The Milwaukee Bucks may not have a ton of great trades in franchise history, but the trade for Oscar Robertson was a masterstroke.
It’s lunacy to suggest the Milwaukee Bucks trading Kareem Abdul-Jabbar away was a “worse” trade than the Cincinnati Royals trading away Oscar Robertson. The Bucks had to deal Kareem–he insisted upon it.
"Theories attempting to explain the trade abounded. Many observers believed it was Cousy’s jealousy of Robertson that led to the trade. The Big O had just broken many of Cousy’s records and Cincinnati was suddenly too small for the both of them. “Whatever his reasons were,” Robertson later said, “I think he was wrong and I’ll never forget it.” Fans up and down the Ohio River mourned."
More from Bucks History
- The 3 biggest “What Ifs” in Milwaukee Bucks’ franchise history
- 6 Underrated Milwaukee Bucks of the Giannis Antetokounmpo era
- Ranking Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 10 best Bucks teammates of all time
- How well do you know the Milwaukee Bucks’ top 20 career point leaders?
- Looking at important playoff numbers in Milwaukee Bucks franchise history
One year after that fateful trade, the Milwaukee Bucks won the 1971 NBA Championship. One year after that, the Royals left Cincinnati. Ohio never forgot their franchise foolishly dealing the Big O, apparently.
In case you’re not brushed up on Milwaukee Bucks history (which is sort of the point of Behind the Buck Pass focusing on history for the month of September), that’s because Oscar Robertson is one of the best few players to ever take an NBA floor.
Robertson’s list of accomplishments is long. He averaged a triple-double for an entire season, something that’s never been done before or since. He’s got career per game averages of 25.7 points, 9.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds.
Those numbers are actually weighed down by his latter years with the Bucks, when Robertson was older. In his prime, from 1960-61 to 1970-71, Robertson averaged 28.3 points, 10.1 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game.
Robertson was the veteran presence the Bucks needed to finally win a title in the Kareem era. He arrived at the perfect time–old enough to be that voice in the locker room, but still with more than enough gas left in the tank to contribute.
The Big O averaged 19.4 points, 8.2 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game in that first season with the Bucks. He was vital to the team winning the 1971 Finals, and was likely the second-best player on that great Bucks team.
It wasn’t just Robertson’s play that defines him as one of the NBA’s biggest and most important stars. Oscar Robertson is the reason free agency exists today in the NBA. That NBA.com biography of The Big O explains the situation succinctly:
"Also in 1970, Robertson became part of one of the most important court cases in NBA history. The landmark Oscar Robertson suit, filed by the NBA’s Players Association against the league, stalled a proposed merger between the NBA and the American Basketball Association. The anti-trust suit, named after Robertson because he was president of the union at the time, challenged the merger as well as the legality of the college draft and the NBA’s reserve clause that prohibited free agency. Six years after the suit was filed, the NBA finally reached a settlement, the leagues merged and the draft remained intact.But drafted players won the right to snub their prospective employers for a year and reenter the draft. In addition, teams were no longer required to provide compensation when signing a free-agent player. This encouraged the signing of more free agents and eventually led to higher salaries for all players."
The same season he lead Milwaukee to the franchise’s first and only Finals victory, Robertson was heading up the NBA Players Association and fighting for the rights of his fellow players.
Robertson knows a thing or two about unfair treatment. He grew up poorer than poor, learning to shoot a basketball by practicing with “tennis balls and rags bound with rubber bands” in Indianapolis.
He experienced segregation and racism firsthand in high school and college, and was forced to stay in college dorms instead of hotels during road trips. Bill Simmons summed up some of Robertson’s experiences in a chapter in his book about him:
More from Behind the Buck Pass
- Bucks 2023-24 player profile: Can MarJon Beauchamp take a leap?
- Piecing together the Milwaukee Bucks’ dream starting 5 in 5 years
- Predicting Thanasis Antetokounmpo’s 2023-24 stats for the Bucks
- Grade the trade: Bucks land reputable backup guard in swap with Pacers
- New workout video should have Milwaukee Bucks fans excited
"He chose the University of Cincinnati and had experiences that defy imagination six decades later. This stuff actually happened? His teachers belittled him in class and went out of their way to make him feel dumb. In Dallas, fans greeted him by tossing a black cat into his locker room.3 In Houston, he couldn’t check into his hotel because of a NO BLACKS ALLOWED sign … only his team stayed there anyway, with poor Oscar stuck sleeping in a Texas Southern dorm room. In North Carolina, someone delivered him a pregame letter from the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan that simply read, “Don’t ever come to the South.” In St. Louis, he and a black teammate strolled into a restaurant and were greeted by stony silence, followed by every other customer clearing out within a minute or two. Even in downtown Cincinnati, they had “colored” water fountains and a cinema that wouldn’t allow blacks as patrons … a theater that stood only half a block from where he starred for the Bearcats. Night after night, Oscar was filling a gym with fans and couldn’t even walk down the street to catch a movie."
He overcame all of that, and probably much more, to become one of the best players of all time. Oscar Robertson was even more influential to the entire NBA than he was simply to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Robertson is one of the all-time greats, and the trade that brought him (and a championship) to Milwaukee is the all-time greatest trade in Milwaukee Bucks history.