Original Old School: Grand Royal

Only one man has ever averaged a triple-double for an entire season: Oscar Robertson. However, that isn’t the only thing that defined the career of “The Big O.” In this interview from SLAM 19, Robertson discusses his career and the differences between different eras in the NBA. — Ed.

SLAM 19: Oscar Robertson

by Scoop Jackson

Once upon a time on a basketball court in Lake Geneva, WI, an eight-year-old child shot hoops alone. His small hands barely covered one panel of the lopsided orange piece of rubber. From his shoulder he hoisted the ball in the air. Over and over, he repeated the same routine. Aim, set, hoist. Some connected; others didn’t.

From a distance, an older gentleman watched. He watched the child attempt to perfect something few before him were able to perfect. Whether or not the man saw something of himself in the child, or just promise and determination, will never be known. Whatever the reason, the man stepped to the child and shared his wisdom: “Don’t push the ball, shoot it. Here, let me show you.”

Twenty-five years later, Oscar Robertson meets the child he helped that day. I tell him that even though I never perfected what he gave me, I’ve never forgotten the experience. My shot never fell like his – then again, whose did? Oscar himself was eight years old when he received his first basketball. Many times he shot alone. Aim, set, shoot. All connect, never miss.

In 14 years of playing basketball in the NBA, Oscar Robertson set standards. Some raised the stakes, others created illusions. Not the Big O. Notorious for bringing completeness to the floor every night, Robertson became the one man who made Penny Hardaway and Magic Johnson believe basketball was their outlet. He, my friends, was the revolution before it got televised.

Beyond the over-hyped triple-double season, beyond the ’71 NBA Championship, beyond the media-induced racial rivalry between him and Jerry West, lived an agent of change. Forget the 14 NCAA records he set at Cincinnati, forget the two Indiana state high school championships he won at Crispus Attucks, forget the nine first-team All-NBA selections and the three All-Star game MVP’s. What Oscar injected was deeper. Much deeper. His revolution was a quiet one, similar to Hank Aaron’s. It was more about definition than glamour. Substance over notoriety.

On the day after ESPN’s town meeting on race and sports, I called Mr. Robertson’s office. The time had come. I told him about Lake Geneva, he told me about Hoosiers and the economics of life for a black businessman. Again, I learned. After an hour on the phone with the man my father once called, “the smartest basketball player that’s ever going to live,” I learned that it may be a disservice to limit his knowledge and history to just basketball. He may be the smartest person ever; he just happened to play ball for a living.

SLAM: What separated you from all of the others? The one thing I’ve always heard about you is that you are honest, sometimes too honest [laugh]. So be honest with me and tell me what made what you did on the basketball court so special?

ROBERTSON: I just think I was fundamentally sound. Growing up and playing in Indiana as a high school kid, I had the opportunity to play against some great, great athletes – and I learned how to play. It wasn’t about my shooting, it was more about defensive play and other phases of the game. Before I went to high school, the last thing coaches would give us was shooting drills. We could do everything else but shoot the ball. Of course, you had to shoot the ball, but you learned how to shoot the ball yourself.

SLAM: Do you think that some of that is being passed on now, or do you see a lot of that missing in the way the game is being taught and approached today?

ROBERTSON: I think what you have going on now is one, players not celebrating the fundamentals, and two, coaches getting too involved in the game. It’s gotten to a point where they are taking away from the athletes. Trying to control the game, then breaking it down to a one-minute game. The bottom line is, if the athletes don’t play then you don’t become a good coach – no matter who you are. If you don’t have the kids on the floor who have the ability to perform, you get nothing accomplished.

Today you have guys in college that may average 18 points a game, and they are considered great players. Years ago, if you averaged 18 points a game, you’d be considered an average player. That’s what has changed a lot over the years. Those are the things that are different.

SLAM: In high school, you went to Crispus Attucks, right?

ROBERTSON: [Excited] Crispus Attucks!

SLAM: Wasn’t the movie Hoosiers kind of based on your all-black team losing to a small all-white team for the state championship?

