Oscar Robertson was one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Over his fourteen-year NBA career, which spanned 1961-1975, Robertson won rookie of the year, was league MVP in 1964, made 12 all star teams, and scored over 25,000 points. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the he averaged a triple double during his first five years in the NBA. In spite of these accomplishments, Robertson won only one NBA title and he 's rarely discussed in the same sentence as basketball greats Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Magic Johnson.
These shortcomings may owe to Robertson 's bitter personality. He played angry. He berated referees, opposing players, fans, and even his own teammates when they didn 't conform to his expectations. He ignored coaches. In spite of his physical skills and on court accomplishments, Robertson 's behavior riled teammates so much that many in the NBA didn 't want to play with him. The Cincinnati Royals even traded Robertson in his prime just so they wouldn 't have to deal with his fiery personality.
Robertson wasn 't always so angry. Although he grew up in a poor, intercity housing community in Indianapolis, a young Robertson entertained himself by shooting homemade balls into a peach basket in his backyard. In 1953, he attended all-black Crispus Attucks High where he refined his game as a member of the school 's basketball team. In 1954, Robertson and his team went to state semifinals, but they lost to rural Milan, the team that would go on to inspire the movie Hoosiers. A year later, Robertson and Crispus Attucks went 31-1 and won the 1955 state championship, becoming the first all-black school to do so in Indiana.
Unfortunately, the championship introduced Robertson to racism. Whereas 40,000 people had lined the streets of Milan to cheer their all-white team 's victory a year before, there would be no such celebration in Indianapolis. The mayor told the boys from Crispus Attucks that they 'd have to celebrate on the outside of town because he didn 't want crowds of blacks congregating in his city.
Racism continued to affect Robertson when he became the first black player for the University of Cincinnati Bearcats basketball team in 1957. Although college basketball had been integrated ten years before, most of integrated teams played schools in the North, where racism was not as vocal and violent as it was in the South. Cincinnati, however, was a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, with three schools in the South. This meant Robertson would be playing southern teams at least three times a year during what was perhaps the most virulent four years of racial strife in United States history. For example, in 1957, the year Robertson joined Cincinnati, angry southerners gathered to prevent nine black schoolchildren from integrating Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. The black students were only able to go to class after U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne to escort them. After Little Rock, primary schools in the South started the slow process of integration, but many southern universities steadfastly refused to admit black students.
As a black athlete, Robertson became a target of white southerners when his basketball team played one of these segregated universities. In his 2003 autobiography, which is equal parts angry and self-laudatory, Robertson seethes when describing the treatment he faced while traveling through the South. Southerners called him names, refused to serve him in restaurants, and would not allow him to sleep in their hotels. The Ku Klux Klan threatened the basketball player. Robertson was treated so poorly on these road trips, that he claims that he almost forgot that the South was part of America.
Robertson 's didn’t reserve his anger just for southerners. He mentions one instance where a southern hotel owner threw him out of his room in the middle of the night, forcing him to sleep at nearby black college. The rest of the Cincinnati players stayed in the segregated hotel instead of joining their teammate, as Robertson believes they should have done.
According to Robertson’s autobiography, there was one racist experience that affected him more than any other. It happened when Cincinnati played the segregated University of North Texas (then North Texas State University) in Denton in January, 1959. After a tough game in Houston, Robertson and his teammates flew to Dallas and took a forty-five minute bus ride north to UNT’s 4,500 person arena. When Robertson and his teammates entered the visitors locker room to dress for the upcoming game, they found it occupied by a black cat. Someone had put the animal in the locker room to send Robertson a message. They were commenting on his race. Robertson was shaken.
It went downhill from there. According to Robertson, when he emerged from the locker room for warm-ups, the packed UNT arena 'it was the highest attendance for any game up to this point 'greeted him with boos and racial epithets. Hot dogs, cinnamon buns, and programs rained down on the Robertson as he walked to the court. The taunts grew so bad that the athlete couldn 't concentrate for the pregame shoot around. Instead of tossing up warm up baskets, Robertson stood at the center of the court, alone, hands on his hips, with the people of Denton spewing rage all around him.
When the game started, Robertson couldn’t concentrate, turning what should have been an easy game for the first place Bearcats into a struggle. For two hours, UNT fans behind the Cincinnati bench screamed at Robertson, introducing him to insults that he 'd never heard before. Unable to pay attention in the huddle, Robertson performed poorly. He remembers scoring twelve points, much lower than his thirty-six point average. With Robertson off his game, the underdog North Texas played the game close, but Cincinnati emerged victorious by a score of 70-53.
