King Without a Castle The Royals great who mastered the triple double and pioneered free agency is a man without a team--or a role in the game Oscar Robertson

July 15, 2002
July 15, 2002

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July 15, 2002

Where Are They Now?

King Without a Castle The Royals great who mastered the triple double and pioneered free agency is a man without a team--or a role in the game Oscar Robertson

The Big O is known in basketball circles for being the Big
Grind, a hoops curmudgeon who protests that in his day the
players were better, the coaches smarter, the ball rounder. The
reputation is not entirely undeserved. But today--40 years after
a season in which he averaged a triple double in points,
rebounds and assists--Oscar Robertson wants you to know that he
does not spend his hours stewing in a kettle of his own bile.
Well, wants you to know is a little strong because, frankly, he
doesn't much care what you think. But to set the record straight:

This is an article from the July 15, 2002 issue Original Layout

At 63 Robertson has a life, and it's a damn good one. He's not
rich by the standards of today's athletes (the most he made in a
season was about $250,000 in 1973-74, his last in the NBA), but
he's doing fine. He is the principal owner of three companies:
ORCHEM, which sells chemicals used in industrial cleaning;
ORPACK, which manufactures corrugated boxes; and ORDMS, which
works with companies to streamline their paper flow. He spends
most of his time at ORCHEM headquarters (he owns 100% of that
company) in Fairfield, Ohio, a suburb north of Cincinnati. He
serves on a couple of boards, attends charity and social
functions, gets together with friends in Cincinnati, his adopted
hometown, where he came to play college ball in 1957 and spent
all but four years of a 14-year Hall of Fame NBA career. He and
Yvonne, his wife of 32 years, have three daughters, one of whom
received from him the greatest gift a father can give--life. In
1997 Oscar donated his left kidney to his middle daughter, Tia,
then 33, whose kidneys were failing because of the effects of
lupus. The transplant went well; Tia's disease is in remission,
and neither father nor daughter likes to dwell on it. "It
bothered me when the transplant got so much attention," says
Oscar. "Of course I was going to do it. What father wouldn't?"
He has an 18-inch scar and one less rib as a result of the
surgery (as might be expected from a 6'5" athlete, Robertson's
kidney was one of the largest that doctors at University
Hospital in Cincinnati had ever seen), but he has no lasting
effects, he says, other than that "my wife tells me to drink
less beer."

Robertson even smiles once in a while. "Oscar is happier than he
looks, honest he is," says Yvonne, who met her husband in 1958
when he was an All-America at Cincinnati. "It's just that he's
lived so much of his life with people depending on him. He feels
like so much is riding on everything. He's a serious person."

Serious is a good way to put it. Robertson is the kind of man
who, when a subject is brought up that is likely to raise his
ire, will first tell you that it doesn't bother him, then give
you chapter and verse on why it does, then remind you--rightly
so--that you, not he, brought it up. Banks in Cincinnati? Don't
lend enough money to minority-owned businesses. Minority-owned
businesses? Too often sell out and don't really help their own
people. Converse? Says the shoe company offered him an
endorsement deal in 1999, but he turned it down because
"Converse was there for a lot of white athletes when I was
playing, but they never came to Oscar Robertson." The Milwaukee
Bucks, the franchise for which he played the last four years of
his career? Enjoyed his time with the team, but the organization
held Oscar Robertson Night to send a message that he should
retire. Being named Indiana's alltime Mr. Basketball? Lost its
meaning when he found out he narrowly beat out Damon Bailey,
whom Robertson considers to be far less accomplished than any
number of other Hoosiers schoolboy stars. The officiating in the
NBA's recent postseason? Not up to the standards of championship
basketball. White leadership in Cincinnati? Terrible. Black
leadership in Cincinnati? Terrible.

The list goes on. But the point is, only a man deeply involved
in life, a man who has seen much and been through much, could be
bothered by so many things. And here's something that should
bother us: The man whose name is synonymous with the triple
double and eponymous with the lawsuit that gave free agency to
NBA players isn't nearly as close to the game as he should be.