ROBERTSON: No. Let me tell something about that. That is the hype of the movie moguls that run…[pause] That’s what’s wrong with the country today. They play the race card at every opportunity. You can’t tell me that there are not racists or racism in this country. [The squad Hoosiers was based on] did not play against an all-black team. They played against a team that was actually ranked as the best team in the state that year. There were only two black guys on that team. Two! In the movie they had an all-black team, black coach and everything. Black against white sells in America.

SLAM: Since we’re on the subject of racism, what did you think of the town meeting last night on ESPN?

ROBERTSON: I thought it was a good meeting; the concept was very good. But I felt they had too many people addressing too many individual issues. It goes down to a selfish thing and an individual thing. People started only talking about things that affected them personally. But the overall picture…let me give you an example: coaching. Why do we have to worry about hiring a coach!?! That’s just one small position when there are VP’s of Operations and president positions that need to be addressed.

Look at all of these new leagues opening up now. Most of the athletes are black. Except for hockey [laugh]. But you look around, look at sports, look at corporate America, and they talk about minorities? Most of the minorities are white woman. But what do we say about it? Nothing. I ask you a question, and you can write this down if you want: Has affirmative action helped black people? I say no.

SLAM: Then answer this for me, how does the business and finance situation in America relate to professional basketball right now? I mean, is there really a difference in the way a major company is run and the way the NBA is run?

ROBERTSON: I don’t think there is a connection. The guys that are playing basketball, football or baseball are making money, and they’re happy about it, and they are being told, “Don’t say this, don’t do that, because it will affect the general public and their opinions of you.” You live right there in Chicago, you know. They’ll say [voice changes], “Don’t say anything political because people will get upset.” [Laughs] I just think it’s a sad state of affairs when a person, be it a doctor or a lawyer or a school teacher or a football player, has to be told by someone else that he or she shouldn’t say anything about this or about that.

SLAM: I agree, but at the same time I don’t see a difference between the NBA and other companies. You’ve got black workers, low-level workers – not necessarily in income but in power – and when you look at the hierarchies of these organizations, you don’t see anything there that represents. There’s nothing there.

ROBERTSON: Let’s be honest, if you are making so many millions of dollars, you want somebody with you you can trust. It happens. Let’s take baseball – they’ve hired a lot of baseball players right off of the playing fields to be managers, but whenever it comes down to somebody black, they always say, “Oh, he’s not ready. Oh, he’s gotta pay his dues.” Or “He can’t do this.”

Don’t criticize me just because you don’t like me as a person. Judge me for what I have done for your company. What have I done for you socially, as a moral human being, a citizen? I go around and make contacts, go to a lot of these shows, make public appearances, talk to the kids, do all of these things. But when it comes to financing and real money and position, it’s a different story. All of a sudden it’s, “Oh, we can’t do this,” and “We can’t do that.” [Sarcastically] I wonder why.

SLAM: Back to basketball, talk to me about the triple-double. Everybody makes a great deal about you going almost two seasons averaging it. It’s almost come to the point where it’s defining you. One, is the triple-double overrated, and two, if it isn’t, how come nobody is able to do now what you were able to do back then?

ROBERTSON: I think the whole thing is, when people start to talk about greatness they cannot understand how I did that. This is the problem. I think it’s grossly unfair, grossly unfair, to match my stats against any of these guys. Because the real terminology of what an assist is has been totally changed. What they talk about as an assist today is different. It really doesn’t matter to me, because I think the way the game is today, they are trying to create fan appeal, fan closeness. And I understand that, but if you talk about these guys today that put up big assist numbers…I’ll say this, if they counted all my assists the way they count them today, I might have had 115,000. I’m telling you right now. [I’m laughing; he’s not.]

I mean, you look at some guys today, and they’ll get 20-24 assists in a game. How are you…come on, 20 assists, you know? They’re throwing the ball to guys that are dribbling he ball four and fives times up the court before they score. Now that was not an assist when I played. But I understand why it has changed and I have no qualms about that, but at the same time I think it is something demeaning when they say these guys have an assist record. But that’s the nature of the game today. The value is in how difficult it was to get an assist years ago.

It’s like the three-point shot. Of course the guys today are going to score a lot of points; they are going to score many more than the guys who played yesteryear. Now, is that a true analysis of who’s a better scorer? I think not. Because those guys that played years ago didn’t play with the three-point shot. It’s not unjust, it’s just the nature of the game today.