The Big O: A legend now and forever
Walking the halls of the National African American Museum, he spans two eras of hoops and history
The night had been billed as “The Legend and the Prospect,” but only The Legend remained in this part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Oscar Robertson stood with his wife on the third floor in a half-lit hall of heirlooms from his time. He had walked past the Jesse Owens and Arthur Ashe exhibits. He passed an entire wall devoted to Muhammad Ali standing triumphantly over Sonny Liston. He paused to see the photos of Curly Neal and Goose Tatum.
“You must understand as a kid of color in those days, the Harlem Globetrotters were like being movie stars,” read a quote from Wilt Chamberlain above the exhibit.
Man, could the “Big O” relate to that as a black child of the 1950s. When his Crispus Attucks High School team became the first all-black team to win an Indiana state title, white city officials wouldn’t let them go downtown to celebrate, figuring they’d riot.
“Still eats me up,” he said.
Finally, it was just Robertson and his wife in the basketball area: LeBron James and Derrick Rose in “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaking on social issues; Dave Bing as the mayor of Detroit instead of the Hall of Fame ballplayer; the Houston Comets hoisting a WNBA trophy; and that iconic photo of himself, snaring a rebound while doing a split in midair.
Seeing him next to that photo, seeing what the league had become since he played in the 1960s and 1970s, it seems clear that without Robertson, this section of the museum of African American history would not be complete. In point of fact, it probably wouldn’t exist.
A person of history in a place of history, he trudged through the corridors of time – his time.
“It’s not easy for Melo, LeBron to do what they’re doing, because they’re tied to corporate America,” he had said earlier during a conversation with Howard University senior James Daniel III, the nation’s leading scorer last season, and The Undefeated’s J.A. Adande, who moderated a discussion on activism, the game today and yesterday and, of course, whether Robertson in his prime could score, defend and rebound now. (“Come on, man,” he said incredulously to a theater full of laughter.)
He mocked Hoosiers for being partly fiction, eviscerated every new-jack cat for falling in love with the 3-point line, which had Daniel busting up because that’s his bread and butter. The Big O talked injustice, mutual respect, and the racism he suffered.
But there was also the Robertson who laughed and smiled, taking in the moment when a woman who had procured his autograph 51 years ago stepped to the microphone to thank him for what he meant to her. He tried to play it off humbly afterward backstage. But his beaming exterior said something else: Damn if a creaky-kneed old vet didn’t matter again.
The truth: For much of the past few decades, Robertson was sometimes angry and bitter. Angry that people forgot to include him as a bona fide contender in the Greatest Player of All Time conversation and for what he had done for players both socially and economically. And bitter that 19-year-old, 12th men on the bench, many of whom won the genetic lottery but can’t shoot, let alone show much heart, made twice as much as The Big O in his prime.
The minimum NBA salary today is $507,336.00. Robertson never once made more than $250,000 a year in a stellar career highlighted by a season in which he averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game. Fifty-four years later, he is still the only player to average double figures in the game’s three most important statistical categories – Mr. Triple-Double for life.
That night, the Big O seemed at peace with his legacy and cautiously optimistic that the renaissance of recent athlete activism might go somewhere. He even gave Michael Jordan a slight nod for his recent donations to organizations on both sides of the law enforcement-black community divide. “Maybe he didn’t feel like he could do it years ago,” Robertson said. “But I’m glad he’s doing it now.”
Most people in the theater knew the Big O is the reason that the NBA has free agency. The antitrust lawsuit he filed against the league in 1970 eventually led to players having the freedom to work for the team they want and exponentially increased the value of today’s contracts. They knew his name and his numbers, even if they never saw him play in person or on film.
They probably don’t know that in 1997 he donated one of his kidneys to his daughter Tia, who suffered kidney failure related to lupus, that he’s been an honorary spokesman for the National Kidney Foundation ever since.
They probably don’t know he’s as contemporary as he is old when it comes to business, investing heavily in marijuana farming in Ohio long before the state approved the sale of medical marijuana last May.
The Big O doesn’t need you to remember or know everything about him anymore. He’s at peace with his contributions and he’s now complimentary of the people who came after him.
As he stood there, bathed in the glare of the museum glass, it was clear this is where he is supposed to be.
The person in history in a place of history, staring deeply into the grain of the black-and-white photos, taking in the images and faces that brought him back to a time when no one was more culturally important or a greater basketball player than Oscar Robertson.