Robertson grew up hard, first on a farm in Charlotte, Tenn.,
then in a shotgun house (so called because all four rooms were
in a line) on the gritty east side of Indianapolis. He was the
last of three sons of Mazell and Henry Bailey Robertson, who
left the family when Oscar was 12. Mazell worked as a domestic,
a beautician and a short-order cook, often going from one
eight-hour job to another. Oscar heard tales of slavery from his
great-grandfather Marshall Collier, who died in 1954 at 116,
reputed to be America's oldest citizen at the time. Oscar went
to Indianapolis's Crispus Attucks High, named for the
African-American who was the first person killed in the Boston
Massacre in 1770. Robertson desperately wanted to go to Indiana,
but in his only meeting with the Hoosiers' coach, Branch
McCracken, he sensed that he wasn't much wanted because of his

So no one had to inform Oscar Robertson that there were
differences between white America and black America in the 1940s
and '50s. Still, racism never kicked him in the teeth until he
went to Cincinnati as the school's second black athlete. During
a road trip as a sophomore he was asked to check out of the
Shamrock Hotel in Houston and stay in a dorm at all-black Texas
Southern. The next night, as fans at North Texas State in Denton
threw programs at him, Robertson stood at midcourt throughout
pregame warmups, arms folded, seething, turning over in his mind
whether he should play. He did and led the Bearcats to a 94-53
victory, scoring 37 points and grabbing 18 rebounds. The
following season, when he got off a team flight in
Raleigh-Durham, the first thing he saw were two drinking
fountains, one marked COLORED, one marked WHITE. During the
Dixie Classic that followed, he heard the n word dozens of times
along with more insidious insults from fans, who called him
"porter" and "redcap." He thought about quitting basketball but
soldiered on, angry not only at the insults but also at the lack
of support he got from teammates and coach George Smith.

What does a man do with his rage? Robertson channeled it into
basketball, went at the game with a controlled but furious
passion that helped him become college basketball's first
three-time player of the year. After co-captaining (with West
Virginia's Jerry West) the gold-medal-winning 1960 U.S. Olympic
team in Rome, he was a territorial pick of the Cincinnati Royals
and was named NBA Rookie of the Year after the 1960-61 season.
The franchise had won 19 games in each of the two seasons before
Robertson arrived; with him in the lineup, its win total went to
33, then 43 and finally to 55. "It took me five or six years to
become an accomplished player," says West, now the Memphis
Grizzlies' general manager and the player with whom Robertson is
most closely linked. "But from the first game Oscar played, he
looked as if he had been in the league for 10 years. There was
nobody like him." Robertson redefined a point guard position
that had been defined only a few years earlier by the Boston
Celtics' Bob Cousy. Cousy's quarterbacking was flash and dash,
behind-the-back deception, run, run, run; Robertson's was
strength and control, economy of movement, a style that rarely
made the highlight reel. The Big O was the first guard who took
defenders where he wanted to go, using his well-muscled 220
pounds to back them down, his head always up, looking for
cutters, wary of double teams, waving teammates to open spots or
maybe carving out space to release his deadly jumper, held in
one hand, far above his head, virtually unblockable. Cousy was a
stone white guy who played black; Robertson, African-American to
the core of his soul, played white.

