In between handing out hardware to the best and brightest in today’s game, the NBA took a moment during Monday night’s 2018 NBA Awards to give the great Oscar Robertson a Lifetime Achievement Award. With the honor, the league recognized both Robertson’s remarkable record of accomplishment on the court — 12 All-Star berths, 11 All-NBA selections, the 1964 Most Valuable Player trophy and 1971 NBA championship, still 12th on the league’s all-time leaderboard in total points and sixth in assists 44 years after his retirement — and what former Milwaukee Bucks teammate and fellow legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called his “exemplary” leadership off of it.
If not for Robertson’s advocacy as the president of the National Basketball Players Association in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which included filing a federal antitrust suit to stall the proposed NBA-ABA merger and to end restrictive practices that bound players to their teams in perpetuity, the practice of free agency — of players getting the chance, after a period of years, to exercise at least some freedom of choice over where and for whom they’d like to play — as we know it might not exist. (The great Spencer Haywood deserves a healthy share of the credit on that score, too.)
Now, nearly five decades after he helped open the door for the freedom of movement and massive salaries of today’s stars, “The Big O” is still supporting and emphasizing the importance of player advocacy on issues of the day; he’d just like to see a little more of everyone putting their skin in the game.
Discussing the rising tide of prominent athletes speaking their minds and participating in activism on social and political matters, Robertson said he felt proud watching superstars like LeBron James stand up for what they believe … and he wondered why he hasn’t seen more engagement from their white counterparts. From Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN:
“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?
“This is not a black athlete problem. You see injustice in the world. It’s all around you. Just because LeBron 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 encountered the harmful effects of racism throughout his path to NBA superstardom. After his Crispus Attucks High School team became the first all-black squad ever to win an Indiana state basketball title, their celebratory parade was routed outside of Indianapolis because “they said the blacks are gonna tear up downtown.”
At the University of Cincinnati, Robertson led the nation in scoring and earned consensus First-Team All-American selections for three straight years; he was also refused entry to “whites-only” hotels during road trips and, before playing in the Dixie Classic basketball tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina, “received a letter from the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan warning, ‘Don’t ever come to the South.'” He’d go on to phenomenal success, occupying rarefied air among the greatest to ever play the game … but as he told Steven Marcus of Newsday last year, “When you’re young, you don’t forget.”
This is a very different time from the one in which Robertson grew up and played. It is also a deeply contentious time, in which racism, tribalism and arch political division have led many to feel the country is more fractured than it’s been in decades. In a climate like that, Robertson said, it’s all the more important for those with significant public platforms to speak out on behalf of those without — and for those who might be able to benefit from the luxury of not getting involved to enter the fray in solidarity with those who can’t hide from the fight.
“Years ago, [players] didn’t say anything because they couldn’t say anything,” Robertson said, according to Beth Harris of The Associated Press But now I hope they all, the whites and the blacks, get together.”
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