Oscar Robertson is the most complete player I’ve ever seen. What does that mean? That means that Robertson did all the things necessary to be an excellent ballplayer better than anyone who’s ever played. Does that mean I think he’s the best player ever? No. But The Big O would be in the top five or ten. Most people selecting one player to start their team would pick a dominant center like Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or maybe Akeem Olajuwon or Bill Russell. (concerning Russell, no player will ever match his record of 11 titles in his 13 years.) Some would pick non-centers like Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, or Michael Jordan. For a lot of fans today it comes down to Jordan or James. I’m not going to argue with the choice of any of the above players, because you could make a great argument for GOAT for any of them.
But frequently overlooked is Oscar Robertson. When he played, he was considered the best all-around player in the game. That meant Robertson could do more things better than any other player. Until Jordan came along, Robertson was considered the greatest guard of all time by many rivaled only by Jerry West whose careers had some odd similarities. Both Robertson and West were frustrated by Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics in their efforts to win titles. And even after Russell retired, Oscar was denied a second title in 1974 by a Boston team in a seven game final. But it wasn’t until both West and Robertson teamed up with a dominant center (KAJ for Roberston and Wilt Chamberlain for West) did they finally win a title close to the end of their playing days.
Oscar was slowed quite a bit in his later years by injuries from pulled leg and groin muscles. But his last year when he was 35 was the only year when he couldn’t approach the Robertson of his superstar years. He still managed to play excellent in the playoffs and the finals against Boston even though Milwaukee lost. Oscar finally gave in to his physical problems and retired after that season.
And Oscar was a superstar. He is still the only player ever to average a triple double. His third year in the league he averaged over 28 ppg, 10 rbs, and 10 assists. In fact, he came close to averaging a triple double his first five years in the league. No player since has ever come close to doing that.
Physically Robertson was 6’5 and weighed a muscular 210. He was never the fastest player in the league, but he had a great combination of speed, quickness, strength, spring, agility, reflexes, and coordination no other player could match. West was faster and quicker but not nearly as strong.
He is one of the smartest players ever to play the game, maybe the smartest. It was said Robertson never wasted any motion on the court. Everything he did had a purpose. You could watch Oscar on offense and see him looking over the defense like a great chess player looking at the chessboard and determining which play would work best. His desire was off the charts as the saying goes today, and he would not tolerate any teammates not playing as hard as he did. He was well-known for giving teammates who messed up sharp glares or severe comments.
And while Robertson was an excellent defensive player when the team needed it, it was Robertson’s offensive abilities that made him the most dominant offensive force next to Chamberlain. Oscar’s skills on the offensive end set him apart from the other players. He not only had tremendous fakes and moves, he was a great shooter who could hit out to twenty feet plus (although he rarely shot from that distance) take his man to the basket and score inside. Oscar had the strength and quickness to get inside and even score on bigger players. He had great ballhandling skills as well.
But it was his combination of scoring and passing that has never been exceeded in my estimation by any player. You can argue Jordan was a better scorer, but Jordan didn’t come close Robertson in the field general-passing area. Robertson could all his teammates play better. Before Oscar arrived in Cincinnati, Jack Twyman, one of the league’s best scorers, rarely shot better than 42% from the floor. His first year with Oscar, Twyman shot close to 49% while still averaging over 20ppg.
(I read an amusing story about Robertson before he started his pro career. Bob Cousy wrote a magazine article where he doubted that Robertson, who played forward in college, could play in the backcourt in the pros. That has to go down as one of the stupidest observations ever made by any person, and probably contributed to tension between Cousy and Robertson when Cousy was hired as head coach in Cincy and tried to change Oscar’s game.)
While his great rival Jerry West had only a few basic offensive moves, Robertson had quite a few. Watching old clips of Robertson available on youtube, it’s still astonishing to watch the variety of moves Oscar had. For instance he a had a shoulder fake that moved players over five feet while Oscar sailed to the basket. He also had had a great shot fake as he posted players up. While he didn’t get his jump shot off as fast as West ( no one did), he still got it off very quickly. Oscar also had a great pivot move especially when posting up players or getting into the lane off the dribble.
