Cincinnatians raise their eyes with special pride and pleasure these days to the group of hills overlooking the city where sits their fine municipal university. For there, enthroned over city, campus and the national collegiate basketball scene, is the supple sienna-skinned young athlete on the opposite page. He is Oscar Robertson, easily the best all-round player in college today, though most appreciated for the single skill he here demonstrates—a scoring touch that is at once as delicate and precise as the thrust of a surgeon. It is the bright miracle of sport that the hearts of a whole city—occasionally, a nation—can be lifted and quickened .by the accomplishments of such a gifted youngster in a simple game.
Robertson is 6 feet 4½ inches tall and weighs 195 pounds. This is not an unusual pairing of physical factors, but in him they are so superbly blended and proportioned, and are driven by such a fission-fast nervous system, that he achieves the graceful, swift appearance of a large and lithe cat. In the flat, he appears to flow over the hardwood court, hunched protectively over the dribbled ball; in the air, he hangs, magically, for long moments while he decides whether to shoot or pass; in one spot, he is yet in motion, feinting with hands, faking with head, weaving on a pivot. These skills brought him unanimous All-America selection as a sophomore last season, after he had won the national scoring title with an average of 35.1 points per game and a total of 984, both records for a collegian in his first year of competition. Along the way, he also set new marks for NCAA tournament play, the Missouri Valley Conference, the state of Ohio and for Madison Square Garden, where he scored more points in one game than any player, amateur or professional, before him. Least noticed but probably most important of all is the fact that he led his own Cincinnati team not only in scoring but in rebounding and assists as well, a combination which reflects his incalculable value as a team player.
In the wake of these achievements, an unprecedented tidal wave of publicity has engulfed him: an endless stream of press, radio and television interviewers; magazine and newsreel cameramen; bids for personal appearances; award presentations; to say nothing of the pressing crowds who simply want to meet him, shake his hand and get his autograph. He has been serialized, eulogized, taped, televised, photographed, biographed and recorded. Not a day goes by without at least one interviewer trying to catch him in his one free hour between classes and team practice, or meeting him at an airport en route to a game, or phoning to request such a session. And the remarkable thing is that, in all the reams of copy, so little of Oscar Robertson has emerged other than his ability as an athlete.
One reason for this is Robertson himself. Normally diffident and noncommittal, he is often completely unresponsive. Local Cincinnati newsmen have long since resigned themselves, for example, to the typical Robertson comment after a game: "Well, we won; they lost." (It is worth noting that, because he is naturally warm and friendly and delivers such answers with an engaging smile and a shrug, his lack of responsiveness has not cost him any friends among the press.)
January 26, 1959
One Cincinnati reporter, Lee Allen of the Enquirer, took another tack, followed the trail back to Robertson's home in Indianapolis and from there to the family's origins in Tennessee. He discovered that Oscar's forebears had been slaves and that his greatgrandfather, before his death at the age of 116, was considered the oldest living American. Another reporter, Milton Gross of the New York Post, won Robertson's confidence (and, eventually, his friendship) by taking him to meetings with Roy Campanella and Sugar Ray Robinson, and had Robertson tell him that he'd once been a tough little slum kid who had to be tossed off his high school junior varsity team before he learned to behave.
In those two items lie the keys to Robertson's personality and his future actions. He is highly sensitive to the problems he faces daily as a Negro, and he is wholly dedicated to becoming a professional athlete and making a lot of money at it. As noted, these facts have been largely unexplored, likely because they lead relentlessly to the conclusion that Robertson is not happy at Cincinnati and wonders whether he soon will have any reason for staying there. A guest reporter on campus, well treated by Basketball Coach George Smith and Public Relations Man Tom Eicher, both hospitable men and devoted to their athletes, is reluctant to come away with a story which will cause distress to such hosts—indeed, to all of Robertson-worshiping Cincinnati. But the facts are inescapable.
In his Coke-bottle-cluttered dormitory room the other day, Robertson tried to explain this. As he spoke—haltingly, one careful word at a time—he tossed, bounced and fingered the basketball he always keeps in the room. It wasn't, he said, the mere fact that on certain trips with the team he was obliged to take segregated quarters, or that, "Hell, there's a cafe and a movie house just a few steps off campus where I'm not welcome," or the abuse he takes from spectators on certain road games. It was that and more, which he summed up as, "There's no real social life for me here...."
Robertson does not believe that he'd be better off elsewhere, and he does not care to fix the blame. "I'm no crusader.... It's a crazy world, but I can't like it." He is the shining star of a team of basketball players, among whom he cannot forget he is not an equal, though he will not be quoted in the words with which he expresses his true feelings.
Would he be happier playing with the all-Negro Globetrotters? The answer is obvious. "Sure, I'd like to play with them. When they come to town I go down and sit on the bench, and when I come back afterward people say, 'Hey, we hear you've signed to play with the Trotters.' Well, it's not true. I haven't even talked to anyone about it. But they're a swell bunch, they get to travel all over the world, they put on a good show, have a good time together...and make money. Sure, they don't play real basketball. They're putting on a show and they know it—man, you can't be serious all the time—and they're enjoying themselves."
Watching Robertson's animated face as he says this, it is difficult to doubt that he will one day choose to do the same as Wilt Chamberlain did last year—leave school for a year of fun and companionship (even more than for Globetrotter cash) before joining the pro basketball league.
The likelihood is increased when it becomes clear that he has lost interest completely in his studies. "Statistics, theories of economics," he says, with a wave at the books on his desk. "I can't work at that stuff. It bores me." He was, it should be noted, an excellent student in high school, a fair student last year and is a poor student this year. The decline is the direct result of his growing and now firm conviction that his future spells out basketball, and nothing else.
Finally, it is abundantly clear, though he will not be quoted on this, either, that he has learned everything he can as a college player and has already achieved even more fame than he could have hoped for in order to enhance his value as a professional. This last, he will admit, was the real reason why he chose Cincinnati over the 75-odd schools that bid for him. Though many other reasons have been offered, Robertson says, "I did want a college close to home. But I also wanted to play with a team that played in New York and Philadelphia and some of those other big places in the East. That's where you get the prestige." And Cincinnati regularly plays such teams as NYU, Temple, Seton Hall, La Salle and St. Joseph's.
Robertson was, of course, right in suspecting that nationwide publicity would be his reward for a good performance in Madison Square Garden. On his first visit there, last year, he scored a record 56 points against Seton Hall. And though he was deliberately fed the ball by his teammates in the closing minutes of the game, he dazzled the assembled eastern and wire-service writers present with every shot and move in the book, and he's been in the heaviest headlines, coast to coast, ever since.
There is, Robertson apparently feels, no room further up for him in his present situation. There is only a way out.
If he takes it, much of the glory that is Cincinnati's today will turn to ashes. But it is ashes in Oscar Robertson's mouth already.