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Oscar Robertson, a staunch player rights advocate, on Martin Luther King Jr.'s impact

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The NBA’s players once considered a boycott in the wake of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, but decided to go on with the Eastern Conference finals between Bill Russell’s Celtics and Wilt Chamberlain’s 76ers.

Later that summer, the biggest advocate for player rights, Oscar Robertson, organized a benefit game in King’s honor on an outdoor court in New York City.

Robertson’s sense of history from that time seems almost as vivid as today’s more recent memories. The black-and-white photos of King and monuments in cities across the country give the appearance of a man from a different century, but he was a very real figure to Robertson.

“Dr. King, a lot more should’ve been done, but we were happy to do that,” Robertson told Yahoo Sports recently.

Robertson never met Dr. King personally, but was a close acquaintance with Rev. Fred Lee Shuttlesworth, one of the four founding members (along with King) of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

“Through him, I knew some of the things that they were doing, but I didn’t know everything,” Robertson said. “The vision of Dr. King, in order to bring this country to a better place for everybody. And for Blacks to get a piece of the pie, man. We’re achieving that, but we’re not there yet. Are we on the way?”

NBA players wore special warmup shirts to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
NBA players, like the Charlotte Hornets shown here, wore special warmup shirts Monday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Elsa/Getty Images)

By the time King was assassinated in Memphis, his movement had shifted, targeting economic equality for Black people in addition to equal rights.

“A lot of people don’t understand how he was treated, by the federal government,” Robertson said, incredulously. “They were against him, they taped his phone calls, did everything they could to embarrass him. And all he was doing was trying to bring some order to this country, make a better life for people Black and white.”

The Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated, is a historical marker and the Civil Rights Museum has been built around it. The NBA has a whole day of games and programming built around the holiday — which could be viewed as a tricky proposition when one considers everything Dr. King truly stood for.

The longer time goes, the easier it becomes for King’s message to become distorted and used disingenuously by many who know they’re operating in bad faith. The NBA won’t go that far into the waves of hypocrisy, but corporations are corporations and it can feel awkward.

The NBA has committed tangible resources recently, with the HBCU Fellowship Program aimed at hiring students into areas of corporate partnerships, social responsibility, legal and more. The NBA Foundation has also awarded 38 grants totaling $11 million to create employment opportunities, career advancement and economic empowerment to the Black community, as part of a 10-year, $300 million commitment dating to August 2020, the largest such gesture by any of the professional sports.

Robertson’s fight could be viewed as similar to King’s on a small scale, where he championed for free agency for players with an antitrust lawsuit — barring players from having to stay with the team that drafted them through perpetuity, which began restricted free agency as we know it today.

He was retired by the time the lawsuit was settled in 1976, but as the first Black man and longest-tenured president of the NBPA (1965-74), Robertson was long invested in the fight for economic freedom for players in what was even then a predominantly Black league.

Oscar Robertson on stage to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.
Oscar Robertson, shown receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018, fought for economic freedom for NBA players and championed for free agency. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Turner Sports)

Robertson’s experiences in Indianapolis and later Cincinnati shaped much of his views on race, having grown up in the days of “separate but equal” before the Supreme Court overturned it. He was the second Black athlete at Cincinnati and received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

“Let me tell you how naive I was,” he said. “We play a game at North Texas University. I go into the locker room and there’s a black cat in the locker room. I didn’t like cats [but] I sit down and put on my [uniform]. Then the guys walk in and say, ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’”

It was then he realized the cat was there for him, a symbol often used to compare Black people being hung.

“Where I’m from, you have a cat in the house, it’s killing the rat. It didn’t get me upset, it didn’t get me upset at all,” he said.

Robertson learned about the difference between racism in the South compared to the North. The South is often presented as the only place the racism was dangerous and pervasive, but it was potent everywhere, and the exposure to regions outside your own wasn’t as widespread as it is today.

Robertson believes that has aided today’s players with athlete activism, as recent events from the last couple years have shined a light on issues of race and gender. Athletes have the biggest megaphone and have at least attempted to speak out.

“Players today are much more intelligent as far as the ways of the world than they were years ago,” Robertson said. “You’re in a different world.”

A different world from the one Robertson grew up in, but not so far away that the memories aren’t vivid and chilling.