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 starred with the Cincinnati Royals for the first decade of his NBA career but didn’t win a title until the Royals stunned the league by trading him to Milwaukee, where he was paired with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who went by Lew Alcindor at the time). This story originally appeared in the May 15, 1971, issue of The Sporting News under the headline, “Oscar on NBA Title-Winner After 10 Years.”
MILWAUKEE, Wis. — In Oscar Robertson’s 10 brilliant seasons with the Cincinnati Royals, the one big prize that eluded him was the National Basketball Association championship
Now he finally has filled that one void in his career, and if it took the Milwaukee Bucks to make him a member of a title team, so did it take him to bring the Bucks the title. The marriage that stunned the NBA a year ago turned out to be a happy one, indeed.
With Big O’s outside work and all-round excellent floor play complementing Lew Alcindor’s control of the area around the basket, the Bucks unleashed a one-two punch that simply leveled the opposition.
Still, the Bucks didn’t win with a two-man team; they won because Coach Larry Costello did such a beautiful job of blending his two super stars with a group of lesser known players who didn’t mind laboring in virtual anonymity.
Sacrifices Own Averages
One of the biggest reasons Costello was able to accomplish this was Robertson’s willingness to sacrifice his personal statistics for the good of the team. When he came to the Bucks, Robertson had a lifetime scoring average of 29.3 points a game. He averaged 10 points under that as a Buck, but with a championship ring and a playoff check for more than $17,000 coming his way, he couldn’t be happier.
Robertson never had an outstanding big man on his team before, and he said, “My role changed somewhat when I came to Milwaukee. With Lew in the middle, we naturally were going to go to him a lot.”
As a result, Big O averaged only 14.7 shots a game over the regular season, compared with an average of 21 for his 10 previous seasons in the NBA.
There were times when he even chastised himself for not shooting more often. As he put it after going without a field goal in a game against the Boston Celtics, “To be effective, I have to do my share of shooting. If not, I won’t have confidence in anything I do.”
But at the same time, Robertson noted that his shot total generally was inversely proportional to the success of the Bucks’ set plays.
Takes Fewer Shots Now
“When you start plays, you rarely take a shot,” he said. “You get your shots when you finish them. At Cincinnati, we didn’t run plays as much, so I had more opportunity for one-on-one stuff.
“Actually, I take just so many shots now, depending on how well Lew is doing in the middle. If he’s having trouble, I’ll probably shoot more. If not, I’ll try to hit him near the basket as often as I can.”
In each of the first two victories over the Baltimore Bullets in the title playoff series, Robertson scored 15 points in the first half and dropped off to seven in the second.
Asked to explain this coincidence, he said, “I try to get the overall plays started, get things set up. In the first part of the games it was tough to get inside at times, so I tried to loosen things up from outside. In the second half it seemed much looser, so I was able to get the plays started and I didn’t shoot as much.”
Costello kept saying that Big O should shoot more. After the veteran had shot only 10 times in a playoff game against the Los Angeles Lakers, the coach said, “We’ve got to get more points out of Oscar. Ten shots in 35 minutes is ridiculous.”
But if Costello was displeased with Robertson’s point production, he had no complaints about Big O’s defensive work, hitherto the least noticeable of Oscar’s many talents.
Throughout his career, Robertson has been known primarily for his ability to score and set up points for others with his passing and playmaking. But at the age of 32, he suddenly has gained recognition as a defensive standout as well.
Said Costello: “Oscar has helped us on defense as much as on offense. He plays even better defense than Walt Frazier of the Knicks. He’s stronger than Frazier, and nobody is going to take him inside and get six-foot shots. You didn’t see Earl Monroe of the Bullets get the ball in low against him like he did against the Knicks.
No Easy Shots on Oscar
“If anybody scores against Oscar, they’re going to do it on 18-footers.”
Robertson held Monroe to 11 points in one final playoff game, including just one free throw in the second half. He forced Earl the Pearl into such poor shooting position that the Baltimore star sank only four of 18 shots.
Monroe scored 27 points in another game, but Costello said, “Oscar did a great job on him in that game, too. When the shots go in with all the pressure Oscar puts on, you have to give credit to Monroe’s offensive work.”
Coach Gene Shue of the losing Bullets was equally impressed by Robertson the defensive player.
“Oscar should have been on the all-defensive team,” Shue said. “He got my vote. He may have played better defense than any other guard in the league this year. When a man is a great offensive player and he’s as smart as Oscar is, he knows what the other offensive players are going to do, and that helps him tremendously on defense.
“Oscar is as smart as they come, and he holds a little — I wanted to get that in. It’s very important.”
He Plays No Favorites
Monroe is only one of many high-scoring guards who can attest to Robertson’s defensive ability. Big O’s list of victims this season also included Frazier, Jerry West of Los Angeles, Jeff Mullins of San Francisco and Jerry Sloan of Chicago.
Asked for his secret, Robertson said, “I just use basic defense. With Monroe, for instance, you’ve got to overplay him and keep him from getting the ball, I tried to make him shoot higher than he normally would.”
Monroe not only shot higher than usual on many occasions against Robertson; he often shot from well beyond his usual range. He got so frustrated at times that he fired from 25 feet away with Robertson draped all over him.
During the season, there were rumblings that Robertson was no longer what he once was; that he was overweight; that he paced himself in much the same way that Sugar Ray Robinson used to do in his waning years in the ring.
True, Oscar never would look upon this season as his greatest from a personal standpoint. But nagging injuries to groin and stomach muscles had a lot to do with that, even though he missed only one game all year. But when the Bucks needed him most, he was there.
There could be no greater testimony to Robertson’s ability than the game he played the night the Bucks beat the then champion Knicks for the only time in five meetings. Alcindor missed almost half the game — 23 minutes to be exact — because of foul trouble, so Big O turned in a performance that probably ranked with the greatest of his career.
Oscar Takes Over
Big O that night scored a season high of 35 points, sinking 11 of 19 shots from the floor and 13 of 15 from the foul line, and contributed 13 rebounds and nine assists besides.
Afterward, he said, “When Lew went out, I had to play more like I did at Cincinnati. We had to set more picks, and Dick Cunningham (Alcindor’s backup man) can do it. He’s big; he’s broad; he’s a natural for the job.
“But my best game? I don’t know. Points mean a lot, but they don’t mean everything.”
Teammate Bob Boozer said, “‘That’s the way he played every night when we were in Cincinnati together.”
And Willis Reed of the beaten Knicks summed it up when he said, “Oscar did it all. That’s his game; he’s fat and out of shape, but he doesn’t play like it.”
Baltimore would agree.