SLAM 19: Oscar Robertson

SLAM: Is there any one aspect of those three areas of the game [points, rebounds and assists] that was most important to you?

ROBERTSON: Not for me. Because from where I came as a basketball player, that’s the way I learned to play. There wasn’t any importance placed on any particular area for me; shooting versus assists versus rebounding. My game was just to go out and start playing. If you play hard enough, you’re going to get your shots, you’re going to get your rebounds, you’re going to get your assists. I never put an emphasis on one area of the game. Naturally you’ve got to score, but in order to play successfully and win you have to do two things: rebound and play defense. And that has never changed throughout the history of the game of basketball.

SLAM: Speaking about different eras, could your ’60 Olympic Team beat the original Dream Team? I’ve heard some people say that you could have – easily.

ROBERTSON: Again, we’re talking about different times in the game of basketball. When we went out, we were just out of college, we didn’t have the experience of playing years and years in the NBA. We didn’t have the experience of being picked collectively by a group of four or five guys. Now, let’s take all of the players that played on that team: Bellamy, Lucas, myself, West, Havlicek – let them have eight or nine years in the league and let’s play! I mean, what did [the Dream team] do as a group of players that we didn’t? They couldn’t guard any better than we could, they couldn’t shoot any better than we could, couldn’t rebound any better. The Dream Team played against countries and beat them; we beat everybody ourselves – even at that time.

Once again, let’s be honest. The Dream Team is a concept developed by someone to sell stuff. It has nothing to do with playing basketball.

SLAM: If you were playing ball today, with the salaries the way the salaries are, how much do you think you’d be worth?

ROBERTSON: Oh, I have no idea. I don’t even think about that. It would be a lot of money, but who cares? I played my years. The game of basketball today, man. I don’t know how they are going to pay all of these guys in the future. You know? What can a team afford? I guess the Bulls can afford to pay Michael [Jordan] $25-30 million; the key is, what are they going to pay Scottie Pippen? That’s going to be interesting.

SLAM: I know you are extremely successful with Orchem [Robertson is president of the Orchem Chemical company in Cincinnati] but do you have any interest in getting involved in any corporate or management aspect of basketball and sports?

ROBERTSON: Naw, they don’t want me in there.

SLAM: Not your thing, huh? I hear you. How do you feel about Magic Johnson as a ballplayer? I mean, he and Penny Hardaway are the ones everyone compares to you.

ROBERTSON: Magic was a great basketball player, an exciting basketball player. He loved the game of basketball. He had very good control of the game. I think he made a lot of average ball players great. He was in the right place at the right time for that team. Because if he would’ve gotten drafted by Utah, we wouldn’t have heard that much about Magic. Well, we would have heard about him, but not like you did in L.A.

Do you remember [Utah’s] Darrell Griffith? Now there was a great college and high school basketball player who never got the exposure when he got to the pros, partially because of where he played.

SLAM: What about Penny?

ROBERTSON: I think the greatest thing to happen to him was for Shaq to leave. I think his game was slowed down when Shaq was there. He was still a great player, but I think now the guy can be devastating. I like to see him push the ball, make the passes and really attack. Put pressure on the defense. Which is all Jordan does. That’s what makes him great. When Jordan gets the ball, he’s going. He has that confidence. He’s not afraid to take that shot and he knows it’s going in. Hardaway, with his size, I think can be just as effective.

SLAM: After years in Cincinnati, you were traded to the Milwaukee Bucks where, with Kareem, Bobby Dandridge, Lucius Allen, you won a championship. People said that you were on the downside of your career. Between one and 10, how do you rate your game when you got to the Bucks?

ROBERTSON: Scoop, don’t let these white reporters fool you. I was playing great basketball then. Even my last year, when I was averaging 12-15 points a game – that’s not because I couldn’t average more. But we were winning and we were winning great, and we had a lot of known players. I knew my role was to move the ball. See, the press, then and sometimes now, will do anything to discredit the black athlete. Will do anything. Don’t get me wrong, it is warranted sometimes, because some black athletes are just the pits! But who wrote the articles that you read? That’s the key to the whole thing.

SLAM: I heard your older brother was nice, too.

ROBERTSON: My brother Bailey was very intense, talked a lot of trash. He could play. He played guard in high school and was pretty successful. We had a middle brother, and we all played together. We competed all of the time. All we had was sports, because we didn’t have any money.

SLAM: Was he better than you?

ROBERTSON: He had a better shot, but I outgrew him. He was part of the first all-black basketball team that played in the state finals in Indiana. As a matter of fact, I think he still holds the state scoring record for Indiana from when he attended Indiana Central College [now the University of Indianapolis]. Because of race relations at the time, he didn’t get the opportunity to go to a lot of the big schools. I came out three years after him, so I was able to take advantage of some of the things he was unable to.

SLAM: My father used to say that you were the smartest player who is ever going to play the game of basketball. When I was growing up, that’s all I heard from the older cats. All they talked about was how smart you were. How does it make you feel when you hear something like that?

ROBERTSON: Well, I was a smart player. But for many years, in every sport, everyone would say that blacks were irresponsible, that only the white guys were smart. If you go back a little bit in time, you’ll see that. They’d say, “Oh, he’s smart,” but this is a tag that was never put on the black athlete. And it was done by the press, it was done on a deliberate basis. They just didn’t want to say that the black athlete was smart. It’s that racism thing again that we have to go through.

[When] I was in high school in ’55 or ’56, we just had athletic ability. I wasn’t considered smart then. We could just out-jump and out-run all of the white kids. But we played smart basketball. We played ’em slow when we had to, we ran when we had to. We knew when to slow the ball up, when to speed the game up. I knew who to get the ball to. I was not a predictable player on the floor. Yeah, I was a smart player, but so were a lot of other players that I played with. I wasn’t smart just because I got into the pro ranks; I was smart when I was in high school. Basketball players don’t become smart all at once; it takes years and years of playing the game.

SLAM: OK, last thing, what about the rivalry between you and Jerry West? That was real, wasn’t it?

ROBERTSON: That was only because one of us was white and one of us was black. We had two totally different games. It was unfair. It was unfair to Jerry and also to myself, because we didn’t play the same type of game. Jerry was the shooting guard, and I was just the opposite: ball-handling, setting up everything. But, you know, when you grow up in this atmosphere, you become used to that [racism]; those things don’t bother you.

[I grew] up as a young person born in the south [Tennessee] and went to school in Indiana, where I’ve been told is the home of the KKK, so a lot of things don’t bother me. They don’t bother me and they didn’t bother me.

SLAM: Well, they shouldn’t, because if they did you wouldn’t be effective in doing what you have to do.

ROBERTSON: Exactly. You cannot let hating people get to you. You can’t be vindictive and you can’t have that “get even” thought in your head and be a good athlete. But I will say this, you should never forget. Never forget what happened to you.