May 17, 2006
Re: Of Oscar and LeBron
From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
Let me take time out from weighty matters to discuss something that really counts: a comparison, admittedly superficial, between Oscar Robertson and LeBron James.
Because of obduracy, stupidity or whatnot, I have never been one of those persons who thinks Michael Jordan the best round ball player who ever lived. I have always thought, and continue to think, it was Oscar Robertson. The man averaged a triple double one year in the pros, you know. No one else has ever done that - - not in 60 years of professional basketball leagues. In college he led the nation in scoring and was College Player of the Year during all three years that he was eligible to play (freshmen weren’t eligible then). As a college sophomore at the University of Cincinnati, when New York was still something of a basketball mecca and New Yorkers did not automatically accept that a kid from the sticks -- the Midwest -- was as great as he in fact was, Robertson came to Madison Square Garden and hit fifty-six points. That’s 56, as in five six. No other player, college or pro, had ever scored that many in the Garden. New Yorkers became believers.
Robertson could shoot from inside or outside, could pass, could rebound, could dribble, could play defense (like crazy). Watching him was like watching a man among boys, to use a hackneyed phrase of sportswriting. This was as true in the pros as in college. He was simply phenomenal to see, simply head and shoulders above everyone else.
This was captured in a story told to me by Ira Berkow, the long time New York Times
sportswriter. Ira and I lived on the North Side of Chicago during high school, and knew each other slightly because we both played hoops at the same local gym, Green Brier Park. I knew and, as did Ira, played at Green Brier against the local North Side wonder player, a six foot tall kid named Ron Rubinstein. (Ira, who was himself a fine ballplayer, also played against him in the high school interscholastic league.) Rubinstein was so good that, it was my subsequent understanding, in his senior year he was regarded by many as the best high school player in all of Illinois. This was some shakes, especially when one cogitates that another senior that year was an all stater from “downstate” Illinois named John Tidwell, who went on to set the all time Michigan scoring record, which was broken a few years later by a kid from Chicago named Cazzie Russell -- remember him?
Ira, I have to say, didn’t think Rubinstein was even the best player on Chicago’s North Side, however. He reserved that for a guy named Hershey Carl -- formally Howard Carl -- who, even though he was only about five feet eight or five nine, subsequently became an All-American for Ray Meyer at DePaul and even played a year in the pros.
Anyway, Rubinstein went to Louisville, where he started for all three years he was eligible, I think. He was not the terrific hotshot in college that he had been in high school, in my judgment because of the way he shot his jump shot. He would hold the ball way out in front of him at about chest, or chin or nose level, depending, would leap, and would shoot at the top of his jump. It was artistry to see, truly beautiful to see - - and nearly every kid in his orbit experimented with shooting that way. I’ve never seen anyone else shoot like that at the college level or higher -- perhaps the closest might be Shawn Marion, but he holds the ball much closer in to his body and looks awkward, whereas Rubinstein held it out from his body and was the picture of grace. Even though Rubinstein was only six feet, he was so quick and shifty, and leaped so high, that although he held the ball out in front of him and much lower than other jump shooters did and do, in high school he could get off his shot without any problem. But in college, where everyone was a lot bigger and faster than in high school, one couldn’t shoot this way. The ball, held low and out front, was too susceptible to being closely defended, even blocked. So that -- in my estimation anyway -- and maybe I’m all wet of course -- is the reason why, in college, Rubinstein was not what he had been in high school. (I note that Steve Nash holds the ball fairly low on his jump shot, but he shoots it from in close to his body (at roughly his right shoulder), which is completely different from holding it way out in front.)
But I digress. As Ira tells the story, Rubinstein’s Louisville team played Oscar’s Cincinnati team one day, and before the game the long-time Louisville coach, Peck Hickman, gave the usual kind of pep talk, telling his team that Robertson was only human, was not superman, put on his pants one leg at a time like everyone else, etc., etc. Then came the game and an amazing Robertson performance. Afterwards, as the Louisville team was undressing in the locker room, Rubinstein said to his teammates, “I don’t care what Coach says. That guy doesn’t put on his pants the same way the rest of us do.”