The astonishing thing about Robertson's stats is not only that
he averaged 30.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists in
1961-62 but also that he came so close to that triple-double
standard so many other times. In 1963-64 he missed a season
triple double because he averaged "only" 9.9 rebounds. Consider:
In his first eight seasons Robertson never averaged fewer than
29.2 points and 9.5 assists, and in his first five seasons he
never averaged fewer than nine rebounds. Not that anyone paid
special notice; triple doubles weren't part of the lexicon then,
and Robertson was the only player routinely collecting them.
(For comparison's sake, double-double players such as Wilt
Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor didn't get many assists, and
all-arounder West never averaged season doubles in either
assists or rebounds.) "I never heard anything about the
triple-double season until five or six years ago," Robertson
says. "I don't remember ever looking down at a stat sheet and
noticing that all the figures were doubles. Fact is, I never
looked at a stat sheet." Robertson's Royals took his nightly
brilliance for granted. "He was so smart on the court that
whatever he told you to do, you just did it," says Adrian Smith,
a former teammate and still a close friend. "It always seemed to
be the right thing. I guess he made mistakes from time to time,
but I don't remember any."

Robertson was tough on his teammates, his opponents, his
coaches, the referees. His approach to the game and to life in
general was, as his wife says, serious. He became president of
the NBA players' association in 1965, less than a year after he
and a number of other players threatened to stay in the locker
room and boycott the All-Star Game at Boston Garden unless the
league promised to allow union attorney Larry Fleischer to
represent them at collective bargaining sessions. The league
backed down. Robertson then went out and won the game's MVP
award in the East's 111-107 victory. Robertson was still
president of the union when in 1970 it filed suits against the
NBA challenging the merger with the ABA, the player draft and
the reserve clause, which effectively prevented free agency.
When the suits were settled in '76, a guideline removing
compensation for teams who lost free agents was called the Oscar
Robertson Rule, a label it still carries. Robertson served as
union president until his retirement, and then he was the first
president of the Retired Players Association.

As good as Robertson was, his value as a player may not have
been realized until Royals management broke up the team and
traded him to Milwaukee before the 1970-71 season. With
Robertson running the show in Suds Town, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's
scoring average went from 28.8 points per game the previous
season to 31.7, Bobby Dandridge's from 13.2 to 18.4, Greg
Smith's from 9.8 to 11.7. As for Robertson, he sacrificed
numbers for wins, averaging only 19.4 points per game, almost
six points below his standard for the previous season in
Cincinnati and a full 10 points below his career average to that
point. Not coincidentally, the Bucks won the NBA championship,
Robertson's only one. His last season was 1973-74, when the
Bucks won 59 games and took the Celtics to seven games in the
Finals. Robertson, 35, didn't think he was through, but the
Bucks disagreed, so he retired with career averages of 25.7
points, 9.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds. With virtually the same
roster except for Robertson the following season, Milwaukee won
38 games and finished last in the Midwest Division.

The Big O is asked if he's ever seen anyone (read: Michael
Jordan) who was a better all-around player than he was. It's the
kind of question that would send, say, West burrowing into the
ground in horror, but Robertson, after dancing around for a few
seconds and singling out West, Elgin Baylor and Walt Frazier as
particularly tough opponents, plunges in. "Michael is a truly
great player who always seemed to understand what his team
needed from him," says Robertson. "But in the context of playing
the game, no, I don't think he was better. People don't realize
what's asked of you when you get with a team that's not very
good. You have to get the other players in control, you can't
freelance. If I would've--if I could've--shot the ball 30 times
a game [he averaged 18.9 field goal attempts per game for his
career], I would've scored a lot more, I guarantee that."

It's June 2 and Sacramento's Arco Arena is packed for Game 7 of
the Western Conference finals between the Kings and the Los
Angeles Lakers. Wouldn't this have been a great time to dim the
lights and parade out some history? Big buildup and shine the
spotlight on the one and only, Mr. Triple Double, the Big O.
O.K., Lakers, you've got Magic and Kareem and West. But Oscar is

Only longtime followers of the NBA realize that. The Cincinnati
Royals relocated to Kansas City-Omaha in 1972, changing their
name to the Kings, and then moved to Sacramento in 1985. The Big
O, such an important part of the NBA's history, essentially
became a man without a team. Robertson is not the only immortal
in that position--Bob Pettit, to name one, spent his entire
career as a Hawk, but no one seems to remember that the
franchise moved from Milwaukee to St. Louis to Atlanta--but it's
sad and inappropriate. "It would mean something to me, because I
remember how great the man was," says Jerry Reynolds, who has
been a part of the Kings' franchise as coach, general manager,
personnel man and broadcaster for 17 years, "but the fact is,
Oscar Robertson doesn't mean diddly-squat to our fans."
Moreover, in the almost three decades since he retired,
Robertson has never been approached about being a coach,
assistant or otherwise, nor has any pro team asked him to work
with its players, scout or evaluate talent.

