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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Oscar Robertson Black Heritage Celebration Interview

Getting a triple-double in a game demonstrates a player’s versatility. Oscar Robertson is the only NBA player to average a triple-double for an entire season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 11.4 apg in 1961-62). In fact, Robertson averaged a triple-double overall during his first six seasons in the NBA (30.4 ppg, 10.7 apg, 10.0 rpg). More than three decades after his retirement, many people still believe that the “Big O” is the greatest all-around basketball player ever. Robertson won two Indiana high school championships, made two Final Four appearances, captured an Olympic gold medal in 1960 and helped lead the Milwaukee Bucks to the 1971 NBA title. He is a Hall of Famer and was selected as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players.

The Cleveland Cavaliers will hold four signature nights as part of their 2006 Black Heritage Celebration. The first of these events, Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute Night, took place at Quicken Loans Arena during halftime of Tuesday night’s game versus the Indiana Pacers and recognized the achievements of the Black Sports Legends of Ohio. Robertson, Olympic medalists Edwin Moses and Harrison Dillard, Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Willis and Ohio State Athletics Director Gene Smith were honored during the ceremony. Thanks to Cavaliers’ Public Relations Coordinator Garin Narain, I was able to speak with Robertson by phone on Tuesday evening.

Friedman: “Tell me about tonight’s Black Heritage Celebration at the Cavs’ game and your participation in the ceremony.”

Robertson: “We’re heading into Black History Month in February and I think that this is a tremendous time for people to make themselves aware of what’s going on. There are so many things that blacks have done, especially in the game of basketball. I, (Bill) Willis and (Edwin) Moses are Ohioans who were notables in our respective sports, so we’ve come out to try to help the Cavaliers get a win tonight.”

Friedman: “Do you get the sense that the current players understand the magnitude of the struggle for the most basic human rights that took place less than 40 years ago?”

Robertson: “No. How can they? It’s not taught in schools and their parents don’t talk about it. How can they talk about the struggles unless they’ve been involved in the struggles? What Jewish families do is make sure that you know about what’s going on in Israel and what happened in the Holocaust. Black families don’t do that—some people don’t even know that there was slavery in America. They don’t know the struggles that took place with Dr. King and before Dr. King and after Dr. King even up to now. They are totally unaware of these things altogether.”

Friedman: “In terms of the NBA, do you think that the older players or the league should make today’s players more aware of that history since those events have so directly impacted them and enabled them to make such a tremendous living from playing basketball?”

Robertson: “You can never mandate such things from the league’s standpoint but I think that individuals who want to be knowledgeable about history should know.”

Friedman: “Switching to on the court matters, what are your thoughts about Kobe Bryant scoring 81 points a couple nights ago?”

Robertson: “Well, it was good for Kobe. I’m glad he got it and it really put the basketball world on edge. The only thing that I am really disappointed in is that I saw someone on television—I don’t know what the guy’s name was, but he happened to be a black person—trying to demean Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game because ‘nobody got to see it, but we got to see Kobe.’ Well, there are a lot of things you don’t see in life but they are still historical. But he went on TV and said that he didn’t get to see Wilt score 100 points, but he saw this; that just goes to show you the depth of some people in America.”

Friedman: “Do you think that Kobe has a shot to break Wilt’s record?”

Robertson: “It all depends; he’s not going to do that against Detroit. Maybe against Toronto, which just goes to show you what kind of team Toronto is. When I saw some of the clips today, the Toronto players seemed to be happy that he was scoring 81 points. How can you be happy that someone scores 81 points against you if you are competitive? But maybe they are not competitive.”

Friedman: “What do you think of LeBron James as a player at this stage of his career? Also, if you were a general manager and had the opportunity to take either one, would you take LeBron or Kobe at this stage?”

Robertson: “I think LeBron is better dribbling the ball in traffic than Kobe Bryant. But as far as shooting and overall play, I would take Kobe because he is more experienced. But give LeBron a couple more years—he’s only been here a couple years. He’s going to grow, get smarter, he’s going to learn about his own players as well as learn about the opposing players, so he’s going to get much better. I don’t think that you can go wrong with either one, to be honest. I consider LeBron a forward and Kobe a shooting guard. Now you see the effect that Shaq had on Kobe’s game; when Shaq was there Kobe was not able to put up these kinds of numbers.”

Friedman: “In terms of individual scoring, it could hurt a perimeter player to have a dominant big man, because he clogs up the driving lanes, although of course that pairing of talents might be better for team success. Didn’t you go through a similar thing when you played with Kareem toward the end of your career? Your individual stats went down, but the opportunity to win a championship was greater.”

Robertson: “Well, Oscar Robertson was different. When I played with Milwaukee, stats meant nothing to me. I had earned my way in the game. The problem with Kobe now is: Can he do this every night? The next thing is, can you win 60, 70 games by doing this? The stats are great, I’m happy for Kobe, but, in the long run, where are the other guys on the team? Are they anywhere at all? I know that there are guys on the team making several million dollars. They should be embarrassed.”

Friedman: “You are very involved with the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA). Talk a little bit about that and how important it is for the retired players to have one body that speaks for them as a group.”

Robertson: “It is a resource point for the retired players to get together and talk about things. We are trying to overcome some things and get some things going in a way that all players will benefit, not just in a financial way but also health wise and travel wise—primarily health wise, but also travel wise, so that players will be able to go out and speak to schools and so forth. That is what it is really all about.”

Friedman: “Great players love challenges. Imagine that you are 25 years old and at the peak of your game--which one or two current players would you really like to play against?”

Robertson: “I don’t measure myself against anyone. Everyone talks about Jordan. Jordan was a great player. But, you know, if he would have played in the Sixties, would he have had the same numbers? No, he wouldn’t have. This is what happens in basketball today: I think that the advent of television has made some people (seem to be) a lot greater than they really are. When I played, it was never a personal challenge for me to go against anybody because I knew that for us to win we had to play as a team. We couldn’t go out and try to overcome anyone individually.”

Friedman: “How much do you think that the rules changes—particularly eliminating the hand check against perimeter players—are leading to the increasing number of 40 and 50 point games by individual players that we are seeing this year?”

Robertson: “I think that it is a different culture. I don’t think that the guys today—well, I’m sure that they could make the adjustment, but they wouldn’t like the hand checking and the elbow on your back and whatnot. I’ll never forget playing against Gus Johnson—man, he’d put his hand on you and you could hardly move. He’d stick you with his fingers when you tried to move and it would knock you back. Once you got used to it you made an adjustment. But I think that the game today is a farce. For instance, if I touch you outside (as a perimeter defender), they’ll call a foul—even if I just put my hand on you. But then on the inside, guys are bumping and backing in and running over people and they don’t call anything at all. Then they put a line in to determine what is charging or blocking. I think that’s the end. When I saw that--any referee that needs a line on the floor to tell whether it is a charge or not is not a good referee.”

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:58 PM

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