HE WAS CHRISTENED the Big O, of course, on account of his first name. But had he been born, say, Dennis or Carl or Leonard, the handle would have fit all the same. Oscar Robertson was as Big O as it got. Even against Big D—and he was often triple-teamed—Robertson scored prolifically, almost extravagantly. At Cincinnati he won the scoring title and was named player of the year for three straight seasons, from 1957--58 to '59--60, while setting more than a dozen national offensive records and averaging 33.8 points for his career, at the time the highest mark in NCAA history.
What's more, like a big O, Robertson had an ideal well-roundedness to his game. At 6'5", he was the first of the tall guards, sufficiently lithe and agile to bring the ball upcourt, but big and strong enough to hold his own in the low post. He might have been best known for his acrobatic drives to the basket, but he also possessed a reliable mid- and long-range jump shot. He could score in transition or in a set offense. He could innovate and create his own shot; he could pop off a screen; he could post up his man. Foul him? That would only result in more points: He shot 78.0% from the free throw line.
A dazzling ballhandler and deft passer, Robertson played with fluid grace. But he was also imbued with a toughness and a resolve that was evident in his defense and rebounding. As a college player he came to resemble the straight-A student who excelled in all subjects. Asked about defending Robertson, NYU coach Lou Rossini thought a moment and then offered this: "Put your four best men on Oscar. Then tell your fifth man to cover his teammates."
Which is not to say that Robertson's college career was an unbroken string of successes. Though his teams went 79--9 and reached two Final Fours, the Bearcats never won an NCAA title. (They did win two straight right after Robertson graduated.) And it was while in college, as the first and only black player on the Bearcats, that Robertson most acutely felt the sting of racism. In his 2003 autobiography, The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game, Robertson recalls that before heading to play in the Dixie Classic, he received a letter from the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan warning, "Don't ever come to the South." When the Cats arrived in Raleigh, the whites only hotel wouldn't accommodate Robertson, so Cincinnati stayed in an unoccupied fraternity house, but only after Robertson refused to be separated from the team.
A strong student, Robertson would graduate in 1960 with a degree in business administration, then dominate in the pros. (A Robertson factoid that's often repeated but seldom fully appreciated: He would average a triple double in his second NBA season.) But he was a seminal college player. So much so that today one of the awards for Division I player of the year is the Oscar Robertson Trophy.