Civic Engagement

How Oscar Robertson's visionary leadership empowered athletes and changed the NBA forever

In 2018, Oscar Robertson was honoured with the NBA's Lifetime Achievement Award, making him the second recipient of the award after Bill Russell, who was the inaugural awardee in 2017.

On the hardwood, Robertson was special. He won an NBA MVP award in 1964, followed by an NBA championship in 1971, but he will be most fondly remembered for his legendary 1961-62 season, when he averaged a 30-point triple-double for the season. For 55 years, he was the only player in league history to average a triple-double.

Off the court, it can be argued that Roberton's impact was among the most significant in sports history. In particular, his 1970 lawsuit against the NBA changed the way the league and players did business, and set the wheels in motion for the player empowerment era we see today.

"Much of who I am today was shaped by basketball, my story is much more than basketball," Robertson said as he accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 NBA Awards.

MORE: Russell's success paved the way for Black coaches

Robertson v. NBA

Filed in 1970, Robertson v. National Basketball Association was an anti-trust class-action lawsuit set about by 14 plaintiffs - all current players in the NBA at the time. The primary objective of the suit was to end the "option clause," under which a player was bound to one team until the franchise wanted to end the relationship by either "selling" or "trading" the player. There were multiple concerns, however, including the league's draft and the restrictions on free agency that prompted the litigation.

At the time of the suit's filing, Robertson was the president of the NBPA (National Basketball Players Association), a role he rose to when Black players were still a minority in the league and one he would serve until his retirement in 1974.

With the suit, his mission wasn't only to help the minority Black players in the league. Instead, this was a Black player leading from the front and fighting for the rights of all. Robertson's leadership in a struggle for freedom that many believed would end the NBA required remarkable courage, especially when considering the colour of his skin and the tense racial climate in the 1960s.

"I always admired his game, of course, but what was most admirable about Oscar was his willingness to speak out," says Jerry West, who was Robertson's teammate on the legendary 1960 Olympics squad but a rival in the NBA. "It was much harder to do that back in our day, and very few had the courage that Oscar did."

The court deadlock, which held up the league's merger with the ABA in 1970, finally ended in a settlement in 1976. The prospect of the merger, which Robertson believed would have reduced the player salaries, also played a role in the filing of the suit. The merger eventually went through just a few months after a settlement was reached in the Robertson vs. NBA case.

Known as the Oscar Robertson rule, the settlement not only brought about free-agency in the NBA but also in professional sports. It set the league on a path of growth that many never envisioned. It raised the earnings of the average NBA players - Black and white - as teams had to bid for their services, a stark difference to how player retention worked in the first 30 years of the NBA.

"Oscar paved the way for free agency as we know it in the NBA," commissioner Adam Silver says. "There is a long tradition in our league going back to Oscar and others, including Bill Russell, who spoke out about civil rights issues. It's a culture that's been passed down from generation to generation, and Oscar led the fight."

Unfortunately, no fight comes without consequences. Although he has been honoured, remembered and paid tribute to for his efforts in recent years, the suit actually took a toll on Robertson's relationship with the league.

"I would have liked to have had a better relationship with the NBA," Robertson told the Undefeated in 2017. "I really found out early that when I got involved with the Oscar Robertson case, along with other players as well, it sort of left a bad taste in the NBA's mouth. They might tell you it's not true, but I've heard it from other guys around the league I played with and some after that. I think they really resented that, to be honest."

It's off the back of his landmark stand in the 1970s that the average NBA player's salary has jumped from $35,000 back then to $180,000 a decade later, and now to $9.5 million pre-COVID.

Growing up combating racism

Robertson's will to stand against injustice was born at a very young age when his superhuman basketball talents gave him a taste of the real world.

In 1955, he led his high school to a 31-1 record and the state championship, the first-ever for an all-Black school in the nation.

The following year, he led them to another state championship with an unbeaten 31-0 record, as they became the first Indiana team ever to complete a perfect season. The heroics earned him "Mr. Basketball" in 1956.

Image above: Robertson with his 1955 Indianapolis Crispus Attucks High School basketball team (courtesy: nba.com/bucks)

The unprecedented success did not shield Robertson and the team from racial discrimination. At the end of their championship parade route, the team was taken to a park outside downtown to celebrate, whereas other championship teams from the era were allowed to celebrate downtown.

"[Officials] thought the Blacks were going to tear the town up," Robertson said, "and they thought the whites wouldn't like it."

After high school, Robertson enrolled at the University of Cincinnati. Becoming the first African-American athlete in the university's history had its many challenges as he attempted to lead a team that was unable to accept his race. On road trips, barred from the hotels, he would often stay in college dorms.

"I'll never forgive them," he told the Indianapolis Star years later.

Despite those adversities, Robertson's three years at Cincinnati will go down as one of the best college basketball careers of all time. He won the national scoring title, was an All-American and was named College Player of the Year in each of the three seasons.

His collegiate accomplishments were so vast that in 1998 the United States Basketball Writers Association renamed the trophy awarded to the NCAA Division I Player of the Year to the "Oscar Robertson Trophy," an award Robertson won in each of the first two years of its existence.

Post-Basketball

After everything he had battled through, Robertson was not one to stop fighting because his playing career ended.

In retirement, he worked on improving the living conditions of his fellow African-Americans in Indianapolis by building affordable housing.

In 1992, he co-founded the National Basketball Retired Players Association, an organization that supports retired players after their playing days. He served as NBRPA's President up until 1998.

For his body of work, any number of titles or awards wouldn't do justice. His on-court success (Rookie of the Year, 12-time All-Star, three-time All-Star Game MVP, 11 All-NBA selections, six assists titles) as the league's first successful "big guard" at 6-foot-5 helped pave the way for the likes of Magic Johnson and Penny Hardaway.

Off the court, Robertson's courageous leadership is one of the biggest reasons why NBA players have the voice, leverage and overall empowerment they do today.

The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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