Milwaukee Bucks History: Oscar Robertson’s journey to cement his legacy

MILWAUKEE - 1970: Oscar Robertson
MILWAUKEE - 1970: Oscar Robertson /

In spite of a glittering career up to that point, Oscar Robertson came to the Milwaukee Bucks missing a crowning moment for his legacy.

Much has been spoken about Oscar Robertson’s influence in tipping the Milwaukee Bucks over the edge and securing a championship in 1971, but it’s important to note that in many ways the legendary point guard needed the Bucks — and more specifically their young star — as much as they needed him.

Robertson had already made an All-Star team in all 10 of his seasons with the Cincinnati Royals prior to landing in Milwaukee, he’d also won the league’s MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, and he had previously won a gold medal with the US team at the 1960 Olympics.

Still, Robertson was missing a championship ring, and to the wider public and media that would have mattered. Whether Robertson would have cared about what they thought of him is definitely questionable, but it certainly made life easier for Oscar when he finished his career without that question still hanging over him.

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Through the prism of hindsight, it’s easy to see how one of the greatest point guards to ever have played the game could have been viewed if he retired without a championship. Already known for having a big — and often bristling —  personality, an array of glittering individual honors but a lack of the ultimate team success would certainly have left a mark on Robertson’s legacy.

Nicknamed as Mr. Triple-Double due to an astonishing 1961-62 season when he averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists for the season, meant Oscar would always live on in the history books. The lack of a championship would have left the risk of a disappointing asterisk, though.

This is an idea that Bill Simmons tapped into in regard to Robertson in his book, The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy. Speaking of Robertson’s reputation in an excerpt published on Grantland, Simmons wrote:

"“We know this much: every teammate and opponent revered his talents; the consensus seems to be ‘Jordan before Jordan’; and even West admits that it took him three or four years just to catch up to Oscar’s level. But since every laudatory Oscar story centers around his uncanny consistency and not quotes like ‘nobody was better when it mattered” and “this guy could turn chicken s–t into chicken salad,’ how can we reconcile his phenomenal individual success with his undeniable lack of team success?”"

In that book, Simmons also made reference to an article that appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer toward the end of Oscar’s time with the Royals. What’s clear is that after 10 years together without a title, Oscar was grating on everyone around the Royals’ organization, and he was desperately in need of a change of scenery.

"“For years, Oscar has privately scorned the Royals management; he has ridiculed Cincinnati and its fans; he has knocked other players, both on his team and others; and he has never been willing to pay a compliment. He is, has been and probably will grow old a bitter man, convinced that it was all a plot.”"

When the Bucks pulled off the trade to land Robertson, they were already coming off the back of a 56-win season with a young and learning core. It wasn’t a surprise that Oscar was then able to help them to reach the next level, but the way in which he did so was unlike what most of the league’s other great stars throughout the years could necessarily have offered.

Related Story: Milwaukee Bucks History: The Oscar Robertson Trade

Ultimately, Robertson’s demanding personality was a perfect fit in Milwaukee. That’s not to say it didn’t have the potential to create tensions among teammates, but most importantly, the trade was a move that finally gave Robertson a teammate who could meet and exceed his demands.

Lew Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, had already started his reign of dominance when Robertson arrived in Milwaukee, and yet it came without the kind of flash that the veteran would likely have resented. Pairing the two together didn’t just give the Bucks a pair of generational talents, but it was also in many ways a perfect marriage of basketball minds.

In a Sports Illustrated article following Robertson’s Bucks debut, Kareem described the reason why him and Oscar made a perfect fit in the simplest terms possible.

"“Oscar does everything exactly the way it should be done—with as few frills and flairs as possible.”"

In that same piece, Sports Illustrated’s Peter Carry outlined how Robertson “bases his game on the nuances of change of pace and economy of movement”. He continued:

"“Robertson always seems to jump precisely high enough for his shot to clear an opponent’s block and to move exactly as fast as he must to elude a defender. Everything is under control—only his large eyes change, popping open double size when he glances toward the basket to measure a shot.”"

This meant that in spite of being in the latter stages of his career, Robertson could be as impactful as ever in Milwaukee.

The Bucks teams which the Tennessee native featured on weren’t the most dazzling to ever have played in the NBA, but they were among the league’s most fundamentally sound. Milwaukee excelled by not only being able to do the simple things right, but by being able to do them better than everyone else, thanks to the talents of Robertson, Alcindor, and the likes of Jon McGlocklin and Bob Dandridge.

Milwaukee finished their championship winning season with the league’s best offense, but even more impressively as the first team in NBA history to finish a season shooting over 50 percent from the field.

That feat was certainly easier to achieve with a behemoth like Kareem operating around the basket, but it was Oscar’s ability to thread the needle time after time for easy looks that made the occurrence even more frequent for the Bucks.

As Robertson described it years later in an interview with Doug Russell of OnMilwaukee, in many ways the Bucks didn’t know what they were getting into. By just going out and playing, they ended up as deserving champions.

"“At the time I came to Milwaukee, the Bucks were learning, the Bucks didn’t know what to expect. They hadn’t been in existence for very long, and to go out and win a championship so soon, I really think it took them by surprise. It was very, very well welcomed by the entire community, though.”"

For the then 33-year-old Robertson, the championship couldn’t have been described as a surprise. As much as it had evaded him for so many years, the former Cincinnati Bearcat must have almost felt like it was his right.

Robertson certainly played like that throughout the season, and although his numbers were down on previous high marks, he showed up on the biggest stage when it mattered most. When the Bucks secured their first and only championship to date with a sweep of the Baltimore Bullets, Robertson led the way with 30 points and nine assists in Game 4 of the 1971 Finals.

Throughout that season, Robertson always played down the importance of a championship for him personally. In fact, the point guard bordered on dismissive at times, as detailed in a Sports Illustrated profile that was published in the weeks after the victorious season concluded.

"“The championship isn’t necessarily what I’ve been waiting for all these years,” he said—and yawned. “If it comes, it comes.”"

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For as much as the conversation may have wearied him at the time, Milwaukee brought Robertson his only championship, and he brought the city theirs. After just his first season away from Cincinnati, Robertson’s case as an all-time great became airtight forever.