NBA 75: Oscar Robertson and the end of Big O in Milwaukee (TSN Archives)

The NBA is celebrating players from the NBA 75 list almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is Oscar Robertson, who won a title in his first season with the Bucks in 1970-71 but by 1974 had fallen out with the team and retired after 15 NBA seasons. This column originally appeared in the Nov. 23, 1974, issue of The Sporting News under the headline, “Big O Biggest Loss to Bucks.”

MILWAUKEE  — The horrendous start of the Milwaukee Bucks without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has furnished convincing fuel for those who have long contended that the 7-2 center was a one-man team.

The Bucks were so bad, in fact, in losing eight of their first nine games of the season that even the headline writers in rival cities were having fun at their expense.

In Los Angeles, for example, the Times ran the following headline after the Lakers had drubbed the Bucks:

“Lakers Beat Bucks, Such as They Are.

“And Without Jabbar, They Aren’t Much, 109-86.”

BUT AS obvious as it was that the Bucks were suffering grievously from the loss of Abdul-Jabbar with a broken hand, there was a growing suspicion that they missed Oscar Robertson a lot more than they had been willing to admit when he retired.

From the moment training began two months ago, Coach Larry Costello made a big thing of the new speed the Bucks would have without Robertson.

Among other things, Costello said, “Last year we had one of the slowest teams in the NBA. This year we’ll have one of the fastest.”

Some of the players talked along the same lines. Like Costello, they didn’t necessarily knock Robertson, but they made it clear that they were confident of compensating for his absence by playing a faster brand of basketball.

Well, the Bucks are faster, all right, but they certainly aren’t better. True, the loss of the big man in the middle has fouled up their game plan, so no real judgment can be made until he returns.

(TSN Archives)

IT IS A cold fact, however, that with neither Abdul-Jabbar nor Robertson in the lineup, the Bucks have been like a rudderless ship. Hopeful of correcting the situation, the Bucks swung a trade with the Lakers November 8, sending Lucius Alien, their high-scoring performer, to Los Angeles in exchange for Jim Price.

The return of Abdul-Jabbar, who was hurt October 5, will alleviate a large portion of the problem. He makes better players of everybody around him, and this fact has been underscored by the subpar performances of some of the Milwaukee veterans without him.

But even with the most dominant player in basketball, the Bucks will lack the direction and playmaking ability that made Robertson one of the greatest players of all time.

For this reason, I cannot buy the theory in the Bucks’ camp that the team will be stronger than ever when Abdul-Jabbar comes back. It is simply foolish to assume that they can compensate overnight for the loss of a player as great as Robertson.

ACTUALLY, Robertson wanted to play a 15th season in the NBA, but he and the Bucks couldn’t get together on a contract. The Bucks would take him back only on their terms, which included dumping his no-trade clause so that they could put him on the expansion list of the two new clubs coming into the league next season.

Parting was on anything but amicable terms, and Robertson was a bitter man when he reluctantly closed his career and signed as analyst for the NBA telecasts on the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Robertson presumably had to settle for considerably less money than the $250,000 he received from the Bucks last season, but the Bucks could be the real losers. Unless Abdul-Jabbar’s supporting cast does a distinct turnabout, they won’t be the same without Oscar.