Oscar Robertson (The Big O) – the National Association of Basketball Coaches' "Player of the Century" -- has made an indelible impression on both basketball and American society, on and off the court. He has distinguished himself not only as a superb athlete, some of whose achievements may never be duplicated, but as a humanitarian, a social activist, a businessman, a mentor and teacher, and a labor leader as well.
At every level -- high school, college, the Olympics and the NBA -- The Big O set new standards of excellence and changed the way the game was played. As the first big point guard, who could score from anywhere on the court, pass, rebound, and play defense, he created the template for such players as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. He is the NBA's all-time leader in triple-double games (points, rebounds and assists) for a career with 181 and a single season with 41, and in rebounds by a guard. His record of averaging a triple-double for an entire season (1961-62) is unlikely ever to be broken.
As the third and longest-serving President of the NBA Players Association, from 1965 until he retired in 1974, The Big O changed the game – and the balance of power in professional sports – in the courtroom as well. 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. Thanks to a 1976 settlement known as the Oscar Robertson Rule, NBA players became the first to gain free agency. Instead of destroying the game, as the owners had claimed it would, the settlement ushered in a new era of growth and prosperity for the NBA that continues to the present day.
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.
For his achievements in both college and professional basketball, Robertson was named "Player of the Century" by the National Association of Basketball Coaches in 2000. He was one of the first five inductees into the NABC's Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year eligible, and in 2009 was inducted into the International Basketball (FIBA) Hall of Fame. 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.
A leader in athletics, academics and business
The Big O graduated in the top 10% of his class at Indianapolis' Crispus Attucks High School, earned a business degree in four years at the University of Cincinnati, and was recently named one of the NCAA's top student athletes of all time. 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. He holds an honorary doctorate in humane letters from the University of Cincinnati as well as its Lifetime Achievement Award for Entrepreneurship and its William Howard Taft Medal, the highest honor it bestows on an alumnus.
The Big O's business acumen was evident from the first year of his professional basketball career. He was one of the first players, if not the first, 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 often takes part in leadership development seminars. He remains an international ambassador for the game of basketball and is much in demand as a speaker, teacher and clinician. In 1992 he 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.
He 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, and the host of http://www.thebigo.com. 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 seven bylined essays on basketball to The New York Times and one to TIME Magazine, as well as a game-by-game blog to nba.com during the 2005 NBA Finals.
Early days and 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 "Mr. Basketball" for the state of Indiana 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 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. The "original dream team," made up of college and AAU players, sent 9 of its 12 players to the NBA, four of whom are now in the Hall of Fame. In 2010, the 50th anniversary of its 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 unparalleled 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 came in 1964 and 1969). Beginning with his rookie season, he was named an All-Star for 12 straight years. In 1964 he won 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. He led the Royals to the playoffs in six of his ten seasons, from 1963 through 1968, but the Royals, even with a high-scoring lineup, 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 playoff scoring record that still stands. In 1964, they 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.
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 an entire season. Then they went 12-2 in three playoff rounds, including a four-game sweep of the Baltimore Bullets in the finals. In game four, The Big O led all scorers with 30 points. At last he had his 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 alltime leader in triple double games (season and 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, 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 can be seen on the Career Statistics page.
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., Fairfield, OH; and as general partner in Oscar Robertson Media Ventures, El Cerrito, CA.
Mr. Robertson is involved in numerous charitable and community activities, including the NBA Legends Foundation, the Boys Club of New York, and the National Kidney 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 serve as co-chairs of UC's $1 billion capital campaign.
Last Updated 9/22/11