Oscar Robertson had no firm plans for Wednesday night.
Sure, Russell Westbrook and his Oklahoma City Thunder were set to face the Memphis Grizzlies in a game that was wrought with Robertson-related historical implications. The Thunder star entered play with the chance to surpass Robertson on the list of most-ever triple-doubles in a single season (41), while also needing 16 assists to clinch a triple-double average for the entire season and thus join that one-man club “Big O” started back in 1962.
But Robertson, the 78-year-old Hall of Famer who still lives in Cincinnati, made his mind up about Westbrook a long time ago. He didn’t need to tune in to be reminded that Westbrook is every bit as good as his hype.
“Who are they playing tonight?” Robertson, who had no plans to watch, told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview. “Well I think he had the 41 (triple-doubles) already, and I hope he gets the 16 assists, and so you'll be talking about Russ now being the triple double king.
“But he has taken over the whole country with what he is doing, and it's really amazing. He's a great basketball player…I'm happy for Russ. (With) all that has happened with his team, with (Kevin) Durant leaving (the Thunder and signing with Golden State last summer) and everyone writing them off, he's brought them up to a spot (sixth in the Western Conference) where people want to see them play.”
Robertson doesn’t have to relinquish his title just yet, as he’s still in a class all his own when it comes to the league’s all-time mark (181, followed by Magic Johnson at 138, Jason Kidd at 107, and Wilt Chamberlain and Westbrook – entering Wednesday’s game – at 78). His 1961-62 campaign was no passing fancy, as he came close to repeating the feat four other times and averaged 25.7 points, 9.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds over the course of a 14-year career.
But to hear him talk about Westbrook’s season is to understand how the world has changed in the past 55 years – in basketball and otherwise. There were no scoreboards with live box scores inside of arenas then, with players always aware of their individual stats. Only the biggest games were televised. There wasn’t social media, either, that 24-7 platform where the sports debate between fans, media members and the like never stops.
There was so little attention paid to triple-doubles, as Robertson remembered, that he made history without even knowing it.
“When this happened (in 1961-62), I didn't even know it was going on,” said Robertson, whose Royals went 43-37 that season en route to him finishing third in MVP voting behind the Boston Celtics’ Bill Russell and the Philadelphia Warriors’ Wilt Chamberlain. “No one ever mentioned anything (about triple-doubles). I don't know who coined the phrase, 'triple double' at all….But what (Westbrook) has done is he's made people totally aware of what the triple double is and what he can do with it.”
As Robertson sees it, the statistics explosion comes with a benefit that he wasn’t afforded: the ability to quantify a player’s impact well beyond the team’s record. It’s for that very reason, in fact, he believes Westbrook should be the MVP.
“Knowledgeable basketball people understand that sometimes if you don't have the right ingredients on your team, if you're not good inside or you don't play defense, you may not win a championship,” he said. “But that does not demean what you've done as an individual. And I can say this without blinking, that what Russell Westbrook has done truly - even (though the Houston Rockets’ James) Harden is close to him - but what he's done, he's got to be the MVP of the league.”
“In that one year where I averaged a triple-double and Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 points a game (50.4 and 25.7 rebounds per game, to be exact) and guys had 27 or 28 rebounds (per game), the Celtics won (the title with Russell averaging 18.9 points and 23.6 rebounds). And in those days, you had people who did not understand what stats meant. They didn't understand how incredible (it was) what Wilt did or what I did during that year. So Bill got the MVP, because his team won and he was this insurmountable foe for the Celtics. So he won it, and that's fine, but it was very, very difficult for a guard to win it years ago.”
For all the countless times Robertson and Westbrook have shared the same sentence – their lives and careers forever tied by the mystique of the mark – it comes as quite a surprise to learn that they’ve only shared one human moment. They’re men of few words, in other words, and historic basketball action.
“Only once, during an All-Star (weekend in 2015),” Robertson said. “I said hello to him and told him he was a hell of basketball player.”
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