Oscar Robertson, nicknamed “The Big O,” was born in Charlotte, Tennessee. His family moved to Indianapolis, where Robertson began playing basketball, using a tin can in place of a ball. In contrast to many other boys who preferred to play baseball, Robertson was drawn to basketball because it was “a poor kids’ game.”
Fast forward to high school. Oscar Robertson led his all-Black basketball team to two Indiana state titles, the first time an Indianapolis team won the Hoosier tournament. In his senior season, Robertson was named Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball.”
Upon graduation, Robertson enrolled at the University of Cincinnati. His stellar play led the Bearcats to a 79–9 overall record during his three varsity seasons (1957 to 1960), including two Final Four appearances. Despite his success on the court, Robertson’s college career was soured by racism. In those days, southern universities such as Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina did not recruit Black athletes. Road trips to segregated cities were arduous, with Robertson often sleeping in college dorms instead of hotels.
Nonetheless, “The Big O” set 14 NCAA and 19 school records, won the national scoring title, was named an All-American and was chosen College Player of the Year. After college, Robertson co-captained the U.S. men’s basketball team at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. The team, described as the most remarkable assemblage of amateur basketball talent ever, steamrollered the competition to win the gold medal. He was the leading scorer, as the U.S. team won its nine games by a margin of 42.4 points.
Robertson started his professional career with the Cincinnati Royals. For the 1961-1962 season, Robertson achieved a “triple-double” average, which means his averages for points, assists and rebounds were in double figures.
In addition to his unmatched performance on the court, Robertson served as the president of the NBA Players’ Association and was an integral part of Robertson v. National Basketball Assn of 1970. The landmark NBA antitrust suit led to an extensive reform of the league’s strict free agency and draft rules and, subsequently, to higher salaries for all players.
After playing with the Royals for ten years, Robertson was traded to Milwaukee, where he helped lead the Bucks to an NBA championship in 1971. He retired from the NBA in 1974.
“The Big O” remains one of the most important names in basketball history and continues to stand atop the Bearcats’ record book. He is a member of the National Basketball Hall of Fame and has been named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History and ESPN’s 50 Greatest Athletes of the Century.
In 1998, the United States Basketball Writers Association renamed their College Player of the Year Award the Oscar Robertson Trophy in his honor and, in 2007, he received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from his alma mater.
Robertson resides with his family in Cincinnati. In 2003, he published his autobiography, The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game. and owns the chemical company Orchem. He is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. and an honorary spokesman for the National Kidney Foundation.
The First 28, graciously sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, celebrates Black Cincinnatians who were the first in their fields. Each day during Black History Month, we will celebrate athletes, artists, business leaders, civil rights activists, educators, physicians and politicians.
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