoosiers, right? That wasn’t quite true.
SLAM: Yeah, I understand there were some embellishments in there. Had you stayed in touch with ex-teammates or did this project help reconnect you with some of the guys you’d played with?
Big O: Quite a bit. As a matter of fact, when she started filming, a lot of guys came back to Indianapolis to talk about their perceptions of how life was then. You find out that everyone’s life was pretty much the same—you had no money, you had school, you had church and you played sports in your own neighborhood. A few black guys went to white schools, but most of the guys in my neighborhood went to Crispus Attucks. The guys I played with I try to stay in touch with and I still see them whenever I’m in Indianapolis for functions. But when I was young you couldn’t go really go anywhere other than your neighborhood anyway. It was just taboo. You couldn’t go downtown. The only time I ever went downtown was to catch the bus back to Tennessee to visit my grandparents.
SLAM: How old were you when you moved from Tennessee to Indianapolis?
Big O: Four or five years old.
SLAM: And how quick did the love of basketball come up?
Big O: The thing about poor kids, they gravitate to sports. No one on our street had any money, so all the guys did was play ball: in the parks, on the street, or any land they could find, really. Baseball, football, basketball. That’s all we had. We had nothing else. I always tell people, if I was from the suburbs I don’t think I would have had the career I had. Playing basketball was an outlet for me; a chance to do something fun. All the guys in those areas were great players.
SLAM: What age were you when it clicked that you were different and better than the other kids?
Big O: I never thought of that. There were some great players who didn’t understand the organization of basketball and how to take orders. There were some great players who didn’t like to go to class. That’s what you have in the ghetto sometimes—guys who are great players that don’t want anyone telling them what to do. What I was able to do was play against all different levels of competition, and I was always just trying to get better. I really never said, ‘hey, I’m better than anyone else.’ I just wanted to have the chance to play against anybody, and I did…And after my freshman year I grew about six inches, which got me to 6-3 or so and helped me a lot.
SLAM: Where do you live now?
Big O: Cincinnati. I played college ball at Cincinnati, then played with the Royals there, then moved to Milwaukee and stayed there for five years, then came back. I’ve been in Cincinnati since 1976.
SLAM: Do you go to Bearcat games?
Big O: Yeah, I go to Bearcat games. They had a little down year. You know, in college ball I think people put too much of an emphasis on the coaches. Sure, they play an important part, but not to the point that it should take away from your educational goals. When any player tells me there going to such and such school because of the coach, I say, ‘You know, son, that’s fine. I’m sure he’s a nice guy and whatnot, but think about your life—what’s best for you. Think about picking a school where if you don’t play basketball you can still get a job. They never think of that at all. There are some schools that use predominantly black players and done very well, they never hire these kids when they get out of school. Those little towns never use them at all.
SLAM: You make a fair point. I don’t understand the culture in college basketball where it’s all about the coaches and they are the big stars is a little much.
Big O: I mean, it’s all right to like a coach, but understand that someone has to say ‘hey, listen, maybe you should go here.’ And I don’t think the players even really know the coaches at that point. The coaches just visit them and tell them what they want to hear: ‘you’re going to do this, you’re going to do that, you’re going to play pro ball.’ It’s not guaranteed! If you can really play you can get into pro ball, but you better get your degree. The sad thing about it is, a lot of kids don’t even get through college.
SLAM: What was the college process like for you? I understand there were a lot of schools that wouldn’t even have you.
Big O: That’s for sure. My first choice was Indiana. I also looked at Purdue, looked at Michigan. I didn’t know much about UCLA and I wasn’t about to get on a plane to go out there. I wanted to get a business degree and I chose Cincinnati. You know, recruiting wasn’t anything like it is today. They didn’t have these rankings—top 50, top 5, top 2. I mean, people don’t know. I just think there are more good kids out there that you just need to find.
SLAM: One big topic I wanted to discuss with you while we have you is the Hall of Fame. This was just the latest controversial year of elections, where not a single player was chosen. This year’s class has five coaches, one referee and one team. What are your thoughts on that? I don’t understand it.
Big O: I think what you have today is a backlash against players. And I hate to say this, but it’s against black players. Where people who are voting for these players have some kind of personal bias against getting them in the Hall of Fame. It’s inconceivable for me to think that the Basketball Hall of Fame is not inducting a basketball player into the Hall of Fame. If coaches want to be in, there should be a coaches Hall of Fame. Every time they take a coach in, or a referee in, or a contributor, that knocks out a player. And then those guys want to get their friends in. It’s become a social club.
SLAM: Who votes?! Do you have a vote?
Big O: No, they wouldn’t give me a vote. I’m sure it’s a group of writers across the country, and it’s supposed to be secretive. That’s fine. But every year, I mean…Football does it right—they take players every year. And then, by the way, they’ll take in a coach, or a writer, or something, but no writer or coach or anything should go in ahead of players. Right now the Basketball Hall of Fame has a horrible problem on its hands.