Robertson was never the kind of man to walk around with a
sandwich board advertising IMMORTAL FOR HIRE (as, say, Rick
Barry is). The year after Robertson retired, he did color
commentary for CBS on NBA broadcasts but was fired after one
season. He believes that his involvement with the union,
combined with the color of his skin, made him unattractive to
the network and NBA brass. (Perhaps that's true, but he wasn't a
very good commentator, something he has in common with many
first-year broadcasters.) For those same reasons, Robertson
believes, he was not asked to coach, and laughs off the fact
that Bill Russell, an African-American, had been the
player-coach of the Celtics for two years by then. "If Red
Auerbach had hired anyone else," says Robertson, "how could that
coach have gotten along with Bill?" Robertson bristles at the
notion that his perfectionism and bluntness would've worked
against him as a coach. "That kind of thinking comes from guys
who never played, coaches who got in somehow and wanted to make
sure you didn't get in," says Robertson. "I played ball for 14
years, big games, lots of pressure, and one of the things I
always noticed as a player was who should be in and who
shouldn't be in certain situations. I never said anything,
because I wasn't the coach. But I know how to evaluate talent,
and I know players."

His wife, however, does subscribe to the theory that Robertson
probably would not have lasted as a coach. "He is such a
self-starter, such a perfectionist," says Yvonne, "that he
would've had trouble dealing with players who weren't as
dedicated as he was. Which was almost everybody." The question
of a coaching or front office job is moot now, of course.
Robertson is involved in business; his principal motivation is
to make his companies sound for his daughters Shauna, who works
for ORCHEM, and Tia, who works for ORPACK. (His youngest
daughter, Mari, works for Fannie Mae in Washington.) "I don't
think you should just up and pull away from challenges," says
Robertson. "My family and lots of other people count on me. I
take that seriously."

Though he is loath to put it into words, Robertson just wants
what he deserves from basketball. "He would appreciate getting
the respect not only for what he did on the court, but also for
what he did in the courts," says Yvonne. "So few of today's
players have any idea of what he fought for, what he stood for."
West is sad that his old rival is so far from the game. They are
close, these two prickly and ultracompetitive personalities;
West calls Oscar "Donut," and Robertson calls West "Zeke," his
college nickname. "Everybody knows how fickle pro sports can
be," says West. "Sooner or later accomplishments are forgotten,
and there will be heartbreak. Lots of wonderful players in all
sports disappear or aren't as closely associated with the game
as they should be. Oscar, who was a truly unique player, is
certainly one of them."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR.B/W PHOTO: AP ABOVE THE REST Robertson was the college game's first three-time player of the year.COLOR PHOTO: TIMEPIX ROYAL FLASH Robertson was so impressive as a rookie that he graced the cover of Time in 1961.COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. DRIVING FORCE The Big O sacrificed scoring for wins during his first season in Milwaukee, and the Bucks won the NBA title.COLOR PHOTO: TARO YAMASAKI ULTIMATE ASSIST Neither father nor daughter likes to talk about the kidney transplant, but Tia's disease is in remission.
Robertson desperately wanted to go to Indiana, but he sensed he
wasn't much wanted because of his color.
"From the first game Oscar played, he looked as if he had been
in the league for 10 years," recalls Jerry West.
"It bothered me when the transplant got so much attention. Of
course I was going to do it. What father wouldn't?"