Oscar Robertson — The Big O — forever changed the game of basketball, on the court and in the courtroom. But his impact on American society extends far beyond sports. He has also distinguished himself as a humanitarian, a social activist, a businessman, a teacher and mentor, and a labor leader, where his efforts that led to The Oscar Robertson Rule forever changed the balance of power in professional sports.
For his unparalleled achievements on the court, he was named "Player of the Century" by the National Association of Basketball Coaches, and holds a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Basketball Association. He is the NBA's all-time leader in triple-double games (points, rebounds and assists) for a career with 181 and in rebounds by a guard. His single-season record of 41 triple-double games stood for 55 years until broken by Russell Westbrook on April 9, 2017, and his record of being the only player ever to average a triple-double for an entire season, set in 1961-62, was tied by Westbrook on April 7, 2017.
Beginning with his back-to-back state championship run at Indianapolis' Crispus Attucks High School, The Big O set new standards of fundamental basketball excellence at every level, and changed the way the game was played.
Always a threat with his patented fadeaway jump shot – the laws of physics perfectly applied, with elbow cocked, forearm as the lever, release point above his head – The Big O was the first big point guard who could score from anywhere, pass, rebound, and play tenacious defense. As such, he created the template for such players as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Le Bron James, and Russell Westbrook.
A labor activist, an advocate for healthy living
The Big O was the third and longest-serving President of the National Basketball Players Association, from 1965 until he retired in 1974, and was the first black president of any national sports or entertainment labor union.
In 1970, he filed a class action anti-trust lawsuit on behalf of his colleagues, seeking to prevent an NBA merger with the American Basketball Association until issues regarding the reserve clause, the draft, and other restrictions on player movement were resolved.
Through the 1976 court settlement known as the Oscar Robertson Rule, NBA players became the first professional athletes to gain free agency, and other sports soon followed. Instead of destroying the game, as the owners had insisted it would, the settlement ushered in a new era of growth and prosperity for the NBA that continues to the present day, with some franchises valued in excess of $2 billion dollars.
In 1997 The Big O performed the assist of a lifetime when he donated a kidney to his daughter Tia, who was suffering from lupus. Since that point, he has been an outspoken advocate for health and wellness, kidney disease prevention and organ transplantation on behalf of the National Kidney Foundation. He also serves on the board of the International Prostate Cancer Foundation.
A leader in athletics, academics and business
The Big O graduated in the top 10% of his class at Crispus Attucks High School, and was a member of the National Honor Society. A street in his hometown of Indianapolis now bears his name, making him the first living person in that city's history to be so honored. At the University of Cincinnati, he earned a business degree in four years, and has been named one of the NCAA's top student athletes of all time. He holds an honorary doctorate in humane letters from the University, as well as its Lifetime Achievement Award for Entrepreneurship and its William Howard Taft Medal, the highest honor UC bestows on an alumnus.
The Big O's business acumen was evident from the beginning of his professional career with the Cincinnati Royals. He was quite likely the first player to be represented by an attorney in contract negotiations, eventually securing a percentage of the gate receipts for himself as well as a no-trade clause.
Today Robertson is one of the nation's leading small business owners, with interests in document management services, specialty chemicals, and media. He is a leading advocate for minority business owners and is sought for participation in leadership development seminars. He remains an international ambassador for the game of basketball, and is much in demand as a speaker on the game and its lessons on leadership and life skills.
In 1992 The Big O was one of five founders of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, dedicated to improving pension benefits and medical care for an earlier generation of players, and served as its first president from 1992-1998. At the end of his tenure, he led a group of retired players on a groundbreaking exhibition series in China.
The Big O is the author and publisher of "The Art of Basketball" (Oscar Robertson Media Ventures, 1998), the definitive guide to fundamental skills development for boys and girls of all ages. Through that book and its predecessor "Play Better Basketball," more than 125,000 readers have been schooled in basketball fundamentals.
His autobiography, "The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game," was published by Rodale Press in 2003 and is now in paperback with University of Nebraska Press. He has contributed nine bylined essays on basketball to The New York Times and one to TIME Magazine, a game-by-game blog to nba.com during the 2005 NBA Finals, and is now a contributor to the ESPN website www.theundefeated.com.
Early hours of practice lead to Olympic gold
Oscar Robertson was born November 24, 1938 in Charlotte, Tennessee, the youngest of three sons of Bailey and Mazell Robertson. Four years later the family moved to Indianapolis, where Oscar learned to play basketball on the dirt courts of the inner city, playing against his older brothers Bailey and Henry and encountering stiff competition from other neighborhood kids. He also refined his game through endless hours of individual practice.
As a sophomore at Crispus Attucks High School, Robertson led his team to within one game of the 1954 state finals, losing to eventual champion Milan. Over the next two seasons, he attracted national attention by leading the Tigers to a 45-game winning streak, two consecutive Indiana state titles and a national championship.
Playing all its games on the road in a time of rigid segregation – the school's gym was too small to serve as a home court – Attucks was the first African-American school and the first Indianapolis school to win the Indiana state crown, and the first African-American school to win a national championship in any sport. Robertson was named Indiana's "Mr. Basketball" in 1956 as well as national high school player of the year.
