The NBA has always had players that have captivated the imagination and fascination of fans. From Wilt Chamberlain to Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan, there has always been players that people have been in love because of the things that they have done on the court and the things that they have achieved. And it is because there have been so many great players in the NBA, that it is often hard for anyone to come to a consensus on who are the Top 5 or Top 10 players to ever play the game. The usual suspects like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson appear on everyone’s list in some shape, form or fashion. But after these two, there is the battle of the big men, guards and forwards that ensues afterwards. Some call for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell when picking the first big man in the Top 5 or 10. When guards are picked, some go to Bob Cousy and Kobe Bryant after Michael Jordan. And when it comes to forwards, many are quick to put Larry Bird and even current player LeBron James on this list. But what about the guys that were great in their era that people forget about? Most of the guys listed are the first names that people think of when think of their Top 10, but there is one name that people tend to forget each and every time. His name: Oscar Robertson.
The Big O as they called him, was known well before he made it to the NBA. When he was in college at the University of Cincinnati, the 6’5” guard from Indianapolis’ Crispus Attucks high school averaged 33.9 points per game, was a three-time All-American and was the main reason the Bearcats even made it to the two Final Fours during his time there from 1957-1960. He was essentially a man amongst boys even though he did not win that elusive title he craved when he was in college. But even without it, he was definitely one of the greatest players to ever play college basketball. And in an even more fortunate turnoff events, he was able to continue his special career with the Cincinnati Royals, who just so happened to have the first pick in the NBA draft in 1960. The things that Robertson did in the game a man his size was stuff of legends. Everyone talks about how LeBron James was the first to be that unique combination of size, strength and ability. Well, Oscar Robertson may beg to differ. Of course the athleticism was probably better in James than Robertson, but his size and strength in that era put him head and shoulders above the talents he played against. And it is because of that talent and the ability to make things happen for others, that he was a great NBA player. To give you an idea of how great he was, he averaged a triple-double in only his second year in the NBA (30.8 points per game, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game). The man just was a machine. Unfortunately he just so happened to play in an era where television was not big as it is now and he played in one of the smallest NBA markets at the time, Cincinnati, Ohio.
But other than playing in the smallest market in the NBA, he also played against one of the toughest teams in NBA history in the Boston Celtics during his era. Oscar Robertson was in the NBA from 1960-1974 and he played very well the entire time he was in the NBA, but the Celtics had a team of Hall Of Famers, led by Bill Russell. And during the entirety of Robertson’s career, the Celtics won the championship nine times. That left five years that Oscar had to win a championship and he was finally able to get one in 1971, when he and Kareem Abdul Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor), won the championship. Even though television wasn’t around in that time, it seems like Robertson is criticized when it comes to great players because of the championship that he did not win. Some that judge how great players were don’t even consider him as great as he is strictly because of the championships he did not win and that is sad. Robertson consistently carried teams each and every year, but he had nothing to show for it but statistics, scoring titles, an MVP award, numerous All-NBA teams and six assist titles. He was the original stat-sheet stuffer each time he touched the court. He just happened to come around at the wrong time in his career. And he also happened to not get Lew Alcindor until he played in Milwaukee for the Bucks.
Oscar is definitely a Top 10 player in the NBA. He averaged 27.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 9.5 assists over his entire career. His numbers were impressive no matter what era he played in. And he should not be penalized on his level of greatness just because he did not win more than one championship in his career. Robertson was a special player who excelled at every single level he played at. He set the bar high and even though he did not achieve everything he wanted to over his career, his greatness can never be understated. Along with Magic, Bird, Kareem, Michael and Wilt, his name should be mentioned and he stands right along with them in the pantheon of greatness.