One of the greatest basketball players in the history of the game, Oscar Robertson is also one of the more irascible and unpredictable. He is generous in spirit, but after a lifetime of slights, he can smell another one a mile away.
I have crossed paths with the Big O on two occasions, and both experiences were very memorable.
The first was because of my desire to please my son with the gift of an autographed book. Because of Oscar’s all-around game, Ryan was fascinated with the Indianapolis native. I gave Ryan a book called, “But They Can’t Beat Us” about the Crispus Attucks High School team for whom Oscar played. I brought it to the radio station where I worked on a morning when I knew Oscar would be in studio.
Click here for your copy of “Oops – the Art of Learning from Mistakes and Adventures” by Kent Sterling
During a commercial break, I asked Oscar to sign it. “No, no. I don’t sign that book,” Oscar said with more than a hint of anger. I asked if there was a book he would sign for my son. He said, “My book. I’ll sign The Big O for your son.”
I walked a block south to the Borders Bookstore, and bought a copy of The Big O. During the next break, I handed it to him. He signed and explained, “The man who wrote that other book promised money from it would go toward building a Crispus Attucks Hall of Fame. He didn’t donate a cent to it, so I don’t sign that book.”
That’s the thing people learn very quickly with Oscar. He is unafraid to say no for very good reasons. I’m glad he explained the reason for his refusal. It opened a window into who he is. Instead of me walking away believing The Big O to be some kind of angry and bitter kook, I believed he’s a guy who values trust and penalizes those who fail to live up to promises.
The next time I crossed paths with Oscar, he called me. Here’s the conversation:
Me: Hi, this is Kent.
Oscar: Kent, Oscar Robertson. I’ve been told you know how to get things done, and my high school team needs to be inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Milan was inducted, and we deserve to be in there too.
Me: Oh. Well, sure.
Oscar: They made that movie (Hoosiers) about Milan, so they’re in the Hall of Fame, but my team is just as deserving if not more.
(Oscar went on for several minutes extolling the virtues of his team and articulating very clearly the reason he believed no film was made about Attucks, who won back-to-back state championships in 1955 and 1956.)
Me: I see.
Oscar: This is not about me. I’m already in that hall of fame and several others. This is about my teammates. I want them to be recognized for how good they were. I mean if Milan is in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, obviously Attucks should be too.
Me: Oscar, I’ll make the call. Have to make this happen.
Roger Dickinson, who was the head of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame at the time was an acquaintance, but I held no power over him or the organization. It seemed unlikely that a call from me was going to be the magic elixir needed to get The Big O and his championship teams inducted, but I immediately called Dickinson and explained the case for Attucks. I also mentioned how people might infer the appearance of a racial motivation behind Milan (an all-white team) being the only team inducted as a group.
The following year, the 1955 Attucks team got the call, and the year after that it was the 1956 team’s turn.
Did I get those two Attucks teams into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame? Let’s do the math: Oscar called and asked I make the case. I called the head of the Hall and made the case. Both teams were inducted.