Their team 's defeat didn 't quiet the North Texas fans and their racist taunts continued after the game. They were so loud that Robertson had a hard time speaking with reporters over the chorus of slurs. He went into the locker room disturbed and angry. Years later, when speaking of the treatment he received while in Denton and the South, Robertson claimed, 'I’ll never forgive them. '
Robertson 's story shocked me. As a graduate of North Texas, I’d learned that integration at UNT went over with little incident. Although the Dean of UNT didn 't agree with integration, he accepted that it was inevitable and encouraged parents and students to make the process as painless as possible. Like all universities in the South, incoming black students faced racism, but it was much less virulent than what happened at colleges in Alabama and Mississippi. I’d learned that the students and faculty of UNT resisted change, but they weren 't the ardent, remorseless racists of other areas of the Deep South. If Robertson were right about North Texas, I’d have to look at my school’s history in an all new light.
At first, I sought to redeem UNT’s image, hoping that maybe Robertson had confused Denton with another city. Maybe fifty years had clouded his memory. After a quick search of the archives of the Dallas Morning News, this seemed like a distinct possibility. Every article I read about Robertson when he played North Texas spoke of the man with not only respect, but admiration. Not something that one would expect from a southern paper in the 1950s. The articles even lacked the disguised racism one sees in modern sports broadcasts. Robertson wasn’t just an athlete, he was a conservatively-dressed hard worker who only cared about helping his team.
The newspapers revealed other interesting details. Robinson had confused many of the details about his game against North Texas. Cincinnati had never defeated North Texas 70-53 and North Texas had never limited Robertson to 12 points. Robertson was likely referring to Cincinnati’s game against Houston in 1959, which had happened two days before the Bearcats played North Texas that year. Robertson’s autobiography also mentions a North Texas player named Gary Phillips, except there was no such player for UNT. Gary Phillips played for Houston.
These small errors, understandable for a person that played basketball for over twenty years, gave me hope that perhaps Robertson had confused some of the details of his story. Maybe the night at North Texas wasn’t as bad as he remembered. Robertson could have had a horrific trip through the South and projected the awfulness of the experience on UNT. Perhaps Robertson had confused North Texas and Houston.
An editorial in the North Texas college newspaper seemed to confirm my suspicions. Published the week before UNT played Cincinnati in 1959, the editorial sympathized with Robertson for the poor treatment he’d faced the past two years while playing in the Missouri Valley Conference. It berated the Ku Klux Klan, which had sent Robertson a Christmas Card warning the player not to come to Georgia. Calling the author of the card “narrow-minded,” the editorial wryly questioned the writer’s intelligence, noting that Cincinnati didn’t even play in Georgia that year, so Robertson wouldn’t be in the state anyway. The words also tugged heart strings. Quoting Robertson’s mother, who expressed fear for her child’s safety, the college paper consoled her by saying that Denton was not one of the racist “hot spots” seen in the news. The article concluded with the passage: “it would be below any North Texan to make derogatory remarks or commit ill-mannered actions which would cast a bad reflection on this college. Instead, the gym will be filled with fans who have come out to see a great performer.”
After reading the editorial, I was proud of my 1950s UNT counterparts. Making fun of the KKK, showing how racism affected families by referencing a mother’s love for her child, lauding Robertson for his abilities, it was everything you’d hope from intelligent, reasonable people. Of course there were racists in the South and integration in Denton wouldn’t be without its difficulties, but with people like this editorial writer, there was no way that Robertson’s worst day happened at North Texas.
Except it did. And it was even worse than Robertson described, although you wouldn’t know this reading the Dallas Morning News. According to the DMN, the game took place on January 12 and it was exciting. The underdog North Texas played hard behind their star Jim Mudd. They even held Robertson to 19 points in regulation and played the #1 ranked Cincinnati to a tie to force overtime. Although Robertson opened up in overtime to help the Bearcats win 64-56, North Texas played one of its best games ever. The Dallas Morning News mentioned nothing about flying cinnamon buns or racial slurs.
For awhile, the UNT’s campus paper was similarly quiet, but an editorial a month following the game painted a picture that was almost identical to Robertson’s account. The article began by applauding the student body of North Texas for supporting their sports teams, something that the school had had trouble with in the past (and still has for that matter). It, however, transitioned into an appeal for sportsmanship. According to the editorial, UNT students spent the first quarter of the game yelling insults towards the court. And unlike Robertson’s account, these chants were “unified.”
