NBA

Oscar Robertson Was So Poor Growing up He Couldn’t Even Afford a Basketball

Oscar Robertson, who became a legendary basketball guard in the NBA, grew up in Indianapolis, facing poverty and racism. In addition to his role as a top-scoring guard for the Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks, he also was president of the union during the NBA and American Basketball Association antitrust merger suit and worked in later years to advocate for affordable housing in Indianapolis.

Oscar Robertson’s childhood

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Born on November 24, 1938, in Charlotte, Tennessee, Robertson was the son of Mazell Bell Robertson and Bailey Robertson, Sr. Young Robertson grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, in a segregated housing project.

Unfortunately, Robertson knew poverty from an early age. He practiced shooting baskets using tennis balls and rags wrapped with rubber bands. He used a peach basket for a hoop behind his house.

Robertson played basketball at Crispus Attucks High School, where, in 1955, the team was the first all-black high school team to win the state championship. It had a record of 31 wins and just one loss.

The team was forced by the city of Indianapolis to celebrate outside of town. Robertson told the Indianapolis Star, “They said the blacks are gonna tear up downtown.” The team was undefeated (31–0) in 1956 and won a second state championship.

Robertson’s outstanding abilities continued in college as did the racism he endured. He played varsity basketball at the University of Cincinnati from 1957 to 1960 and was a top scorer nationwide for all three seasons.

He was also the all-time leading NCAA scorer by the time he graduated in 1960 with a Bachelor of Science in business. As the team traveled, Robertson usually had to stay in college dorms since he wasn’t permitted to stay in hotels until his junior year.

Robertson was then a co-captain of the 1960 U.S. Olympic basketball team, which won a gold medal.

Robertson’s NBA career

In 1960, Robertson was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals, signing for a salary of $33,000 per year. Nicknamed the Big O, he was named the Rookie of the Year for 1960–61. That year, he also played in the All-Star Game, the first of 12 consecutive times, and won the MVP award. Robertson was a star by his second year, and the Royals made the first of six straight playoff runs.

The Royals traded Robertson to the Milwaukee Bucks before the 1970–71 season. With Lew Alcindor (today named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) on the Bucks, Robertson won his first and only championship in 1971.

While there, Robertson, as union president, was part of a lawsuit filed by the Players Association to try to block a merger between the NBA and the American Basketball Association. The antitrust suit was settled after six years, and the leagues did merge.

The settlement included the Oscar Robertson Rule, establishing NBA free agency. Robertson was union president from 1965 to 1974, and he was the first Black man to lead a nationwide sports labor union. 

Robertson’s greatest achievements

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In his 14-year NBA career, Oscar Robertson had 26,710 points, 9,887 assists, and 7,804 rebounds during 1,040 games. During 86 playoff games, he averaged 22.2 points, 8.9 assists, and 6.7 rebounds. He was the All-Star Game MVP in 1961, 1964, and 1969, and he was the NBA MVP in 1964.

After retiring from the NBA, Robertson advocated to build affordable housing for Black people in Indianapolis. He also remained an advocate working to improve the lives of minorities and ran several businesses.

He and his wife started the Oscar & Yvonne Robertson Scholarship Fund, which awards funding to minority students attending the University of Cincinnati. In 1980, Robertson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. 

All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference