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An Undefeated Conversation

Oscar Robertson keeps it real on social activism, how to navigate the business of sports

‘The Legend and The Prospect’ drop some knowledge at conversation at the NMAAHC

NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson was driving around in Cincinnati — shortly before he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks — when he was pulled over by police in 1970. The police officer walked over to his window and was greeted by the sight of Robertson with both hands still clutching the steering wheel. The officer asked for Robertson’s identification, and he told the officer he’d have to take the license out of Robertson’s pocket.

That story paled in comparison to when the two-time Hall of Famer and basketball player of the century was preparing to play in the Dixie Classic in 1959 and received a death threat from the Ku Klux Klan, via telegraph, warning him against playing in the game.

The former Cincinnati Royals and Bucks point guard regaled a small audience with these stories as a part of The Legend and The Prospect: A Conversation between Oscar Robertson and James “J-Byrd” Daniel III, a collaboration between The Undefeated and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

The discussion focused on “pro and college basketball, how the sport has evolved, the lives of the two athletes and their roles as influencers in society.” J.A. Adande, ESPN basketball analyst and columnist for The Undefeated, moderated the Thursday night forum, the first between the two organizations, in the Oprah Winfrey Theater. The collegiate player, Daniel, is a guard for Howard University and led the nation in scoring (27.1 points per game) last season.

The stories Robertson told spoke to what he and players coming up in his generation in the 1950-1960s had to deal with as pioneers in integration, civil rights and fair pay. The incident with police spoke to the same issue of police interactions with black men that still occur to this day.

This led directly to an exchange about San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his protest of the national anthem to bring awareness to police brutality and the inequities facing people of color in the United States.

While many players across multiple levels of sport and different sports have joined in, Adande pointed out that a significant number of white players have not joined the protest. Asked if we will see a star like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady or tight end Rob Gronkowski join in, Robertson chuckled.

“I don’t think you’re going so see that, to be honest,” said Robertson, the only player to average a triple-double for an entire NBA season. “They’re not going to say anything.”

When asked questions about the Missouri football team protest last year that led to the resignations of the school system’s president and chancellor over racial insensitivity, the national anthem protest and whether he and his teammates planned to protest, Daniel was a man of very few words. His responses were often short and concise, and he said to the crowd, “he doesn’t usually talk that much” or “to too many people.”

Oscar Robertson answer a question from the crowd while on stage with J.A. Adande and James Daniel III during “The Legend and The Prospect: A Conversation between Oscar Robertson and James “J-Byrd” Daniel III” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on October 27, 2016 in Washington D.C.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

He often showed a good sense of humor during the panel, and an ability to roll with the jokes as they came his way. No response showed this better than when Robertson discussed his contempt for the three ball — if one couldn’t consistently make it, he clarified — and Adande pointed out that more than half of Daniel’s points came from 3-pointers.

“The 3-point shot is glorifying,” Daniel deadpanned to laughter from the crowd.

On the topic of activism, Robertson said there is an individual responsibility to bring mainstream attention to issues that matter to the person bringing them up and the larger group affected by the issue. He gave folks another lens to look at Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan, who built a business empire from his brand and has a significant hand in diversifying the industry in a way it probably wouldn’t have if he weren’t the colossal giant he is.

So depending on the athlete, social activism may not be the route he or she takes to improve the lives of those who aren’t getting opportunities, and business diversity is an alternative option. No matter which way an athlete or celebrity chooses to bring awareness to issues he or she cares about in the community or individually, Robinson said, the most important thing is that people continue to bring up problems, so they can eventually change.

“If black people don’t think about it, who is going to say anything about it?” Robertson asked.

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.