That, as far as I am concerned, captures Robertson. Maybe he is also captured by the fact that, if memory serves, the great Jerry West, after playing with Robertson on America’s fantastic 1960 Olympics team, was awestruck by Robertson’s ability.
I never thought to see Robertson’s equal again. Not Magic, not Michael, not Isaiah, not Larry Bird, not any of them, as great as they were, ever seemed to me to be as good as Oscar, which puts me at odds with all the basketball people, who, unlike me, are knowledgeable and, as I gather it, think that Jordan was better than Robertson, Johnson at least Robertson’s equal, and maybe, just maybe, Thomas the best player ever inch for inch. But what I said is how this one time sports fan feels about it. And there is one very knowledgeable guy who, I’m almost certain, agrees with me that Oscar was the best ever. That guy is . . . . . . . . Oscar Robertson. He apparently doesn’t say it outright, but when one reads of interviews with him, it seems pretty clear in context that that’s his own opinion. If memory serves, when asked once how many points Jordan would have scored if he had played in Oscar’s day, Robertson replied about twenty or so a game. Left unsaid by Robertson himself, as I remember it, was that lots of years Robertson averaged in the neighborhood of 30 or more.
As said, I never thought to see Robertson’s equal again. In a perverse sense, this is because, having watched sports on the tube from about 1951 or 1952 until the late ’70s, I simply got tired of it and stopped watching. Also, one has to make a choice: one either reads or one watches the tube. I chose reading. But, less perversely, the view that the likes of Robertson would not be seen again was held because he was so awesomely great. But now, I note, LeBron James and Steve Nash have come along. Nash is fantastic. And one has to consider the possibility that James may turn out to be as good as Oscar was. On one of his good nights, as in the triple double he scored in the first playoff game against the Washington Wizards, he looks to be Oscar’s equal. But so far that’s only on his particularly good nights, in this viewer’s estimation.
It is interesting that in one important and somewhat unusual way, Oscar and LeBron are very similar. They both have very big, wide strong bodies, which they use to get in close to the basket with the ball, when one wouldn’t think it possible. LeBron, of course, even takes hits and smashes as he’s getting to the hoop and he still makes the bucket. LeBron, however, seems to be something of a streak shooter from the outside, sometimes shows awful judgment by continuing to fire them up there from far out three point land when he’s way off (I’ve even seen him throw up air balls), and does not generally seem to shoot mid range jumpers -- today, for a lot of players, I gather, shooting occurs either in close or from three point range. LeBron is sometimes an utterly phenomenal passer, but isn’t generally reckoned to be much on defense yet. Oscar was a streak shooter too -- except that he was one continuous hot streak with no cold spells, is my recollection. He shot a lot of mid range shots. There were no three pointers then, and therefore no point in shooting from downtown, so Oscar didn’t shoot from 23 or 25 feet. (There are those who say he would have learned to do this -- no problem -- if there had been three pointers.) He was an excellent passer, with very high assist ratings, and a great defensive player.
One can compare them in these various ways, and if LeBron, over the years, comes to regularly perform at anything close to the way he performed against the Wizards -- his performance against the Pistons, though sometimes great, has not been its equal -- one ultimately may have to say that we have seen Oscar’s equal (or Michael’s, or Magic’s if your taste runs to either of those two as the all time best).
There is, however, a reason why this former fan, at least, thinks that we will never really know if LeBron (or Jordan) was Robertson’s equal (or better). The reason is a change in the way two rules are enforced. (For all I know, even the wording of the two rules may have been changed. At minimum, their enforcement has been drastically changed.) In Oscar’s day, you were not permitted to carry the ball while dribbling. If you turned your hand over while dribbling it, that was it. Carrying. Whistle. Other team’s ball. Today everybody carries the ball. The hand is always turning over with it. Guys are practically picking it up, for God’s sakes. This is allowed. It means people can “dribble” the ball in ways that were impossible in Oscar’s day. You can pick it up, for example, and throw it from one hand to the other through one’s leg while “dribbling.” You can pick it up and throw it from hand to hand in front of you (a crossover) while “dribbling” and deciding what to do. The kind of “dribbling” permitted today gives the “dribbler” a fantastic advantage over what could be done in the 1950s and 1960s.
