Jerry West and Oscar Robertson: Forever Linked?

Darius Soriano —  August 8, 2011

J.M. Poulard is a friend of the site and contributor to fellow TrueHoop Network site, Warrior’s World. Over the summer he’s been dishing out tremendous historical pieces and today follows up on his first historical piece for FB&G with another look back. You can reach him by email here and find him on Twitter @ShyneIV.

College basketball has always been able to sell itself, and will continue to do so in the future. The single elimination tournaments, the coaches, the pride of the alumni and obviously the players make the NCAA wildly attractive. Nonetheless, there is nothing quite like seeing future professional stars perform during March Madness.

Indeed, if evidence is needed to validate this point, think back to March 2003, when a sensational freshman (this would be the spot where Dick Vitale screams DIAPER DANDY BABY!) by the name of Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to the national title. Prior to Melo’s hijacking of the tournament, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird played in arguably the most famous college basketball game ever, when Michigan State defeated Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA title game.

Part of what made the game so compelling was the talent level of both teams, but more so than anything; it came down to the stars. Johnson and Bird met in the first of many meetings that would come to define their professional careers.

The beauty of both stars was their ability to literally do everything on the basketball court: scoring, passing, rebounding and defense. Hence, both players going head-to-head meant that the world would get the opportunity to watch the two best players in the game compete against the other with the opportunity to determine who was truly the better player. Also, whether we want to admit it or not, the racial component also made the match up that much more intriguing.

Thus, when both players joined the NBA, they invigorated the league by making it appealing for casual fans, which took the National Basketball Association to new heights.

Prior to Magic and Bird though, there were two stars that the NBA could have capitalized on immensely but failed to do so due to their inability to market the league as a whole.

Two decades prior to Michigan State and Indiana State facing off for the NCAA title, college basketball as well as the NBA had the almost the same exact opportunity to elevate both the college and pro game to a new level. The Final Four would feature these universities: California, Louisville, Cincinnati and West Virginia.

Cincinnati faced off against California while West Virginia played versus Louisville. Think about this: the 1959 championship game could have pitted Jerry West and his West Virginia Mountaineers against Oscar Robertson and his Cincinnati Bearcats.

Make no mistake about it, Robertson and West were the best players in college basketball. Fans and experts all had an opinion on which one of these forwards (yes, both players played forward in college) was the best in the game.

Oscar Robertson was an astounding scorer, terrific rebounder and great set up man. He was also a good defender, although his focus on that side of the ball wavered a bit during games. During the 1958-59 collegiate season, The Big O averaged 32.5 points, 16.3 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game on 50.9 percent field goal shooting.

Jerry West on the other hand was a superb scorer, impressive rebounder and decent set up man. Also, he was a far superior defender than Robertson given his willingness to consistently put in effort on the defensive end. Steals were not tracked at the time, but West had a knack for regularly coming away with the ball at the expense of his opponents. During the 1958-90 campaign, the Logo averaged 26.6 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 51.8 percent field goal shooting.

Jerry West and Oscar Robertson were both fantastic players that were both equally intelligent on the basketball court. One would assume that Oscar’s ability to affect multiple facets of the game would have him ranked as the better player (he was after all selected number one overall in the 1960 NBA draft while West was selected second), but such is not exactly the case. Roland Lazenby obtained this quote from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his book Jerry West:

Oscar always got the credit but Jerry got a lot of credit too and deserved it. I wouldn’t say that Oscar was absolutely the better player. They were like neck and neck, and they neutralized each other.

Also, Sports Illustrated wrote in 1972:

There has been a groundswell for West the last few seasons, so that now he is often accepted as the equal, or superior, of Oscar Robertson as the finest guard of all time.

And finally, Bill Simmons ranked Oscar Robertson ninth in his Hall of Fame Pyramid while Jerry West was listed as eighth (basically meaning that Oscar is the ninth best player of all time while West occupies the number eight spot) and he added this passage:

[…] if your life depended on it and you could only pick one franchise player from 1960 to 1974, but you had to win at least three titles during that span how could you not pick West? Even at his peak, teammates lived in fear of letting Oscar down. They walked on eggshells with him. They struggled to connect with him the same way a group of musicians would struggle to connect with someone who resides on a higher plane and blames them for being inferior. On the flipside, we have copious amounts of evidence to suggest West elevated his teams—he didn’t just make them better, they wanted to win for him, and not just that, he connected with them the right way. Jerry West had a better handle on The Secret than Oscar Robertson, that’s why West was better. By a hair, but still.

Needless to say, these guys were franchise players in the pros, but prior to joining the big leagues, these athletes were the kind that transformed basketball programs.

California eliminated Cincinnati in the 1959 national semifinal, which prevented Robertson from playing against West and his West Virginia teammates in the championship game. The prospect of their respective teams meeting for the national title might have changed the landscape of the NBA in the 1960s, but the truth is we will never know.

What we do know however is that West needed Oscar in order to become one of the greatest players ever. Indeed, Jerry West looked at Oscar Robertson and saw what he thought was the best player in the game. And knowing what that looked like, the Logo wanted to surpass him. Hence, every college game, every practice and every summer workout by 1958 became about the game within the game: winning at all costs, but also showing the world he could compete with Robertson.

The Bearcats’ inability to reach the title game disappointed West very much, given the fact that it robbed him of the chance to see how he measured up against The Big O. But then again, lost opportunities can occasionally lead to new challenges.

And in the case of West, Cincinnati’s inability to make it to the championship game meant that the West Virginia star would have to raise his game the following season to be considered as good or better than Robertson since he did not get a shot at the star Bearcat.

If there is one thing that all NBA legends seem to have in common, it is their motivation to be the best by taking down those they believe are at the mountaintop. And believe it or not, the Logo’s fire to surpass Robertson burned even when he joined the Lakers.

Considering the career that Jerry West had, one would have to say that the time spent thinking about The Big O was time well spent. Wouldn’t you agree?

-J.M. Poulard

Darius Soriano

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