In his first NBA game in October 1960, Oscar Robertson registered 21 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists for the Cincinnati Royals against the Los Angeles Lakers. In his second NBA season, Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game for Cincinnati.
Such numerical combinations that reach two-digit numbers in these three categories are called triple doubles in basketball parlance. Nevertheless, Robertson set a league record with his 181 triple doubles in 14 seasons without fanfare. The term wasn’t coined until the early 1980s when the Lakers Magic Johnson began routinely posting Oscar-style lines in boxing scores.
“To be honest, I wasn’t even aware of that,” Robertson said this week.
Nearly 50 years away from Robertson’s final season with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1973-74, there’s a hyper-perception of triple-doubles, largely thanks to Russell Westbrook of the Washington Wizards. In 2016-17 with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook became the first player since Robertson to average a triple-double for a full season, prompting Robertson to travel to Oklahoma to personally congratulate Westbrook.
Westbrook has accumulated 178 triple doubles in his career and with seven games left in Washington on Wednesday has a chance to beat Robertson this season. In a phone interview with the New York Times, 82-year-old Robertson said he chose Westbrook and discussed the criticism he, like Westbrook, faced in his royals days until he teamed up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee the dollars to their only championship in 1971.
For the sake of clarity, this interview has been compressed and edited slightly.
So, if they weren’t calling them triple doubles, what were people saying about your great statistical accomplishments?
Not very much. In those days, they focused on scoring and blocking shots. There wasn’t much advertising involved. It wasn’t thought until they went back to the archives and saw what I had done. I was surprised myself.
In the first five seasons of your NBA career, you averaged a triple-double (30.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 10.6 assists). Did you personally look at these numbers with additional awe?
I never thought of scoring. I never thought about recovering. I never thought of templates. I was just thinking of winning. And we didn’t have such a great basketball team in Cincinnati, so we had a bit of a problem. You’ve been waiting for me to save the franchise. But you need a team to do these things.
What was the secret to being a good rebounder at 6-foot-5?
In high school, I played indoors and outdoors. When I got into the college ranks, I went to the front position. I only had the basics to be able to play in or out. I always thank my high school coaches for helping me build these traits. I just knew how to box. For me it was just playing basketball.
Westbrook gets a lot of criticism for not being part of a championship team in the NBA, and I imagine you faced something similar during your time in Cincinnati. What do you remember in the years before you won a championship with Milwaukee?
I think that happens to great basketball players like Westbrook and me. I was at Cincinnati for many years, but we never did much of a business to get better players. If you look back on the history of basketball – and I always tell people this – every team that won a championship made important trades. Boston has Bill Russell. Red Auerbach was very clever at getting older starters from other teams to play for him from the bench. A lot of the teams I played for didn’t want that.
When you look back, how shocking was it to be traded from Cincinnati to Milwaukee in 1970?
It was good. I just resented the fact that the Cincinnati basketball family felt they hadn’t done anything in 10 years and all I had done was go all-pro for 10 years in a row. But they wanted to deal with Oscar Robertson. I just didn’t want them to try to destroy my credibility and what I’d done for the city of Cincinnati. When I went to Milwaukee, I made an assessment of my situation, and I’ll never forget I said to my wife, “I’m not going to be the goalscorer I was in Cincinnati.” And she said, “Why?” I told her I had to include these other players in the game. In order for us to win, we have to get the other players to contribute offensively.
Is it correct to classify you as a Russell Westbrook fan?
I really like the way Westbrook plays. He is a dynamic person. They put him on different teams and I don’t know why because I think he’s one of the star guards in basketball. I think they thought when he went to Washington that he wasn’t going to be that effective, but man, he did a tremendous job.
And you want him to break your record for career triple doubles?
There is no doubt about that. I hope he gets it. I think he’s one of the elite guardians in basketball, and I think it’s ridiculous that some sports journalists criticize him for not winning a championship. Players do not win championships alone. You have to have good management. You have to come with the right group of players.
Look at Brooklyn: Who Could Have Did This Years Ago? How things have changed. It now seems like what happens in basketball, and I haven’t seen it in football before, is the players coming together and saying, “Let’s play for this team so we can win.” You would not have thought of it years ago.
Who Else Do You Like To See In Today’s NBA?
I really like to see a lot of players. LeBron [James], Naturally. [Stephen] Curry. I like [James] Hardening. There are so many great basketball players out there – including the Portland kid: [Damian] Lillard. Curry is probably one of the best marksmen of all time, but so is Lillard. He can really shoot the basketball from a distance. It’s almost effortless.
Remote shooting has taken over the modern game. Do you agree with that?
It’s a different kind of basketball. It’s a gambler’s game. And it’s a game of the fans – they love it. I’ve always said this: 3-point shots are like 7-foot shots – they can fire a coach. If you have 3 point shooters and they don’t shoot, “That’s it, Coach.” The name of the game is to outperform your opponents. It’s all about this. If you can shoot 3 point shots and win the basketball game, it’s great. If you start to miss these shots and don’t adjust and do other things, you will get into trouble.