The other change in the rules, either de facto or, for all I know, in wording too, is in traveling. It used to be, in Oscar’s day, that the man with the ball was permitted one and a half steps. This was enforced. One and a half steps on lay ups, on hook shots, (remember the hook shot?), you name it. Today guys are just getting started in one and a half steps. Today everyone is allowed two and a half steps. Guys race down the court with the ball (palming it, carrying it) and, at the end, as they approach the basket, get two and a half steps. This is another fantastic advantage for the offensive player over what was allowed in the ’50s and ’60s.
My colleagues and I have been trying to think of any other example in sports where a change in the way the rules are enforced or written causes (or allows) a change in the way a physical act is performed. In baseball the strike zone has changed by rule or practice, the pitcher’s mound has been at various times raised or lowered, spitters have been outlawed, fences have been moved in or out. But these things don’t cause a change in the physical act of throwing or in the physical act of hitting, do they? (Unless, perhaps, a hitter starts taking a “big swing” in order to go for some Greenberg Gardens as it were). In golf new types of club materials are used and the ball apparently changes, but the physical act of swinging the club remains the same, doesn’t it? In tennis, racquet technology changes, but the physical act of a slice or of an overhead smash or of a forehand, etc. remains the same, doesn’t it? (As far as I know, the change from a one-handed to a two-handed backhand was not caused by any change in rules or their enforcement.) Maybe my colleagues and I are all wrong, or are ignorant, about some of this, but the only rule change we could think of that caused a change in the way a particular, specific sports act is performed was the change in the rules of football to allow offensive linesmen to use their hands when blocking on the line of scrimmage. Back in the day a lineman had to keep his hands in close to his body, and couldn’t use them to block. The physical act of blocking on the line has changed, just as in basketball the physical act of dribbling has changed and the physical act of taking the last steps has changed from taking one and a half steps to taking a two and a half step run.
Now, exactly why the rules changed in basketball is not something I know. One has read that it was done to accommodate Jordan. One has read that it was an adjustment at the college and pro level to the way the game is played in the inner city. One has heard it was done because it makes the game more exciting. Whether any or all of this is remotely true is not something this writer knows. But one thing is for sure. Carrying the ball on the dribble, and two and one half steps, were not allowed in Robertson’s day but are de rigueur today.
All of which raises a question. Oscar Robertson was truly great. But how much even greater would he have been if, instead of having to dribble legitimately, he had been allowed to carry the ball on every dribble, and if, instead of being confined to one and a half steps on a drive to the basket, he could have taken two and a half steps? Conversely, would LeBron (or Jordan) be as good as he is if he were not permitted to carry the ball on every dribble, as is de rigueur today, and if on his drives to the basket he were confined to one and a half steps instead of being allowed to run two and one half steps.
And by the way -- and apropos of another rule change that altered the way a physical act (shooting) is performed -- what if Oscar had been allowed to dunk during his entire career, the way players do today (and as LeBron of course does)? (Although I confess that, to me, the question is not the dunk because, when he got in close, Oscar was going to score, dunk or no dunk. To me the question revolves around carrying the ball on the dribble and taking two and a half steps. Of course, on the other side of it, even if the dunk would not have caused Oscar to score more, would the absence of dunking cause today’s players, including LeBron, to score less?)
The bottom line, then, is that because of the way the rules, or at least their enforcement, have changed, it may never really be possible to say whether somebody like LeBron James is the equal of Oscar Robertson as a player. Because he never played under today’s loose rules, we’ll never know how great Robertson might have been under them. Because today’s great players never played under yesterday’s more stringent rules, we’ll never know how much less great they might have been under them. Of course – to introduce a new thought at the very end -- we could know how good today’s players would be under the old rules if once again the rules on dribbling and traveling were enforced as they should be, as they were enforced in the ’50s and ’60s, as they were enforced when the game was played the way it was meant to be played. But nobody is going to hold their breath waiting for this to happen. Old obdurate fuddy duds like me will simply have to go on thinking that the current rules are basketball’s answer -- an answer by de facto or de jure rule changes -- to the use of steroids in baseball. They are a way of juicing the game. They are not, we fuddy duds think, the way the game was meant to be played.*
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