It was 13 autumns ago that Oscar Robertson came to town to play basketball as a freshman at the University of Cincinnati. From the moment he arrived, Robertson was a celebrity, and if he had to share the local limelight it was mostly with a high school marvel from Middletown—Jerry Lucas. Certainly there was no competition from the Royals. They were in Rochester and did not get to Cincinnati until the following year.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the bankrupt Royals should choose Cincinnati as their next home, a solution to their problems. The National Basketball Association still honored territorial draft rights and anyone with a map could appreciate the potential of resettling along the banks of the Ohio River and holding out until first Robertson and then Lucas got out of college. Well, they got the O and Luke all right, but the results, unfortunately, were not precisely what they had hoped for. Cincinnati has never been exactly home sweet home for the Royals.
Robertson turned 30 the other day, reaching that mystic moment when all pro players automatically are ordained athletically middle-aged. For Robertson, however, the day was no more than a technical milestone. Player representative for the whole NBA, he makes something over $100,000 a year and no longer is there much contention over who is the best all-round basketball player of all time. Lucas is not quite as old as Robertson—although his inflamed knees have, in the past, placed him closer to retirement—and he does not make quite so much money, but his position is assured, too. He is the finest rebounding cornerman that the game has seen.
Robertson and Lucas are the Cincinnati Royals. Coming off its first year in seven in which it did not make the playoffs, the team began this season with its best start since 1960. Even with the most difficult schedule of the contenders, the Royals are in fourth place in the Eastern Division, only three games out of first. It is easy, in fact, to project the Royals into the lead. While Baltimore has fattened up with 11 games against expansion teams, Boston has had 10 against the relative setups, Philadelphia has had seven and Cincinnati only three.
December 9, 1968
In response to the team's comeback, Cincinnati fans have hardly trampled down the gates of the Gardens, averaging an embarrassing 4,100. The season's largest crowd—7,103—came out two weeks ago for a game against Philadelphia. "Well, yes, we did have a lot of orphans in for that one," a team official admitted. And not all the home games are even in Cincinnati, since the Royals take one-third of their home schedule to Cleveland and Omaha. And although Cincinnati tickets, at $4 tops, are—with Baltimore's—the lowest in the league, still the citizens rail at the tariff. The Royals, finally, are not carried on radio, not even FM.
It is not only the Royals that Cincinnati has chosen to ignore, of course. The Reds, the only club in baseball that possessed a surfeit of those exciting .250 hitters, had almost the worst home attendance in the National League. A first-class minor league hockey franchise folded at season's end a few years ago. College football does not go. College basketball does, but not for the front runners who gave up their season tickets the day Robertson—and presumably victory—departed.
Pro football expanded into 13 other cities before it finally agreed to take a chance on Cincy. The Bengals are all the rage in town and have clearly hurt the Royals and other athletic enterprises—not that their first-year success has been overwhelming. They do not sell out a 28,000-seat stadium. "It's a funny city," says Royals General Manager Pepper Wilson, a native Cincinnatian who is probably the best-liked executive in the NBA. "The original prophet without honor could have settled here. The best thing that ever happened to the Bengals was that they were not granted local ownership. Paul Brown's name is selling that team. An outsider. The people here have a tendency to look down on their own kind, their own people."
What appeal the Royals possess can be attributed almost entirely to Robertson and Lucas. Yet with his utter excellence in nearly every area of the game, Robertson produces a curious effect. He is so good that what, in fact, is the ultimate in style and grace appears to the average basketball fan to be only the prosaic, workmanlike effort of a mechanic. Lucas, just as textbookishly efficient as Robertson with his specialty—grabbing the ball off the backboard and getting it out to his teammates—is equally unappreciated by Cincinnatians.
Men like Coach Ed Jucker and Connie Dierking, the reconstituted pivotman who played with Robertson in college, maintain that he still occasionally can produce some new trick for them, more than a decade after they started watching him. But the moves are subtle and refined, like the one Jucker mentioned the other day: "You're allowed a step and a half after you dribble and you can do anything up to the time that you put the second foot down. Most people are finished as soon as they dribble. Not Oscar, he's just getting started. He can use that extra half step, three-quarter step—whatever it is—for a dozen things. Before he releases the ball, he's started a whole new play."
The story of Robertson's true excellence lies in the statistics. Even his most practiced observers are constantly amazed when his point total, assists and rebounds are tabulated after a game. Unlike most of the dynamic stars of the sport—people like Elgin Baylor, Rick Barry, Bill Russell and Elvin Hayes—Oscar manages to be superior in an unobtrusive, almost quiet way.
Robertson is generally unmoved by praise and is reluctant to discuss his talent at any length, but he will acknowledge that some appreciation is important to him. "Well, I am proud if I can be consistent," he says. "I hope I'm always consistent, because, look, that's what makes a pro. That's the difference."
Robertson has been almost eerily consistent. In eight years as a pro he has never averaged less than 28.3 points a game or more than 31.4, and in six of the eight years his average varied less than a point. In assists and free throws he has maintained the same level of consistency. He is like a .333 hitter who arrived at that figure by going 1 for 3 with one walk in every game of the season. It would be reasonable to suppose that somewhere along the line a scorer of Robertson's stripe would put absolutely everything together and come up with a 65-or 75-point game. "That will just never happen," Robertson says, a bit appalled. "Never. What would that possibly prove?"
One of the more curious contradictions about both Robertson and Lucas is that neither considers himself a scorer. This is patently absurd. In NBA history only Wilt Chamberlain has averaged higher than Robertson, and Lucas ranks 11th. Nevertheless, both consider shooting secondary. "My primary purpose," Robertson says, "is to get the team moving, establish community out there and make some money."