A number of players and people thought that because Robertson was the strongest guard in the league, that’s how he got most of his points. Even Walt Frazier (another great guard, who should know better, said as much.) Watching the clips of Robertson and seeing him play in his prime, that’s a thoroughly false impression. Oscar could certainly muscle inside when he had to, but you don’t do the things he did with just strength. He was just a tremendous athlete who could beat you with quickness, agility, and strength. And a lot of guile.
To try to stop Robertson was almost impossible. He was too big, too strong, too quick, had too many moves, could shoot too well, pass too well, had too much determination, and was too smart. When the clock was running down and it was time to score, that was Oscar’s time. He either tried to get into the lane (and was almost impossible to stop him from doing so), or he’d take his man to the sidelines and work him over one-on-one. Most people who saw Oscar in his prime remember him pump faking his defender into the air and then making the jump shot from about 12-15 feet. Robertson almost always got a good shot out of a last-second situation.
The other great area of Oscar’s game was his passing. While he just about never threw a pass behind his back or dribbled behind his back, he could do those things. I’ve watched the 1972 Lakers-Bucks game where the Bucks broke the Lakers 33 game winning streak many times on youtube. (It’s one of the few games from those days available to view.) In that game Oscar outplayed West (who was still a great player) by a huge margin. Oscar had about 17 points and about 8-9 assists. What was incredible for me to watch were several passes Oscar made. Twice while driving to the basket he flipped the ball over his left shoulder with his left hand to Abdul-Jabbar for assists. I had to slow one of those plays down and watch it a number of times because at first I didn’t see how the ball got from Robertson to Abdul-Jabbar. Oscar’s left hand moved so fast I could scarcely see it move.
Those were one of the few times I ever saw Oscar attempt a trick pass. He rarely threw anything but a basic two-hand, chest pass. His whole game was based on solid fundamental basketball. No wasted moves. Few flashy exhibitions trying to get the crowd excited. No comments to opposing players or facial expressions. You’d see a scowl if his man scored, if he was called for a foul he thought he didn’t commit, or his team was playing poorly, and that’s about it. No gloating after scoring or trying to show up other players.
Some fan of Oscar put a great video on the internet of Oscar’s Cincinnati Royals playing the Celtics in a playoff game around 1966. In that clip you can see all of Robertson’s various skills demonstrated. One play in particular epitomized the way he directed the offense. He was dribbling the ball at the top of the key and was using a screen set by another player (Jerry Lucas?). As Lucas set the screen and rolled to the basket he was open for a possible shot. But Bill Russell was lurking around the basket watching the whole play. Robertson didn’t pass the ball to Lucas but kept dribbling. He received another pick from Wayne Embry. This time Russell stepped away from the basket to stop Robertson’ s possible drive. As Russell stepped out of the lane, Oscar deftlly slipped the ball to Embry for a layup. That’s typical Robertson…always thinking two or three steps ahead. I found it amusing to read some of the comments by some people who viewed the film who protested claiming the person who put the video on had speeded up Robertson’s actions. I did laugh at that.
Oscar never did win a title until he was in his thirties when he was traded to the Bucks and he teamed up with Abdul-Jabbar. While his stats dropped, Oscar still played like an all-star. He was criticized by some people when he played in Cincy who claimed he controlled the ball too much. The answer to that is: who would you rather have controlling the ball? The Royals without Oscar were a poor team. With Oscar they were a good team. But, like all the the other teams in the league, they lacked the overall talent of Boston and a center who equalize Russell. They still took Boston to several final games in the semis. In one of those final games, Robertson had 43 points. After playing about ten years in Cincy, Oscar wanted to go to a team where he had a chance to win a title.
