Oscar Robertson is NOT hating that Westbrook broke his triple-double record
The Big O couldn’t be happier that Westbrook broke his record and predicts the Oklahoma City guard will break more, too
Sunday on the Denver Nuggets’ home court, Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook logged his 42nd triple-double game of the season to break my 55-year-old single-season record in that category. He had previously tied the record on April 4 against Milwaukee.
To top off a 50-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist afternoon, he hit the game-winning 3-pointer from 36 feet as the buzzer sounded. Thunder 106, Nuggets 105.
Westbrook has also joined me as only the second player ever to average a triple-double for an entire season. My averages in 1961-62 were 30.8 points per game, 12.5 rebounds per game and 11.4 assists per game, the first time anyone had averaged double figures in assists.
I could not be happier for him. Congratulations to Russell Westbrook on a magnificent season!
Westbrook’s averages are similar to mine in both scoring and assists (a point higher in scoring, a digit lower in assists). What’s more, he leads the league in scoring by a comfortable margin at 31.9 points per game.
He’s also matched another 55-year-old record of mine by becoming only the second guard to lead his team in rebounding. He’s leading the Thunder with 10.7 rebounds per game and is in the NBA’s top 10 in that category.
And finally, also on Sunday, Westbrook also moved into fourth place on the career triple-double list with 79, one ahead of Wilt Chamberlain. If he stays healthy, there’s no reason he couldn’t eventually break my career record of 181 triple-double games. Magic Johnson is second at 138 and Jason Kidd third at 107.
A triple-double tidal wave
In 1961-62, when I had 41 triple-double games, the entire league had only 65 in an 80-game season. For my first six seasons – during which I cumulatively averaged a triple-double – the league had a total of 109 triple-double games.
This season alone, as of April 10 there were 114 triple-double games in the NBA, far surpassing the previous single-season record of 78 set in 1988-89.
Does that mean there are more all-around players today? Or that today’s more wide-open game creates more opportunities for scoring, rebounding and assists? Or that the criteria for assists are no longer as stringent? Whatever the reasons, there’s little doubt that the triple-double is much more in the spotlight.
For its first 27 years, the NBA kept records for points, rebounds, assists, field goals attempted and made, and free throws attempted and made. They didn’t start tracking blocked shots, steals or turnovers until 1973-74. (Otherwise Bill Russell and/or Chamberlain would be far and away the leaders in blocked shots.)
During my entire playing career, I wasn’t even aware that there was a triple-double statistic – double figures in points, rebounds and assists — because the term wasn’t in use. It wasn’t until Johnson was anointed as the all-time triple-double leader that someone said, wait a minute, we had better go back and check the records. And that’s when the records showed that I had set single-season and career records while also being the first player to average a triple-double for an entire season.
Who are the records really for?
As an athlete in a team sport, your goal first and foremost is to win games. Records are kept for those games. Records are nice to have and they’re part of your legacy, a hallmark of whatever imprint you made on your particular sport.
But more than anything else, records are great fodder for the fans, the talking heads, the bloggers and all the other experts who love to engage in debates about who is or was best in a particular aspect of a sport, and why.
And, forgive the cliché, records are made to be broken. If someone breaks your record, that means they’ve reached a level of excellence that is quantifiable in some respect, and you have to give them respect for doing so.
Plus, how often do you get to see history being made and also get to be a part of it?
Imagine if Babe Ruth could have seen Roger Maris in 1961 break his single-season record of 60 home runs, a record that had stood since 1927. Or if Lou Gehrig could have watched Cal Ripken in 1995 surpass his record of 2,130 consecutive games from 1923-1939.
Westbrook’s journey to tie or break my single-season triple-double records has been remarkable, and I’m happy to congratulate him for doing so. The journey has been great for Westbrook, the NBA, the fans and the media. It has created even more interest in the game and gives everyone something to talk about.
I admire Westbrook’s all-around command of the game. He is a marvelous athlete who plays with intensity and flair and is exciting to watch. His performance this season is impressive. He would have been great in any era.
Do Westbrook’s numbers make him the mvp?
Another question that keeps popping up is whether Westbrook’s numbers qualify him for MVP status. Should the MVP be based on a player’s individual performance, his contributions to his team’s performance, or how well his team does in the standings?
For example, James Harden in Houston has only half as many triple-doubles as Westbrook, but his team has a much better win-loss record. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, a perennial MVP candidate, had 13 triple-doubles as of April 10, but his team should contend for the NBA championship once again. People are also making a case for Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio, an all-around, blue-collar player who contributes to the Spurs’ success in so many different ways. Do you know how many triple-doubles he has? Zero.
My vote is for Westbrook, and here’s why:
2.) This season, he beats any other guard in a head-to-head matchup.
3.) Most important, he should be rewarded for his outstanding play this season and his career-making individual accomplishments.
If you’re allergic to history, stop reading here
If I take pride in my triple-double stats at all, it is primarily because of the players I competed against in setting those records.
