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Original Issue

The Big Woe A pent-up anger over racist behavior is unleashed in this autobiography by one of the NBA's greatest

by Oscar Robertson
Rodale Press, $24.95

It turns out we didn't really know Oscar Robertson. We knew that
he was the most complete basketball player of his era, maybe the
best ever, the only one to average a triple-double for an entire
season. His quiet and reserved image matched his efficiency on
the court. In this autobiography, however, Robertson, who burst
into the NBA with the Cincinnati Royals in 1960 and pioneered the
role of the big athletic guard over a 14-year career, reveals
himself as an angry man, articulate and thoughtful and agitated
about the shabby and racist behavior he has encountered
throughout his life.

A child of poverty and segregation, and later at the forefront of
basketball integration and players' rights, Robertson is not shy
about pointing out those he feels mistreated him. Among them:
Indianapolis mayor Alex M. Clark, who in 1955 altered the parade
route for Robertson's all-black state champion Crispus Attucks
High team, so the caravan would not wind through the downtown
area; the producers of the 1986 film Hoosiers, who he feels
played the race card and distorted history in their cinematic
portrayal of the tournament in which Attucks lost to rural Milan
High; the University of Cincinnati, which he says failed to stand
up for him by forcing him to stay in a hotel separate from the
team in some Southern cities and hasn't offered him a spot on the
board of trustees; and NBA owners and general managers, whose
personnel moves befuddled him.

Working without a ghostwriter, the 64-year-old Robertson makes
lengthy but profound observations about basketball, past and
present, and muses over why he's never been offered an NBA
coaching or front-office job. (He suspects it might be payback
for his many confrontations with management as head of the
players' association from 1965 to '74.) His writing is brave,
intelligent and emotional, but it also weighs on the reader after
a while. Though his career was clearly marked by tensions, it's
hard to imagine that Robertson and his teammates didn't have some
enjoyable times.