Within His Rights

By Bill Livingston
Updated: August 12, 2010

CLEVELAND — The basketball emancipator doesn’t see anything wrong with players stacking teams, so don’t complain to him about the Miami Heat’s “Three Megos.”

The way Oscar Robertson sees it, teams were stacked and so was the deck for much of his career.

“The Big O” played alongside Jerry Lucas and other luminaries from the 1960 U.S. Olympic team he co-captained, players like Bob Boozer and Adrian Smith, but the Cincinnati Royals still never got to size the championship rings.

Boston hung the banners and had the mystique, the latter word, in this case, being spelled “R-u-s-s-e-l-l.”

“Red Auerbach got Bill Russell in a trade because St. Louis didn’t want any black players,” said Robertson, 71 .

The whole Eastern Conference was stacked then. Wilt Chamberlain was in Philadelphia, Russell in Boston, and, while the Royals had eviscerated their championship chances by trading Boozer, New York was a coming power.

“Cincinnati didn’t want that many black players either,” Robertson said. “That absolutely killed us, trading Boozer.”

Already a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame for his playing career, Robertson will be inducted again Friday as a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, considered the greatest amateur team ever assembled.

The 1992 “Dream Team,” composed almost entirely of NBA players, will also be inducted.

Great as the 1960 team was, winning every Olympic game by an average of 42.4 points, it could have been greater. A bureaucratic compromise between the NCAA and the powerful AAU created a hybrid roster composed of four AAU players, seven collegians, and Adrian Smith, representing the Armed Forces.

Left off were future Hall of Famers Lenny Wilkens and John Havlicek. Robertson said deadly shooter Jimmy Darrow of Bowling Green should have been on the team, too.

The players always knew who could play, but they didn’t have any say in choosing sides. Bigotry had its ugly say. Management bungling intruded.

“The pendulum swung one way for a long time, to management,” said Robertson, who stopped that clock, but only after a long legal fight.

The Oscar Robertson suit, filed when he was president of the NBA Players Association, challenged the right of NBA teams to own players in perpetuity. It blocked the NBA-ABA merger from the time of its filing in 1970 for six years.

As part of the eventual merger, players were granted limited free agency, with their old teams holding a “right of first refusal,” allowing them to match contract offers from competitors.

The players’ freedom increased by degrees until the epochal developments in early July, when LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, free agents all, changed the face of the league by all signing with Miami. Their move to “stack” the Heat has been criticized by, among others, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan.

“Stacked teams have been around for a long time,” said Robertson.

“Who was there when Magic went to the Lakers? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. How many championships did Shaquille O’Neal win without the guards he had in Los Angeles?”

But Magic came to the Lakers by the draft. Jordan’s Chicago sidekick, Scottie Pippen, arrived by trade. The stacked team in Boston today, when Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett joined Paul Pierce, was created by trades.

“Good management wins championships. This the first time ever players were able to cut a deal like that for themselves, said Robertson of the Three Megos.

“I feel sorry for Cleveland,” Robertson added, “but LeBron felt he was not going to win a championship in Cleveland. Shaq said he would bring a ring. Didn’t work out.”

“They signed Antawn Olden [Jamison].

Didn’t work out. They had that guard who barely played [presumably, Boobie Gibson] when they needed more field goals. Cleveland needed to get rid of that baggage they had to win.”

Whether “Antawn Olden” was a critical shot or a simple misstatement, there are serious objections to Robertson’s view. Foremost among them are James’ desultory play in the elimination round against Boston and the “win now” imperative of the three-year contract extension he signed with the Cavs.

But no clock is ever going to toll the hour when Oscar Robertson criticizes player empowerment.

Robertson won his only championship in 1970-71 after being traded to Milwaukee. He was 31, the same age which James, upon signing with the Heat, said he feared he would reach without a ring had he signed a five-year extension here.

“The NBA championship and the Olympic gold medal were different time zones in my life,” Robertson said. “I wasn’t tainted in 1960 by all that would happen. We were young, and we came together, black and white, playing for our country, and we got to stand on that podium for the national anthem.”

The Big O made sure the NBA honored the part about the “land of the free.”

Many may quarrel with the effects of what Robertson wrought, but not with the character of their creator.