Oscar Robertson’s Lawsuit Against the NBA Changed the Way Players Get Paid

Before there was Michael, Magic, Kobe, or LeBron, there was Oscar “The Big O” Robertson. The 6 foot, 5 inch basketball star defined what it meant to be a point guard in the league. Robertson played in the NBA for 14 seasons. During those years, he won an NBA Championship and was voted Most Valuable Player.

However, his most impactful moment in the NBA would be when he brought a lawsuit against the league. This lawsuit would change the nature of free agency and how players were paid forever.    

Oscar Robertson: from peach baskets in the backyard to the NBA

Oscar Robertson was born in Charlotte, Tennessee, on November 24, 1938. According to The History Makers, before the age of two, Robertson’s parents, Mazell Bell Robertson and Bailey Robertson, Sr., packed up their family and moved from the south to Indianapolis, Indiana. The Robertson family moved into a segregated housing project once they reached Indianapolis. 

Indianapolis, Indiana, would be where Robertson’s love for the game blossomed. With his family being too poor to afford a basketball, young Oscar learned to shoot by tossing tennis balls and bound up rags into a peach basket behind his family home. This innovative training method ended up paying off as Robertson took to the court for Crispus Attucks High School. 

Crispus Attucks High School was an all-black school that had no gym, according to NBA.com. White schools in the area often refused to play against the team.

Despite this adversity, Robertson’s talent could not be ignored. During his junior year, Robertson and his teammates became the first all-black high school team to win a state championship in the United States. As a senior, the talented young player averaged 24 points per game, was named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, and won a second state championship. 

The point guard’s success with Crispus Attucks High School gained him a spot on the University of Cincinnati’s basketball team. Oscar played three seasons for the University of Cincinnati, averaging 33.8 points per game and becoming the all-time leading NCAA scorer by the end of his college career. In 1960, Robertson was selected as the first overall draft pick by the Cincinnati Royals, now known as the Sacramento Kings.

Playing for over a decade in the big leagues 

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During his first season with the Royals, Robertson was named NBA Rookie of the Year. Robertson averaged 30.5 points per game during his rookie season and led the league in assists. The outstanding point guard would play for the Royals for 10 seasons. 

In 1970, Robertson was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks. He won his first and only NBA title with the Bucks in 1971. He played four seasons for the Bucks before retiring from the game in 1974.

While Robertson transformed the league through his style of play on the court, he also transformed how business was conducted off the court. 

Paving the path for free agency 

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The NBA players of today who make mega millions and have the ability to choose where to play have Oscar Robertson to thank. In 1970, Robertson filed a class-action lawsuit against the NBA. According to The Undefeated, the intent of Robertson v. National Basketball Association was to gain better playing conditions and to gain the ability for players to offer their services to the highest bidder if they no longer wanted to play for their current team.  

The case was eventually settled in 1976, two years after Robertson retired from the league. The ‘Robertson Rule’, as it is often referred to, is the reason why players can become free agents and choose the most profitable deal for themselves. Before the Robertson rule, players were bound to a team for life, or until the team wanted to end the relationship. 

The all-star point guard could have never predicted how his lawsuit would alter the league and free agency forever. However, the Robertson Rule has undoubtedly made the league more competitive and given players more opportunities than Robertson could have ever imagined.

All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference and Sports Reference