The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You remember Oscar Robertson for triple-doubles. He recalls his fight for players’ rights.

Russell Westbrook, right, is congratulated by Oscar Robertson on his single season triple-double record in 2017. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
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Oscar Robertson filled the Senate hearing room with laughter, but he wasn’t joking.

A few months after he won his lone NBA championship with the Milwaukee Bucks, Robertson sat before a Senate subcommittee, in a fight against his employer. The NBA was looking to merge with the ABA, but Robertson, then-president of the players’ union, had filed an antitrust lawsuit in response, fearing the alliance would drive down salaries and strangle players’ labor rights.

”You seem to have done pretty well. Do you think you’re worth more than the one hundred thousand dollars you are getting?” Sen. Roman Hruska, a Republican from Nebraska, asked Robertson on Sept. 22, 1971.

“To be honest and frank,” Robertson said, “I think so.”

Robertson grew up in poverty in Indianapolis, the son of sharecroppers and the grandson of enslaved people, with a family that couldn’t afford a basketball. He wasn’t angry about his upbringing, but it shaped his views on fairness and equality. And he always understood his worth, shrugging off efforts to belittle him. In that clash with the senator, Robertson wasn’t trying to provide humor; he was commanding respect.

“I’ll never forget it,” Robertson, 83, said in a recent Zoom interview. “Guy was from Nebraska. I don’t remember his name, but he was trying to embarrass me. Was he worth the money he was making?”

By then, Robertson already had stood up to the KKK, as a college student at Cincinnati, after the group sent a telegram threatening to shoot him if he played in North Carolina. He blocked out bigots who hurled racist slurs at him or didn’t believe he deserved to stay in the same hotels as his teammates. And he stuck with Robertson v. National Basketball Association even as it cost him standing inside the league.

From 2018: Oscar Robertson wants to know: ‘Where are the white athletes’ in today’s politics?

For years, Robertson would be shunned from a league that never attempted to find a place for him. But the players, the owners and the game won because Robertson demanded more. His fight delayed the merger of the NBA and the ABA for six years, and the 1976 settlement resulted in the Oscar Robertson Rule, which pushed players toward free agency and helped establish the modern NBA.

“People tried to pooh-pooh that,” Robertson said of the rule that bears his name, “like it didn’t change basketball. It changed basketball forever. How could a player make $50 million a year playing basketball? I took a lot of heat for it. I’m still taking heat for it, I guess. But I think the Oscar Robertson Rule is really what propelled basketball to where it is today. Can you imagine guys sitting on the bench, averaging three or four points a game, making $10 million? I’m happy for them because I think it was on my watch that all these things happened. I just want people to know it.”

Why does it matter when athletes speak out? Just ask the kids.

Robertson is one of the greatest basketball players to ever live, a skilled savant who was a triple-double machine before anyone knew what a triple-double was. He entered the NBA in 1960, at a time when teams still had unwritten quotas for the number of Black players on their rosters. He produced what are now referred to as “video game numbers” in an era when dominance was reserved for giants, not 6-foot-5 guards, easily earning a spot on the NBA’s 75th anniversary team.

Players such as Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have seen their on-court successes enhance their legacies as champions for civil rights and social justice. But with Robertson, his numbers, brought back to life in recent years as Russell Westbrook hunted triple-double records, almost obscure an impact on basketball that far exceeded what he accomplished on the court.

Robertson spoke to The Washington Post in advance of the NBA’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration and near the anniversary of one of the most pivotal nights in league history: Jan. 14, 1964. That was when players locked arms inside a locker room at Boston Garden and threatened to strike during the first live-televised All-Star Game unless the league’s owners recognized their union and provided basic necessities, such as a trainer on every staff. Negotiations between the players and the owners, barricaded on the other side of the locker room, were contentious.

“They received some real vile language while they were in there,” Robertson said with a laugh of the owners. They conceded to the players’ requests, and the game was played, with Robertson earning MVP honors. “From that point on, the association went forward. It elevated the players from being sandlot players to being real pros.”

Within a year, he would officially become president of the union, the first African American to hold that for any major sports or entertainment labor organization. Five years later, Robertson’s name was attached to the suit that shattered a system in which NBA players were bound to the team that drafted them until the team no longer wanted them.

When reminded that he paid a price for his dedication and defiance, Robertson laughed, looked away and lowered his head. His love for the game didn’t vanish when he retired. Opportunities for employment, however, did. He never got a coaching or front-office job. He was pushed out of a job as an analyst for CBS after one year, his first after retirement. During the discovery process of the trial, Paul Snyder, the owner of the Buffalo Braves, called Robertson an “adversary of the NBA,” which Robertson believes led to his dismissal.

“It affected me quite a bit,” Robertson said. “It was very difficult when I came up to be able to say anything at all. I had to believe that some of the owners, through their meetings, were upset about [the suit] and rightly so. They were giving up a little power, but look what they gained out of it. They gained so much it was unbelievable.”

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Athletes have been granted more license to speak out in the past decade, with social media providing the platform and fans growing more supportive. Robertson openly supported Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee, but he was disappointed in Black athletes who spoke out against the former NFL quarterback’s efforts to raise awareness of police brutality and systemic racism. “If you didn’t like what he did, keep your mouth shut. Now they hail him as a hero.”

He believes collective protests, such as the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2020 wildcat strike, should be athletes’ preferred mechanism for promoting change, as opposed to carefully crafted tweets. “I’m glad the basketball players are enlightened and sophisticated enough to understand what’s going on," he said. "That’s what’s really needed. They can come and get you individually, but they can’t get the masses.”

And he’s baffled and disappointed that, during a global pandemic, some athletes have flaunted their unwillingness to accept a vaccine that could help mitigate the impact of a lethal virus. “Take a person, any person,” Robertson said. “Does he know more than professional people, the doctors that are involved in this and the chemical companies that are making this medicine?”

Despite the backlash he received, Robertson has remained outspoken, and he doesn’t regret standing up for himself and for others — making the sacrifices needed for the game to thrive.

“I often look back like, where would they be if the top pay was $100,000? Where would they be?" Robertson said. "You wouldn’t know anything about them. Now players can make money so that their families never have to worry about money anymore. And also, owners, when was the last time you saw a basketball team sell for 2 billion dollars? It’s almost like it’s not real. … I take a lot of pride in that.”