Photo by UJ Nero (Flickr)
“Looking back, I never fully realized what he was doing,” [Jack] Twyman said.”It was not called a triple-double. We just went out every night trying to win. I don’t think Oscar or anyone really worried about statistics.”
- Via “Unnoticed Then, Oscar Robertson’s Triple-Double Unparalleled”
The triple-double is a most intoxicating basketball feat. It announces and confirms a player’s all-around, comprehensive ability to control a game. It’s mastering the art of scoring, the grueling task of rebounding and the finesse duty of passing.
And no one did the did the triple-double quite like Oscar Robertson. Or did it quite as much. His career total of 181 triple-doubles is 43 ahead of 2nd-place Magic Johnson.
Robertson accomplished the bulk of his triple-double mania in the first 6 years of his career (1961 – 1966). In fact, if you average out his total points, rebounds and assists from these seasons you get the following: 30.4 ppg, 10.7 apg, and 10.0 rpg.
But only during the 1961-62 campaign did Oscar accomplish the triple -double average within a single season.
Oscar Robertson entered the NBA in 1960-61 and was the long-awaited savior for the Cincinnati Royals. The franchise had suffered moribund back-to-back 19-win seasons in 1959 and 1960. These atrocious campaigns were mostly the result of the paralysis suffered by Royals big man Maurice Stokes at the end of the 1958 season. Without the big forward, Jack Twyman valiantly tried to keep the team afloat. In 1960 he became the 1st player (along with Wilt Chamberlain that season) to average over 30 points a game.
But Twyman as great as he was, a hall of famer in fact, was no Oscar.
Robertson immediately turned the Royals around his rookie year pushing them to a much-improved 33-46 record behind his 30.5 ppg, 10.1 rpg and 9.7 apg. Almost a triple-double average, but not quite. The Big O would have to settle for the Rookie of the Year Award, 1st-Team All-NBA honors and being named the All-Star Game MVP.
Although the Royals missed out on the postseason, they were obviously on the way up with such a devastating, unique player in tow.
Robertson stood 6’5″ and weighed a good 210 lbs. That’s a big load for a point guard playing in today’s NBA, let alone in 1961. A decade earlier, Robertson could have easily slid into the PF spot for most teams. But actually, Robertson did play with a tremendous amount of power. He would use that bulk to pummel opponents into submission just wearing and bearing down on them. Getting to a favored spot on the court, he could easily rise up to shoot over the shorter defender or just make a spin and be at the rim for a layup.
The Royals opened the 1961-62 season in St. Louis taking on the Hawks. Robertson led the Royals to victory with 35 points and 15 rebounds and helped set up Twyman for 39 points. A little over a week later in the home opener at Cincinnati, the Big O again led the attack:
After sparking the Cincinnati Royals to a 44-point first quarter in their home opener, Oscar Robertson scored six points in the final two minutes to squelch a Syracuse Nats rally and produce a 139-132 Royals victory…
Robertson also set a Cincinnati Garden record with 8 assists in the first quarter.
A little over a month later in early December, Robertson orchestrated an absolute drubbing of the last-place Chicago Packers. The only bright spot for the Packers that season was the phenomenal rookie Walt Bellamy. But there was nothing Bells and company could do this night to thwart Oscar:
With Oscar Robertson scoring 32 points and also leading his team in rebounds and assists, the Cincinnati Royals defeated the Chicago Packers 133-117…
Robertson finished with 20 assists, feeding off 15 in the first half when he made only seven points. He also led his team with 15 of their 70 rebounds, while the Packers got 60.
Robertson was one of the more demanding teammates in league history and had a surly, difficult personality. However, the demanding tone was because the Big O expected perfection and execution. As the season progressed it was clear the Royals were still on the ascent with Bob Boozer, Wayne Embry and Bucky Bockhorn filling out the starting 5 with Robertson and Twyman. Oscar was quite pleased with the formation:
Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati’s great scorer, rebounder and defensive stalwart in the National Basketball Association, said today the Royals have improved over last year because the team is “working together more, playing together.”
The former Cincinnati University All-America voiced the opinion that the Royals are better balanced in scoring than the Philadelphia Warriors in the NBA.
As it happened, the Royals played the Warriors soon after Oscar gave that quote and the Royals won 151-133. 4 players scored between 19 and 28 for the Royals in the victory. Philadelphia was led by the 54 points of Wilt Chamberlain.
The Royals were 27-21 after that victory and would finish the season 43-37, the best record since the 1954 season when the franchise, then in Rochester, went 44-28. The record was good enough for 2nd place in the Western Division.
Robertson’s regular season was quite remarkable, even leaving aside the triple-double average. He shot .478 from the field and .822 from the free throw line. Extraordinarily efficient shooting for a primary ball-handler in the 1960s. He and Larry Costello were the only point guards to shot like that from the field and the line at the time.
And the amount of free throws Oscar took were plentiful. That load of his proved so unbearable for so many opponents he wound up taking 11 free throws a night. Good enough for 10th all-time among single seasons for a guard.
The 12.5 rebounds per game and 985 total rebounds remain the records for a guard in a single season. He and Tom Gola of the Philadelphia Warriors remain the only guards to average over 10 rebounds per game for a season.
Finally, the assists he handed out pretty much shattered the previous single-season record. In 1960, Bob Cousy became the 1st player to eclipse the 9.0 apg mark with 9.5. Then the next year along came Oscar who edged out that average with 9.7. Then this season, 1962, Oscar blew the mark to shreds averaging 11.4 making him the 1st player to surpass the 10.0 apg barrier.
In the postseason, the Royals would be bounced 3-games-to-1 by the Detroit Pistons, led by Bailey Howell, in the opening round. Robertson for his part did continue his triple-double ways in the series with 29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists per game while shooting .519 from the field and .795 from the line. A few others have come close (Wilt, Rajon Rondo, Magic Johnson), but only Jason Kidd has joined Oscar in the highly exclusive triple-double club for the postseason.
The Royals, now moved to the Eastern Division, reached their peak in 1963 and 1964. Both seasons they lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Finals, including an unforgettable Game 7 in 1963 where Oscar went off for 43 points and Sam Jones of the Celtics scored 47. Steadily thereafter, the Royals descended into mediocrity and ultimately Oscar was traded to Milwaukee. With the Bucks, he would finally capture that elusive title alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob Dandridge in 1971.
But that 1962 Oscar Robertson… that was the Big O of NBA lore.
He’s not the 1964 MVP. He’s not a 1971 NBA champion. And 1960 Olympic gold medalist? Forget about it. Those aren’t the triplets that get the imagination wondering and the mind spinning.
30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game.
Those are the triplets that bewitch, bother and bewilder the boggled mind. Several other players have reached an apex as high as Oscar’s 1962 season… but the triple-double?
That’s the M.O. of the Big O.