Oscar Robertson, endearingly referred to as the Big O to generations of basketball fans, is in the view of many the greatest player of all time. What is inarguable is the 79-year-old former Cincinnati Royal and Milwaukee Buck is a pioneer in shaping the modern-day structure of the NBA.
Long before being enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1980, as president of the NBA Players’ Association from 1965 to 1974, Robertson’s activism led to a transformative shift in teams’ control of player movement. The Robertson v. National Basketball Association case, an antitrust lawsuit filed by Robertson against the NBA in 1970 and settled six years later, brought about the league’s modern-day free agency rules.
Decades earlier, Robertson fought against racism and inequities in American society. Born in the deep South town of Charlotte, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville, a little more than a 90-minute drive from Pulaski, Tenn., birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and raised in the Midwestern city of Indianapolis, where segregation and racial contempt were as overt and virulent as in any Southern burg, Robertson, in 1955, led his high school team at Crispus Attucks to become the first all-Black squad to win an Indiana state championship.
In a time when civil liberties and basic human rights are under siege in this country, led by a venomously warped president, Robertson’s unwavering sense of obligation to social justice compelled him to urge white NBA players to join Black players in speaking out against social issues as he addressed the media while accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award at the NBA Awards show Monday in Santa Monica, Calif.
“I think that as people evolve, and things are changing so much in the world, with social media and whatnot, these people are young people who have families,” Robertson said. “They’ve seen some injustice in the streets or wherever it might be—it might be almost anywhere—and they're stepping up. But the only thing that really bothers me is, where are the white athletes when this is happening?”
There are in fact white athletes such as Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Chris Long who have dauntlessly supported their Black brethren. But collectively, their voice could be much stronger.
Robertson continued, “This is not a Black athlete problem. You see injustice in the world. It’s all around you. Just because LeBron [James] steps out, I’m glad he does. I hope some other players —because this is what they believe—I mean, what do you want players to do? Shut up and dribble? I think it’s time for them to say what they want to say about life and about politics and things about the street and whatnot. And about education.
“There are a lot of players donating money back into different colleges. But it seems that what we have today is a system where you don’t want players to say anything at all.”
Robertson believes athletes have much more leverage today than during his playing days to utilize their expansive platforms.
“Years ago, they didn’t say anything because they couldn’t say anything,” he said. “But now I hope they all, the whites and the Blacks get together.”