Four years and more than 2,200 miles separated two men who, in the 1950s, would change basketball forever.
In 1955, Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson began their journey to basketball immortality on a parallel course. Russell was a junior at the University of San Francisco, the only school to offer the awkward center a scholarship. Robertson was also a junior — at Crispus Attucks High School — which had opened nearly 50 years earlier as the only public high school in Indianapolis designated specifically for African-Americans.
William Felton Russell is the greatest winner in sports history. He led his high school to back-to-back state titles in 1951 and ’52. At the University of San Francisco, Russell guided the Dons to NCAA championships in both his junior and senior seasons. Before joining the Boston Celtics, he captained the gold medal-winning 1956 U.S. Olympic basketball team that defeated their opponents by an average of more than 53 points per game. Russ, who would become the NBA’s first black superstar, went on to capture 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics.
In 1966, Russell was named player-coach of the Boston Celtics, becoming the first African-American to coach a major North American sports franchise.
Oscar Palmer Robertson remains the standard against which all other guards are judged. The original big guard, he redefined the position and paved the way for players like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant. The Big O was a triple-double machine and an unstoppable offensive player. He averaged a triple-double for an entire season with the Cincinnati Royals in 1961-62, a feat not matched until 50 years later, by Russell Westbrook. Robertson also captained the Olympic team, leading the 1960 U.S. squad to a gold medal in Rome.
Born four years apart in the South, both Russell and Robertson moved as youngsters with their families in search of a better life. Both grew up in abject poverty – Russ in the slums of Oakland and Big O in the “Dust Bowl” projects of Indianapolis. Russell attended McClymonds High School in West Oakland, where he was a basketball teammate of future baseball hall of famer Frank Robinson. He was a gangly and unremarkable center there, but his size earned him a scholarship to play at the University of San Francisco, where he blossomed. Russell grew to a shade over 6’9”. Paired with future Celtics teammate, K.C. Jones, he led the Dons to 56 straight victories and NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956.
Oscar Robertson is Indiana high school basketball royalty. The greatest prep player ever to come out of the most basketball-crazed state in the land, Oscar fashioned a career for the ages at Crispus Attucks. As a sophomore, he lost in the state quarterfinals to eventual champion Milan, whose story would later become the basis for the classic 1986 film Hoosiers. In his junior season, Robertson led Attucks to a 31-1 record while the Tigers became the nation’s first all-black school ever to win a state championship. The following year, the Indians were invincible, going 31-0 to complete the state’s first undefeated season. As an upperclassman, Big O helped Attucks go 62-1, including a state record 45 straight. They repeated as state champs in 1956 and Robertson was named Indiana Mr. Basketball.
“There is no more complete player than Oscar” – Hall of Famer and 1960 Olympic gold medalist Jerry Lucas.
USF was the only school to offer Bill Russell – who had been cut from his junior high team — a scholarship. The determined pivotman made the most of it, immediately making an impact on the Hilltop. Russell led the Dons to an NCAA record 60-game winning streak. Basketball’s first great shot-blocker, he introduced goaltending and downward arc to the game’s lexicon. After averaging better than 20 points and 20 rebounds per game, “Russ” was named All-American and Player of the Year in both his junior and senior seasons. He led USF to the only two NCAA basketball titles in school history and was named Most Outstanding Player of the 1955 tournament. Following his gold medal performance at the Melbourne Olympics, the Boston Celtics took “Russ” with the second overall pick of the 1956 NBA draft.
Oscar Robertson led the nation in scoring in each of his three varsity seasons at Cincinnati. A three-time All-American, “Big O” averaged nearly 34 points per game in college. Robinson led the Bearcats to two Final Fours and was 79-9 in his three years at UC. The 6’5” guard was named Player of the Year three times and left as college basketball’s all-time leading scorer and set 14 NCAA records. After he led Team USA to the gold medal in Rome, the Cincinnati Royals made Robertson the first pick in the 1960 NBA draft.
Both Russell and Robertson endured careers plagued by racism. Even after he became a star with the Celtics, “Russ” was denied hotel rooms in North Carolina and Kentucky while traveling with his team.
Until the 1940s, black schools couldn’t even compete in the Indiana state high school tournament. Since Attucks had no gym, they played all their games on the road, often in towns that burned crosses and didn’t allow the Attucks players or their fans use of restrooms or gas stations. Following their state title in 1955, Indianapolis police would not let the team stop and celebrate at Monument Circle, a tradition for the state champion, for fear of “black mischief.” The players were driven outside the city to celebrate.
Cincinnati had never had a black player before Robertson. Road trips were awkward. Barred from hotels until his junior year, Robertson often had to stay in college dorms, away from his teammates. Russell suffered a similar plight. One of three starters on the USF squad, Russell and his black teammates were the targets of racist jeers on the road. At a tournament in Oklahoma City, hotels refused to admit African-American players, so the Dons opted to camp out in a closed college dorm.
Too poor to own a basketball as a child, Robertson signed with the Cincinnati Royals for $33,000 per year in 1960. Although he didn’t get rich playing the game, he paved the way so others could. “Big O” was an integral part of Robertson v. National Basketball Association, a 1970 landmark antitrust suit that led to free agency and, ultimately, made NBA players the highest-paid athletes in the world.
The USBWA annually awards the Oscar Robertson Trophy to college basketball’s Player of the Year. In 2009, the NBA renamed its finals MVP award the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award.
Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson had their numbers retired by every team they ever played for – high school, college, and pro. A 12-time All-Star, Oscar was 1961 Rookie of the Year, 1964 NBA MVP, and helped the Milwaukee Bucks to the only title in franchise history, in 1971. Robertson amassed a record 181 career triple-doubles and led the league in assists in six seasons. Bill Russell also played in a dozen All-Star Games. A five-time MVP, he led the NBA in rebounding four times and won more world championships than any player in any sport in history.
As a big guard, Oscar Robertson could do it all. When he retired in 1974 after 14 seasons, he was the top-scoring guard in NBA history and the league’s all-time assists leader. As a smallish center, Bill Russell guarded a bigger man nearly every night. “Russ” turned shot-blocking into an art form and retired as the NBA’s all-time leading rebounder. Russell and Robertson revolutionized basketball, both on and off the floor. The two legends are members of the Naismith, College Basketball and FIBA Halls of Fame and were named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996.
On this date in 1960, Team USA co-captain Oscar Robertson poured in 22 points to lead the U.S. to a 107-63 victory over Hungary in a preliminary round game at the Rome Olympics. The Americans would go on beat Brazil in the final to capture the gold medal. Considered by many to be the best amateur basketball team of all time, the 1960 Olympians were elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame as a unit in 2010. It was Robertson’s second induction, as he was enshrined in 1980 for his individual career.