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Long before Jordan, there was the Big O

by Peter Vecsey

NEW YORK — The last time I spoke to Wilt Chamberlain, 13 months before he died, Oct. 12, 1999, out of nowhere he appealed, “Don’t ever let people forget how good we were.”

Oscar Robertson was one of those unforgettable, too-good-to-be-true players.

While his much saluted triple-double pre-eminence makes it impossible for contemporary (i.e. largely oblivious regarding NBA history) fans to overlook, the majority, having only witnessed his meticulous wide-ranging efficiency in grainy film snippets, can’t comprehend such greatness.

What’s more, their captivation with Michael Jordan forbids them from facing the unfathomable reality; there once was a guard — the league’s first big playmaker — who was as shrewdly competent and uncompromisingly competitive.

In the minds of many, Jordan’s six championship rings to Oscar’s one abruptly ends all comparisons; the disparity certainly seems to separate the two of a kind.

Except for Scottie Pippen, Michael’s crowned Jordanaires were transposable. Oscar didn’t cash in until late in his career when he joined forces with Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

Conversely, His Airness didn’t have to combat Bill Russell’s Celtics, or Wilt’s 76ers, or Bob Pettit’s Hawks. Meaning the more facts and figures factored into the equation the more indivisible Jordan and Robertson become.

For example, if you combine Oscar’s first five NBA seasons he averaged a triple double. The Elias Sports Bureau has done the math — 30.3 points, 10.4 boards and 10.6 assists — and he’s actually one-tenth of a rebound shy of six.

Additionally, “whomever he defended felt like he was bench-pressing a California mortgage,” says ex-Bucks play-by-play connoisseur Eddie Doucette.

This is why numerous antique dealers of league lore — Wayne Embry and Al Attles, to name two — unequivocally identify The Big O as the game’s all-time No. 1 passer and perfectionist as well as its supreme being.

As dumb luck would have it, I caught the full fragrance of Oscar’s majesty at his first recital at the old Madison Square Garden.

It was the 1957-58 season and he was a sophomore at the University of Cincinnati, in town to play Seton Hall.

I was a high school sophomore and had been given a ticket to see four college teams that meant nothing to me; the attraction was the stimulation of being at the Garden bragging to friends about it the next day.

Man, was that ever the place to be that night. Gushing points like an open hydrant, this guy I had never heard of before saturated the stat sheet for 56 points. I had no idea a player could be so flawless in so many facets.

“Oscar was an illusionist in sneakers, so smooth and clever on the floor that it was difficult for the average fan to appreciate how accomplished he was,” recalls Doucette who, just out of college, first saw Robertson with the Cincinnati Royals and later had the opportunity to call the final three seasons of his career in Milwaukee.

“I watched his every move from warmups to games end and never ceased to be amazed at how anyone 196 cm and 102 kg could slip, unimpeded, through cracks meant only for shafts of light,” Doucette marvels still.

“There was no flash, no sizzle, no soaring dunks that would elicit oohs and ahs. Oscar was an economy of effort. You had never see him work on shots in warmups that he wouldn’t use in games. Everything was 18 feet (6 meters) and in. He made his way to the hoop like a safecracker hopscotching a laser grid attempting to get to the vault.”

Attles’ first look at Oscar is indelibly etched in his memory bank. Both were 1960 draftees.

Early in their rookie season there was a double-header in Syracuse, Celtics vs. Royals and Warriors vs. Nationals. Attles and Philly backcourt partner Guy Rodgers grabbed adjoining seats and focused on the already highly acclaimed Big O.

Almost immediately Oscar did something Attles had never witnessed before. As he came down court on a semi-break, K.C. Jones tried to intercept him, while a trailing Sam Jones tried to head him off at the pass from the opposite side.

Revved up by the recollection, Attles says, “Oscar dribbled by both of them. That got K.C. into a heated rush. Oscar quickly stepped in between them and quickly stepped out. Bam! K.C. and Sam banged heads. I had never seen anything like it.”

Peter Vecsey covers the NBA for the New York Post.