At University of Cincinnati, where he became known as The Big O, he led the Bearcats to the Final Four in 1959 and 1960. He was a three-time first team All-American, the first player to lead the NCAA in scoring three straight years, and the first to win National College Player of the Year honors three times. (In 1998, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association renamed its men's college Player of the Year Award the Oscar Robertson Trophy.)
Following his graduation in 1960 with a B.S. degree in Business, Robertson co-captained, with Jerry West, the Pete Newell-coached, undefeated 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medal team, often considered the greatest basketball team ever put together. This "original dream team," made up of college and AAU players, sent 9 of its 12 players to the NBA, and four of them are now in the Hall of Fame. In 2010, the 50th anniversary of their triumph in Rome, the 1960 Olympians were inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame along with the 1992 "Dream Team," 11 of whose 12 members were NBA All-Stars.
NBA stardom and the triple-double season
The Big O had a 14-year career in the NBA, beginning with the 1960-61 Cincinnati Royals, who made him their territorial draft pick. Moving from forward back to his natural position at guard, Robertson put up eye-opening numbers as a rookie and earned Rookie of the Year honors as well as the first of three NBA All-Star game Most Valuable Player awards (the others were in 1964 and 1969). Beginning with his rookie season, he was named an All-Star for 12 straight years. In 1964 he won NBA Most Valuable Player honors, becoming only the second guard to do so.
Robertson averaged a triple-double cumulatively over his first five seasons, including 1961-62 in which he averaged a triple-double for the entire season. During those five seasons, he had more triple-double games than the rest of the NBA combined.
He led the Royals to the playoffs in six of his ten seasons, from 1962 through 1967, but even with their high-scoring lineup, the Royals could never get past the Boston Celtics for the Eastern Division title, thanks in part to some head-shaking personnel decisions by the team's front office. In 1963 they took the Celts to seven games, including a finale in which Sam Jones (47 points) and The Big O (43 points) combined for a regulation playoff game scoring record that still stands. In 1964, the Royals were the only team to win a regular season series from the Celtics, but fell to Boston in 5 games in the Eastern Division finals.
In 1964, Robertson was also a member of the first team of NBA players to tour overseas for the U.S. State Department. That team, coached by the legendary Red Auerbach, won all 21 of its games in Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia and Egypt.
A championship at last
Following the 1970 season, The Big O was traded from Cincinnati to the Milwaukee Bucks, where he teamed with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) for four straight playoff appearances and the Bucks' only NBA championship in 1971.
The 1970-71 Bucks were one of most dominant teams in NBA history with a then-record 20 game win streak and a then-record 66 wins in 82 games. They led the league in scoring and were the first team to shoot better than 50% from the floor for the season, or to lead the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Bucks were 12-2 in three playoff rounds, sweeping the Baltimore Bullets in four games in the finals. In game four, The Big O led all scorers with 30 points. At last he had a championship ring, and the Bucks — then just in their third season — became the earliest expansion team in any professional sport to win a championship.
In the next two seasons, the Bucks were eliminated from the playoffs earlier, but in 1974 they took the Celtics to seven games in the finals — including a double-OT win in the 6th game, considered an NBA classic — after which The Big O brought his pro career to an end.
Records and retirement
The Big O is the all-time leader in triple-double games for a career, and in rebounds by a guard. He was the first player to lead the NBA in scoring average and assists average in the same season (1967-68), and the only guard ever to lead his team in rebounding. He led the league in free throw percentage twice and assists six times. His career record of 9,887 assists stood for 17 years, and his 26,710 points and 25.7 points per game average rank him among the NBA's all-time leading scorers. His complete records are on the Career Statistics page.
Robertson was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year eligible. He was one of five charter inductees into the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, and was inducted into the International Basketball (FIBA) Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2010 he was enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame a second time, as co-captain of the 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medal team. He is a charter member of the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame and has also received its Ohio Heritage Award.
Since his retirement, The Big O has been active as an entrepreneur, broadcaster and author, and also served briefly during the summer of 2004 as interim head basketball coach at University of Cincinnati. (Since the implementation of the Oscar Robertson Rule in 1976, he has been frozen out of NBA coaching and general management positions.) He and his wife Yvonne, who he wed in 1960, reside in Cincinnati and have three daughters, Shana, Tia and Mari. He serves as President of OR Solutions and Orchem, Inc., Cincinnati, and as general partner in Oscar Robertson Media Ventures, El Cerrito, CA.
The Big O is involved in numerous charitable and community activities, including the NBA Legends Foundation, the Boys Club of New York, the National Kidney Foundation, and the International Prostate Cancer Foundation. Throughout and following his career, he has taught or mentored hundreds of youngsters on his own and through various youth organizations. The Oscar and Yvonne Robertson Scholarship Fund at the University of Cincinnati annually provides assistance to deserving minority students, and the Robertsons also served as co-chairs of UC's recent $1 billion capital campaign.
Last Updated 04/10/17