Best NBA Player of All-Time? Don’t Forget Who Really Put the ‘O’ in Offense

by Eamonn Donlyn

So, the NBA All-Star Game is behind us.

Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley are 50 years old.

And as we’ve heard repeatedly in the media, Jordan supposedly said he would choose Kobe Bryant over LeBron James, so Kobe did his best to show up LeBron down the stretch in the All-Star extravaganza.

In any case, last weekend was a big one for the NBA, with three heavy hitters involved in the headlines.   Not terrible for the sports collectible business by any means.  The hype has been so big, that we glossed over another piece of big news, as Players Union representative, Billy Hunter, was ousted from his position.


With MJ in the news, even golf cards are hot

But now that the league is back to the ‘normalcy’ of the regular season, the chatter will die down a bit across the board.

So we chose to take a step back to really think about the weekend from a big picture perspective and all the talk surrounding these storylines.  There is one name that comes to mind more than all the others when we trace the foundation of the game for today’s superstars, the hobby, AND even the players association.

The ‘Big O’.  oscarpsa10Oscar Robertson.

With collectors and fans alike arguing over ‘who’s better than Michael’, why isn’t Robertson immediately named as the man who led the way for all of them?

The most versatile guard of his era, Robertson was arguably the greatest ‘all-around’ player in history.  He also blazed the trail for much of the financial gain for the players of today during his time as President of the Players Union.

1960 Olympic basketball jersey Oscar Robertson

Oscar Robertson’s 1960 Olympic Golf Medal Winning Team USA game-worn jersey sold for $121,324 in December

In 1970, Robertson filed a suit against the NBA (Robertson v. National Basketball Association) blocking an NBA/ABA merge.  The suit would be settled in 1976 with the leagues merging, and it lead to the players right to free agency, as we know it today.

Robertson isn’t at the forefront of the ‘best player of all-time’ talks, and similarly has had to play second fiddle in cardboard status as well. Due to a four year production gap, the 1961-62 Fleer set, that contains Robertson’s rookie card is also known for a few other rookies you may have heard of:  Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.

Of course, any card in top condition from that era will do quite well, and Oscar is obviously in still one of the best ever.  PSA lists only one PSA Gem Mint 10 Robertson RC in its population report, with it selling for $25,838 in 2007.  PSA 8’s can be found in the $1,300-$2,000 range.

His 1970s basketball cards can be found for less than $25, even in higher grade.

While an auction of his early memorabilia seemed to do well, card and autograph collectors haven’t really appreciated him as well as they should.  Many probably never saw him in his prime.  To many, the 1960s NBA was the  Celtics and everyone else–when it got much attention at all.

TIMEoscarMagazine collectors might choose to chase one of his Sports Illustrated covers from 1970 or 1971, but he was big enough to earn a spot on an artful cover of TIME back in 1961, which might be a better item to covet.

We may marvel at LeBron’s versatility, and in his final season in Cleveland he did manage to average just under 30 points with 8.6 assists to go with 7.3 rebound for his best statistical season.  Jordan did go for 32.5 PPG, 8 assists and 8 rebounds per game in 1988-89.  Magic Johnson marveled with 18PPG, 9.5 and 9.6 rebounds in his third NBA season.

All amazing numbers.

While all three of them have been on the cover of Time as well, they pale in comparison statistically to the six-foot five inch Oscar Robertson.

Consider Oscars first 5 seasons in the NBA:

1960-61:      30.5 PPG       9.7 AST    10.1 REB
1960-61:    30.8 PPG  11.4 AST  12.5 REB
1960-61:       28.3 PPG     9.5 AST    10.4 REB
1960-61:       31.4 PPG    11.0 AST    9.9 REB
1960-61:      30.4 PPG    11.5 AST    9.0 REB

Seriously, take a look at those numbers for a moment.  Regardless of the era, it is clear we have maybe forgotten just how great he was.  It seems people don’t quite understand the gravity of his statistics, and there are many opponents to the era, with the fast paced games, high scoring and talent disparity.  But on the other side, players today wouldn’t be able to log the 46 minutes a game Oscar was able to withstand.

His triple double season may be the single greatest accomplishment in the history of the game, even topping Chamberlain’s 50 points per game average in a season.

oscarcollegeOf course, some people haven’t appreciated his approach in interviews in recent years, boldly defending his place in the game over time.

He does tend to stand by his principles and has served as an ambassador for the game and its values.  Robertson has made headlines in the collectors world as well, joining a lawsuit against the NCAA over his likeness on trading cards and more from his college days at Cincinnati, where he was 3-time player of the year.  The suit is currently awaiting further proceedings in May of 2013.

In addition to his stellar college record and Hall of Fame NBA career, Oscar also co-captained the 1960 U.S. Gold Medal team in the Olympics.  He finished with 1 championship and career averages of 25.7 PPG, 9.5 APG, and 7.5 RPG.

Regardless of your view on comparing eras, more of the ‘best player of all-time’ conversations should at least begin with ‘Big O’, even if they don’t end with him at the top.

Eamonn Donlyn is a former ESPN writer and producer who currently works in broadcast marketing. He lives in Hawaii.