Lucas, the rebounder, is even less offensive-minded this year than usual. "I'm not a great one-on-one player," he says, "and I've never been good with the ball, so there's never been any sense clearing out a side for me. This year it seems that I'm also just not getting as involved in the offense as I was last year. There's nothing special to it. It's just the way it's been working out."
Instead of going straight to Lucas, the ball has been directed more often to Dierking, who has enjoyed one of the more fascinating NBA careers, and to Tom Van Arsdale, who moved into the backcourt with Robertson after he came over from Detroit in a trade last season that brought along the fifth Royals starter, John Tresvant. The five starters are all averaging over 30 minutes a game, which puts them in a league of their own compared to the rest of the NBA. Jucker has not been disposed to give his subs much of a chance to play. "He's gonna burn his big five out by February," says one NBA coach.
Against Detroit Friday night at Cleveland, Dierking, with 39 minutes, saw the least action. Van Arsdale, who took himself out of an earlier game because he had run so hard he was convinced he had just had a heart attack, left this one just before the end in spry form, having been ejected for fighting with Happy Hairston. Lucas took only 10 shots, but he made 18 points and got 21 rebounds. Robertson played every second and had one of his good scoring nights with 40 points. It was a bit helter-skelter at times but the Royals won going away.
The next morning the team had to be up at 5:30 for a flight back to Cincinnati. This was not as bad as it had been. In past years the team traveled from its Cleveland home to its Cincinnati home by bus. But by the time the Royals took the floor at the Gardens Saturday night against the big Atlanta team they were so listless they could sustain no fire. Jucker even took Robertson out for five long minutes in the first half, which failed to help at all. The Royals stumbled to a decisive defeat.
Generally, in any game in which they can stay close, the Royals have the edge because they have Robertson going for them down the stretch. Throughout his whole career it has been a rare game when he has not scored the majority of his points in the second half. It has been suggested that Robertson paces himself with the idea of saving his best for the end, or that he concentrates on divvying up baskets among his teammates early in the game. Jucker rather agrees. "He feels out his man early," the coach says, "until he's seen what he's up against." In any event, Robertson takes over the Royals' destiny in the last few minutes, which means that the Royals are in rather good hands.
For his part, Lucas really does, as he suggests, remain on the periphery—starting the sweep down court, edging in on the weak side for an offensive rebound position or trailing the play. From a 230-pound rookie, he has grown up to weigh 255. The extra pounds do not, however, add any apparent stress to his knees, which are at last free from significant pain. He happened upon an anti-inflammatory pill last year that, probably, saved his career. Cortisone no longer worked; Butazolidin-based drugs remained ineffective and the pain was always such that he was unable to climb stairs or drive a car, or sit or do anything, really, that required bending his knees. It is significant that Robertson, out much of last season with a hamstring pull, and Lucas, beset by his knee problems, are this year healthy for the first time since 1965-66. That was the year when they nearly upset the Celtics in the playoffs.
Jucker, who won the NCAA title in 1961 and 1962 with balanced Cincinnati teams, is trying to establish more of the same with the Royals. He still gives the game the old college try, saying such things as "make it hurt a little bit" in huddles, and dressing in collegiate herringbone tweeds that produce occasional titters from his fashionably mod young pros. Jucker also delights his charges by forgetting names regularly. He has announced: "John and Tresvant will be the starting forwards," and once he broke up a highly strategic time-out session when he suddenly could not remember Chamberlain's name. He ended up, lamely, calling Chamberlain "the big kid."
For all of his aberrations, Jucker has the support of his players and guides them with a firm and sympathetic hand. To be honest, he has molded a team out of Robertson and Lucas and cast-off's. Tresvant quit after four games in his first shot at the NBA and has been traded twice. Dierking's record is perhaps the strangest in the league. He started with Syracuse in 1958, quit after two undistinguished years and then came back in '63 for three more years of forgettable accomplishment with a variety of teams. Then two years ago he suddenly had a giddy season, averaging 9.3 points a game. Last year he went berserk and raised that to 16.4. This year he is at 17.8. Jucker characterizes him as "like good old red wine." Dierking's emergence as a scorer made it possible for the Royals to give up center prospect Jim Fox along with Hairston in the trade last year that brought in Tresvant and Van Arsdale.
It has been a year of redemption for the Van Arsdales. Tom's twin, Dick, was let go by the Knicks in the expansion draft, a move that many think was responsible for New York's slow start. Dick has been the mainstay of the Phoenix team. Tom, averaging 18.4 points a game with the Royals, escaped virtual anonymity at Detroit, where a slew of shooters kept him on the bench. "You die sitting there," he says. "I remember—remember? I can't forget—this one game last year when I was sent in with less than a minute to go. My third year in the league, and I'm down to getting sent in with less than a minute. I just wanted to kneel there and cry."
Jucker has made a point all year with his players that they must come back from last year's failures. With the Royals, though, it was not anyone's failure so much as it was the injury to Robertson. Of that, Robertson says, "There's no feeling on my part that we have to prove anything. You get hurt, you get hurt."
What does have to prove something—and this may only be what Jucker really is thinking about—is the franchise. It has had a speckled existence and has passed through several hands. Once transferals came so fast, the one after the other, that General Manager Wilson had to make a phone call to find out who, in fact, was his employer.
The team is now owned—56% of it—by the Jacobs concessions of Buffalo, the same group that owns 80% of the Cincinnati Gardens. This may yet prove a boon, since out-of-towners are so admired by Cincinnatians. Also, it is highly unlikely that Jacobs will move its most important Gardens tenant to somebody else's arena. So Cincinnati has the Royals, and it has Robertson, Lucas and at least three other players, and if by some miracle all five manage to sweat out the season to the end it might have a championship contender, too, the kind that should even draw 7,200 non-orphans some perfect night.