Robertson mentioned people throwing hot dogs and cinnamon buns at him, but he didn’t say just how bad the situation became. According to the North Texas newspaper, cups, popcorn, and candy wrappers poured from the stands. There was so much trash that referees had to stop the game to clear the court for player safety. This didn’t stop the onslaught. At one point, UNT’s head coach, a player, and even some cheerleaders had to help with the cleanup.
After reading the editorial, I realized that Robertson hadn’t been mistaken. Everything he said about my school was true. The black cat in the locker room. The raining trash. The insults. Robertson may have been mistaken about some minor details of the game, but his representation of the crowd in Denton was accurate.
I tried to come up with some justification for the North Texas fans’ behavior. Something was different from the previous times Robertson played in Denton. The poor treatment was in retaliation for a 127-57 Cincinnati victory over UNT in 1958, a game where Robertson scored 35 points in spite of being quadruple teamed. It was in support of UNT player Jim Mudd, who was second to Robertson for the Missouri Valley Conference scoring title. Although I had seen nothing to indicate that this was true, maybe, just maybe, Robertson had insulted North Texas and the fans were defending their school.
Even if all of these things were true, it wouldn’t justify the racist, mob mentality at North Texas on January 12, 1959. The students and fans of UNT degraded another human being to the point that he would carry the scars of the night for the rest of his life. Nothing makes that right. And if the North Texas student body had an ulterior motive for treating Robertson with disdain, would they have treated a white player the same way? No. No they wouldn’t have. Most of the people of Denton, just like the majority of white southerners in 1959, were racists.
When people talk about the difficulty Jackie Robinson faced integrating Major League Baseball, they always reference a 1947 game between Robinson’s Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies. During the game, Phillies players called Robinson a “nigger” and their manager Ben Chapman told him to “go back to the cotton fields.” The Dodgers rallied around their teammate, allowing Robinson to shrug off the insults. Although the moment would stick with him, Robinson continued to develop as a player and a human. He didn’t allow his anger to define him.
In the narrative of Oscar Robertson’s life, the game at North Texas was his version of Jackie Robinson’s confrontation with the Phillies. But Robertson doesn’t seem to have handled the criticism in the same manner as his MLB counterpart. Sports writer Bill Simmons (he may not be a great on-air analyst, but he knows basketball) argued that the horrific, racist treatment Robertson experienced in the South turned him into a bitter man and it negatively affected the way he played basketball when he went to the NBA. Seeing the worst in humans, Robertson believed only in himself, shielded himself with a defensive mentality, and refused to show weakness in front of others. Because of this, he couldn’t form close relationships with teammates, which hurt his performance on the court and prevented him from winning more than one championship. Robertson’s standoffish nature also affected him after his basketball career, as no one wanted the angry former player as their coach or general manager.
Robertson feels differently than Simmons, arguing that anger fueled his success. If the games between Cincinnati and North Texas following the incident in Denton are any indication, Robertson is right. In March 1959, Cincinnati beat UNT 95-64, with Robertson scoring almost half of his team’s points. That was nothing compared to what happened in 1960, when the Bearcats crushed North Texas 123-74. Robertson personally scored sixty-two points in the game, six more than he’d ever scored in single outing. The sixty-two total also broke the Missouri Valley Conference record for the most points scored by a player in a game.
In his 2003 autobiography, Robertson did have one positive message about Denton. After the horrific game in 1959, a twelve-year-old boy approached the exhausted player and asked for his autograph. Angry at the treatment he’d faced, Robertson refused and stormed into the locker room. After he’d cooled down, however, he had second thoughts, found the boy, and signed his program. The excited child looked up to Robertson, thanked him, and said, 'We sure would be obliged if you would join us for a church supper at the Denton Methodist Church. We know you 'd be welcome. '
I wish there had been more people like that young boy in the arena that day. I wish I could say that my Alma Mater was different, that it didn’t share the same sordid racist past as other universities in the Deep South. I wish I could go back and stop the events of January 12, 1959. I can’t do any of these things, but I do want to tell Robertson that I’m sorry for what happened to him. And just so he knows he’s welcome in Denton today.
The Dallas Morning News
The Campus Chat
Robertson, Oscar. The Big O: My Life, My Time, My Game. New York: Oscar Robertson Media Ventures, 2003.
Simmons, Bill. The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy. New York: Ballantine Books, 2009.