By Barry Janoff
March 27, 2014: With a nod to that classic advertising catch-phrase from the 1970s and 1980s, when Oscar Robertson speaks, people really listen.
The soft-spoken 75-year-old Robertson was among a group of basketball luminaries in attendance in the Delta Sky 360 Club in New York's Madison Square Garden on Thursday to talk about hoops in "The World's Most Famous Arena."
Madison Square Garden this weekend is hosting its first NCAA March Madness tournament games in the Sweet 16 and then the Elite Eight, in the current location at 34th and Seventh Avenue, and first March Madness games overall since 1961, when the Garden was located at Eight Avenue and 49th Street in Manhattan.
Before becoming one of the NBA's all-time greatest players, Robertson was one of college's hoops all-time greatest players, leading the University of Cincinnati to three NCAA tournaments (1958-60), the latter two resulting in Final Four appearances.
The man known as The Big O had one of college basketball's greatest performances when on Jan. 9, 1958, he scored 56 points against Seton Hall, which is still a college hoops record for The Garden.
According to Robertson, "I didn't know how many points I had until reporters told me in the dressing room after the game." That's when he found out that he single-handedly had outscored Seton Hall during Cincinnati's 118-54 win, in which he connected on 22 of 32 field-goal attempts was 12-12 from the free throw line.
Robertson's other memories about what was his first trip to New York: "The toll for the Midtown Tunnel was 50 cents (today it's $7.50). The cab driver who picked us up at the airport drove so fast I thought he was going to kill us."
And inside Madison Square Garden: "Backboards were held in place by long guide wires that were attached to the upper deck, within reach of fans. If you were playing well and a [fan of the other team] didn't like it, they shook the guide wires,''
Among the others present to usher in the NCAA Tournament, all of whom have a place in Madison Square Garden college basketball history: former Connecticut men's basketball head coach Jim Calhoun, Ron Nadell and Floyd Lane of the 1950 City College of New York team that won both the NCAA and NIT titles in 1950, former New York University and New York Knicks star Cal Ramsey, former Syracuse University star Dwyane "Pearl" Washington and former St. John's University standout Felipe Lopez.
Robertson's college legacy is still felt today. The annual trophy that honors the Div. I National Player of the Year was won by Robertson in 1959 and 1960, as selected by the U.S. Basketball Writers Assn. In 1998, it was renamed in his honor.
The 2013-14 Oscar Robertson Trophy recipient will be unveiled on April 4 in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, at a press conference in conjunction with the NCAA Men's Final Four.
Between college and the NBA, Robertson was co-captain with Jerry West of the 1960 U.S. Men's Basketball Team, which won a gold medal during the Summer Olympics in Rome.
He immediately made his mark in the NBA with the then Cincinnati Royals, being named the Rookie of the Year when he fell just shy of averaging a triple-double: 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.7 assists.
In 1961-62, Robertson became the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season — 30.8 points, 122.5 rebounds, 11.4 assists — the topic of whih led to a discussion about current NBA players as well as kids in college and high school looking to take their next step to the pros.
"There is a lot of 'me' in sports today," said Robertson. "How I played was to get everyone involved. They don't know how to play that way today. Too much one-on-one, [players] taking too many shots from the three-point line instead of working the ball around and getting teammates involved for the best shot. Players are just not skilled enough."
Robertson, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1980 and as a member of the 1960 gold medal team in 2010 (along with the likes of West, Jerry Lucas and Walt Bellamy), said that kids who try to go from high school to the NBA or leave college after one season are facing a tough road.
"When you look at players who went [to the NBA] right from high school, Kobe [Bryant] did it, Moses [Malone] did it, LeBron [James] did it. It's hard. It takes a few years to mature. LeBron was the exception because he was ready physically and mentally. It took Kobe, Moses a couple of years to get to the point where they were beginning to grow into the game. If you miss three years in college, you don't learn, you don't mature. You don't get those court skills you need when you get into the NBA."
Robertson played for the Royals (which ultimately morphed into the Sacramento Kings) from 1960-70, when he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks. There, he teamed with second-year player Lew Alcindor (who after the season changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). The joining of two league stars put the Bucks on the road to the 1970-71 NBA title, foreshadowing the multi-merger of stars in today's NBA, most notably among James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat.
"Stars joining together on teams is not new," said Robertson. "People point to LeBron in Miami with Wade and Bosh. But it was always there. The Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, the New York Knicks had stars together. The big difference was that the star players had other players to support them. On Miami, it's not just LeBron or Wade.
"I played with Kareem when we won the title," Robertson continued. "It was Kareem and me to a certain expert. But we had a good veteran team and we would not have won the title without them. We had Lucius Allen, Bob Boozer, Dick Cunningham, Bob Dandridge, other players who could come in and help the team when they got in a game."
Robertson, whose No. 14 was retired by the Kings, No. 1 was retired by the Bucks and his No. 12 retired by the University of Cincinnati, said the team he most likes to watch in the NBA today emulates teams from his era that played together and not as individuals.
"The San Antonio Spurs," said Robertson. "They have good players from all over. Their system is to play as a team, not as individuals. Starting players, bench players know their roles."
Speaking about LeBron and Kobe, could there have been a marketing juggernaut known as Brand Big O, given Robertson's impact on the league?
"When you look at players who went [to the NBA] right from high school, Kobe did it, Moses [Malone] did it, LeBron did it. It's hard. It takes a few years to mature."
"When I played, there was no concept of that," he said. "You had an endorsement or a couple, but it wasn't nearly to the extent you see it today. Timing is everything. I didn't have that opportunity.
"I appreciate what I did. I came to win and to play a team game. I don't think many of the players today know me, and certainly they didn't see me. Maybe on film. I was aware at the time of the players who came before me and the players who were in the league with me."
The NBA knows Robertson's role in the game. In 1996, Robertson was named to the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time team.
Robertson is recognized as having been a leader in raising the league's profile to the point where Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan could then take it to a global level. He also was a major catalyst in getting players more rights and money.
In 1970, as president of the National Basketball Players Assn., he filed a class-action anti-trust lawsuit against the NBA in what became known as the Oscar Robertson Suit. It led to a delay in the merger between the NBA and the American Basketball Assn. and a reworking of the college draft and free agency rules.
Robertson is a long-time advocate of the underprivileged, in particular in his hometown of Indianapolis. But as for the triple-doubles and NBA career numbers that include Rookie of the Year, MVP in 1964, 12-time All-Star, six-time NBA assist leader; 26,710 points, 7,804 rebounds and 9,887 assists?
"I don't think about that," said Robertson. "They didn't keep assists, turnovers, triple-doubles when I played. So it must not have meant very much because I didn't know I was doing it, to be honest.
"You just try to play the game," he said. "We all learn to play basketball . . . What's going on today with assists, turnovers-to-assists . . . it's who wins the game. That's what it's all about."
The NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 games in Madison Square Garden: Connecticut vs. Iowa State and Michigan State vs. Virginia on Friday, March 28, with the winners playing on Sunday, March 30, with that winner moving on to the Final Four.
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