SLAM: I don’t know if you talk to anyone from the League, but I’d think the NBA would be annoyed at this. It’s disrespectful to them when their players aren’t elected in.
Big O: I don’t know. I’ve heard that the NBA exerts a lot of influence on the Hall of Fame.
SLAM: But it’s not working! Or are you saying the NBA doesn’t care that it’s players aren’t getting put in?
Big O: Maybe they don’t. I mean, they let guys get in for college ball. There are guys, I really shouldn’t say this, but I don’t think they should be in. Again, to me, the Hall of Fame should be for players who did great things in professional ball. There are not enough guys in for what they did as pros. There’s been a lot of talk about it, but they’re not going to do anything about it. When you keep out great players, guys don’t want to be around the Hall of Fame. I don’t feel good being around the Hall of Fame with the situation the way it is now. And no one says anything about it.
SLAM: Well, we’re going to try. I’m talking about it now and I think we may do a negative story in the magazine about the Hall’s procedures soon. I think it will change because the Hall is hurting themselves and there are going to be less visitors if people can’t go see the players they loved. The fans want to see players, I think.
Big O: It’s not even in that good of a place. Springfield, Mass. You’ve got to want to go there. They’re not getting walk-in traffic.
SLAM: Yeah, but no Hall of Fames are that convenient. Look at the Baseball Hall of Fame. In the middle of nowhere. But people want to go there. I’ve driven to the Basketball Hall of Fame because I wanted to go there. But if the fans’ heroes aren’t being put in, they’re not going to want to go. They want to see Adrian Dantley, Dennis Johnson, guys you mentioned before we started like Chet Walker and Gus Johnson.
Big O: You’re right. There has been a lot of negativity around the Hall of Fame this year. How can the voters look in the mirror after a class that doesn’t include a single player? I guess they hide behind that cloak of secrecy. It’s a mess, it’s terrible.
SLAM: Let’s jump ahead to today. Are you a fan of today’s game?
Big O: To a certain point, yes. I watched games all weekend. You know, there are so many phantom fouls it’s unbelievable. It’s almost like when you play defense, you have to get out of the guys way. I thought you were supposed to stand your ground. Do the referees even know what they’re calling? When you have to have a line on the floor to tell when a guy is charging, I think you’re in trouble. If you’re an offensive player, just run into me and they’ll call it blocking. So I have to get out of your way. There’s also too much carrying. I think the guards are more successful than they should be because you can’t even breathe on them. There are times when the guys are obviously just trying to draw a foul and they can get a call by just throwing the ball up anywhere.
SLAM: Well, they definitely changed the rules a couple years ago to make the game more guard friendly, but that’s because the scores were getting so slow and some people thought the defense was getting too physical.
Big O: It wasn’t the defense, it was because the college game came into the pros. Coaches in college micromanage and pound the ball instead of getting out and running like Phoenix does. The coaches shouldn’t tell their teams to walk the ball down the floor; you run it. That’s what makes you professional—run the ball down the floor and get some easy baskets! Get the big man running, too. That’s how you should play the game. You want to walk the ball up the court? Go back to college or go overseas.
SLAM: So I take it you like how the Suns play?
Big O: Yeah, I like how they play. They’ve got to guard somebody, though. They’ll beat the Lakers, but the Lakers are a ruined team. You know, one guy can’t do it. Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 points a game one year, and they didn’t win many games [Note: Wilt’s ’61-62 Warriors team did go 49-31 and lost in Eastern Conference Finals]. Basketball is a team game. I know Kobe is a great basketball player and has done well, but if one guy is going to take all the shots…
SLAM: Can you name some guys from today that you enjoy watching?
Big O: Oh, there are a lot of guys I like to watch play. I still like to see Kobe. LeBron, Wade, Duncan, I like that backcourt Detroit has. There are a lot of players I like. Then there’s some I’d like to see play smarter. There’s too much one-on-one play, where guys just come down and shoot like it’s a playground game. You know who does that? I hope it works out for him, because he promised Houston would get out of the first round. I’m talking about Tracy McGrady. He just shoots the ball from anywhere. If he’s making them, that’s fine, but he ain’t gonna’ make them forever.
SLAM: I hear you. But it’s weird with him, because at his height and with his athleticism, he really can get a shot off pretty much whenever he wants.
Big O: But you’re not going to make all those shots, especially from way outside.
SLAM: Last question: after you retired, did you still play pick-up ball, or was it too tough of an adjustment to play on such a low level?
Big O: I played once in awhile, but guys at the Y don’t know how to play. They don’t know anything about a pick, about moving the ball and screening away, about weak side passes. They just come down and shoot. And they expected me to get all the rebounds. Here I am, an all-pro guard, and the guys at the YMCA expected me to rebound for them. I played for awhile, but I finally quit about five years ago. I’d be out there playing, and good Lord, I couldn’t get any shots.