Chamberlain, the most dominant player in the history of the game, once admonished a writer, “Don’t ever let them forget how good we were.” Since Chamberlain is no longer with us, I am happy to take up that assignment.
Five years ago, Fran Blinebury at nba.com did a 12-part series on the 1961-62 season called Season of Giants – a most appropriate title. The 1961-62 season was indeed one for the ages.
All things considered, my triple-double stat was only one of many amazing figures in that season of giants.
Playing every minute of every game for the Philadelphia Warriors, with opponents trying to muscle him away from the basket, Chamberlain shot 50.6 percent from the field, scored 4,029 points for a 50.4 average, and became the only player to score 100 points in an NBA game. And he averaged 25.7 rebounds a game. (He had already set the single-season rebounding record the previous year with 2,149 for a 27.2 average.) 4,000 points. 50.4 points per game. 27.2 rebounds per game. 100 points in a game. Will anyone ever break those records?
Others get the numbers, the Celtics win the ring
There were six players who averaged 30 points or more that season, the first and only time that’s happened. After Chamberlain came Elgin Baylor at 38.3, good for 1,836 points despite missing 32 games because of military service; Walt Bellamy, who led the league with a .519 field-goal percentage, at 31.6; Bob Pettit at 31.1; Jerry West and myself, 30.8 each. Baylor’s 38.3 scoring average remains the second-best in NBA history.
Despite all these individual heroics, it was the Boston Celtics, with their combination of defense, rebounding, and a balanced scoring attack, who won their fourth of 11 NBA titles during Russell’s 13-year career. It was Russell who took home MVP honors in 1961-62.
There were 22 Hall of Fame players among the nine teams active at that time, and it was my privilege to play with or against all of them.
When players like Russell and Chamberlain said “there will be no layups tonight,” you took them seriously.
Baylor, Pettit and other forgotten legends
The Celtics had not only Russell, but Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey, Sam Jones and K.C. Jones. Bellamy was with the Chicago Packers. The Knicks were led by hard-nosed Richie Guerin, also a prolific scorer. Chamberlain played alongside Paul Arizin, Guy Rodgers and Tom Gola. Syracuse had Dolph Schayes, Hal Greer and Johnny Kerr. The Los Angeles Lakers were anchored by West and Baylor, in my opinion the greatest all-around — and most overlooked — player in the history of the game.
The St. Louis Hawks, predecessor to Atlanta, had Lenny Wilkens at point guard and a high-powered front line of Cliff Hagan, Clyde Lovellette and Bob Pettit – basically the inventor of the power forward position and another player who rarely gets the credit he deserves today. Detroit had Bailey Howell, Don Ohl and Gene Shue.
As for our Cincinnati Royals, we had a deadeye shooter in Jack Twyman, who, two seasons earlier, had become one of the first two players to average over 30 points per game for a season (Chamberlain being the other). My running mate at guard, Arlen Bockhorn, was having a career year in scoring.
In the pivot, Wayne Embry had developed a mid-range jumper to go with his inside game, and together we ran the pick-and-roll to perfection. My 1960 Olympics teammate Bob Boozer was a hard worker at both ends of the court and as good a power forward as you could ask for. Another 1960 Olympics teammate, guard Adrian Smith, had blazing speed on the fast break and could bomb from 25-30 feet all night long.
We ran a fast-paced game and we did not slow down. We also set a new NBA record for team field goal percentage with .452. So I didn’t get those triple-double games all by myself. There were plenty of opportunities to dish out assists.
More important, we posted our first winning record in four years and also ended a four-year absence from the playoffs.
Royals come close, Red gets the cigar
What we couldn’t do, and what no other team of that era could do, was get past Red Auerbach’s Celtics. St. Louis did it in 1957 when Russell was hobbled by injury, and Philadelphia did it in 1967 following a then-record regular season 68 wins.
We took the Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference final in 1963. The following year, with Jerry Lucas added to the team, but Boozer subtracted midseason in what I still consider the worst trade in NBA history, we won our regular-season series against the Celtics, but they went on to win the NBA championship.
Incidentally, before I joined the Royals in 1960-61 and recorded 26 triple-doubles, the single-season triple-double record was 9 — set in 1958, his final season, by another Royal named Maurice Stokes. His tragic, career-ending injury at the end of that season cost the Royals and the NBA a brilliant all-around player and forever changed the trajectory of our franchise.
People always want to compare players and eras, but you really can’t. You have to account for such things as minutes played, games played, changes in scoring, and other changes in the way statistics are kept. So I’m not drawn into comparisons between Westbrook and myself, or his era and my era. I leave that up to the basketball historians to decide.
I know who I played against and what I did, and that’s good enough for me. As far as I’m concerned, my NBA career was defined by being a consummate professional and competing professionally for 14 seasons. My triple-double season and the Milwaukee Bucks’ championship in 1971 were both highlights of that wonderful career.