At “Only A Game,” we normally interview authors of current books, but the 2011 publication of the paperback edition of The Big O by University of Nebraska Press seemed to invite a look back at the autobiography of one of basketball’s greatest players.
Not surprisingly, The Big O celebrates Oscar Robertson’s career effusively. But the book also offers Robertson’s take on such matters as how the professional game has changed since his career ended in 1974, and his role in the struggle to achieve free agency and a pension plan. Robertson is frank about the racism he encountered as a player and later as a commentator. At one point Robertson, who says he “knew Dr. King and did a lot of things to support the struggle,” speaks to the syndrome of players like Michael Jordan, who are scrupulous about not risking endorsement opportunities by speaking out about anything.
“No owner was going to have on his team an outspoken black man making political statements,” Robinson writes. “You can’t compare this to modern-day players who refuse to step forward and take political stances because they are afraid of losing endorsement money from a soda company. The fact is, back then, if you stepped forward and spoke out, your livelihood was cancelled.”
Robertson feels that racism was responsible for his failure to establish a career as a basketball analyst, and writes, “there simply was no way a black man was going to stay on the air as the voice of the sport.” At least as of 2003, when his book was first published, Robertson didn’t feel much had changed, opining that “so many people on the air today are nothing more than front men who don’t know anything about the sport.”
When I spoke with Oscar Robertson this week, he implied that trying to determine basketball’s greatest player was pointless. He said no player could claim to be the greatest at every aspect of the game. On the other hand, toward the end of The Big O, Robertson takes on the question of how he would have stacked up against Michael Jordan and writes, “I don’t think anyone was any better than I was.”