His arrival in Milwaukee was widely publicized, and the Bucks were favored to win the title and give Oscar his first title. He didn’t disappoint. While his stats were less than with the Royals, he still averaged close to 20ppg and 8+ assists per game. With Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson, the Bucks steamrollered most of the other teams in the league, and they easily won their first and only title clubbing the then Baltimore Bullets in five games. Oscar would have averaged more assists per game, but playing with a great scorer like Abdul-Jabbar actually cut into his assists totals. Robertson was usually the last person to pass to A-J as he posted up, and often didn’t get get credit for the assists. Because A-J usually put the ball on the floor and made a move after receiving the pass from Robertson negating an assist. But Oscar was responsible for making sure the ball got in to A-J. There’s no stat for that, but Robertson would probably be in the all-time leader in making sure the right person shot the ball.
But Oscar didn’t care and gladly participated in more of a passing game in Milwaukee knowing his stats would suffer. He wanted that championship. And although it was said in those days that teams needed a great center to win a title (since disproved with Jordan and James), Milwaukee wouldn’t have won the title without Robertson. And after he left, even with a great player like A-J, went downhill fast.
In his later years Oscar was beset by a number of physical problems chiefly frequent pulled muscles in his groin and leg muscles that cut down on his mobility and quickness. But he still was a formidable player his last year in the finals of 1974 against Boston. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, they lost in seven games, and the Bucks haven’t come close to a title since,
So the question remains: how would prime Oscar do today against today’s little bigger but more athletic NBA? That question is asked of all old players especially the superstars. I’ll repeat what I’ve said concerning the same question asked about Wilt Chamberlain: Oscar would be a superstar today. Look at the point guards in the game today. While there are a number of excellent ones like Paul, Rondo, Rose, and a few others, there are no big guards like Robertson who could combine Robertson’s athleticism and skills. Skillwise, maybe Steve Nash comes the closest as far as shooting and passing. But there’s no comparison physically between Robertson and Nash. Robertson was not only bigger, stronger, faster, far springier than Nash, he also equaled or exceeded him in the skills area outside of long distance shooting. They didn’t have the 3-ball when Robertson played. Robertson used the pick and roll like Nash, but he didn’t need it to score as much as Nash does. When I read comments from young fans comparing Nash and Robertson, I have to believe there is no comparison. Robertson was just a superior all-around ballplayer.
Another area where people criticize Oscar was on the defensive end. For one thing they forget that Oscar was one of the greatest if not the greatest rebounding guard of all time. But he could also play excellent onball defense when needed. Nobody stopped West, but Robertson is the only player I’ve seen give West problems. Robertson could play tough defense when the situation demanded.
So again, how would Oscar do today. Let’s put him on a bad team like the Kings. He’d not only average 20+ppg, 10apg, and 7-8 rbds, he’d put a semblance of organization into the King’s chaotic offensive system. He’s a much, much better player than Tyreke Evans who he resembles physically. To reverse that, think of Evans with a good-great jump shot and excellent passing ability. And a high bb IQ. Robertson also had greater focus than almost all other players. His head was always in the game.
The only player I’ve seen rival Robertson in his overall abilities is Magic Johnson. And it’s awfully close. Robertson and Johnson are my two all-time greatest point guards. But I’d give a slight edge to Oscar because I believe he was a superior scorer to Johnson while their passing abilities were about the same. Oscar was also a better onball defender than Johnson. Magic had five titles to Oscar’s one, but Oscar never had the level of talent Magic had for his career in L.A. ( It’s also interesting that Abdul-Jabbar didn’t start winning titles until he played with a great point guard in Milwaukee and L.A.). After Oscar retired, Milwaukee’s fortunes plummeted even with Abdul-Jabbar the best player in the league and one of the greatest of all time.
That was the true value of a great player like Oscar: the team he played for couldn’t go forward until he arrived, and their fortunes sank when he left. Too bad Oscar couldn’t have played with another great player earlier in his career, but that’s life. He was so unflashy in his prime, although I knew he was great, I really didn’t appreciate how great he was until I got older. I’ll remember Oscar for being the greatest point guard of all-time and one of the ten best players ever.