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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12 responses to Jerry West and Oscar Robertson: Forever Linked?

  1. Reading comprehension *sigh*

  2. #1. I think it’s pretty ironic that you’re calling anyone a moron if your interpretation of what was written came down to what you expressed in your comment. Please re-read the post to get a better understanding of what the topic at hand really is. Sheesh.

  3. To say that there was nothing racial about Magic and Bird simply means that you were a white person rooting for the Lakers or a black person rooting for the Celtics.

    For the rest, it was all about color. Just like Yao Ming was about China, and Jeremy Lin could’ve been about Asian Americans.

    Still, that wasn’t all of it, of course. The way the two were similar yet so different seemed to resonate with many in a way that eventually transcended color for some, becoming more of a cultural archetype of west coast vs. east coast more than black vs. white.

    Unfortunately I really haven’t seen much of West or Robertson to strongly agree or disagree that they could’ve been Bird and Magic before Bird and Magic.

    Still, it’s a fun line of thought, just like wondering what Kobe’s career would’ve looked like had he went to college.

  4. Rusty Shackleford August 8, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    Let’s not let the comments on this post be all about race and sports now. It annoys me when there is 3,024 comments on an article with the slightest reference to race and 31 on a beautifully written article about something purely about sports. In my most humble and respectful opinion: unfortunately; racism is part of American history and to ignore it would be both digressive and disrespectful to all of those who have endured it’s negative affects.

    That said, give me the dude who hits a 3/4 court shot to put the game into overtime and walks to the sideline like he just made two out of two free throws any day. Plus, if you think about the contributions West made as a GM it’s a no brainer.

    Also, let’s get a role-player vote on here. I’m 26 years old so I’m not as seasoned as most of the posters on this site but I’d really like to read discussions on who & why the favorite role-players in Lakers’ history are. And I do think the term “role player” needs to be taken in context with who the core player(s) is/are on the team at the time. By this I mean a good example is Big Shot Rob vs. Big Game James. Robert Horry, as valuable as his contributions are remembered; could never been asked to be “The Man” on a team like James Worthy was expected to be after the Magic Era.

    Sit on it Potsy

  5. Rusty – Good topic. Both Rob and James made great contributions to the Lakers, but as you mention, there’s really no comparison when it comes to their roles. Horry made some big shots in big moments, whilst Worthy had big SERIES in big moments. His ppg rose in the Playoffs, and he was capable of taking over games. Sure he benefitted from having Magic leading the break, but by an equal (or greater) measure, Horry got a lot (all?) of his open looks from playing with Shaq and Kobe.

    I think what I am trying to say is that Worthy is probably a top 10 all time Laker, whereas Horry would slot in somewhere in the 20s or 30s (in my humble opinion).

    But if we focus on your original query of favourite Laker role-player, then Horry beats Worthy hands down. Worthy was a #1 pick, an All-Star and a Finals MVP, not a role-player in the least. I’d have Horry up there in my favourite Lakers who fitted into the description of role-player. On that Showtime team, the starters and 6th/7th men played a lot of minutes. The key role guy (at least in the 2nd half of the ’80s) would’ve been AC Green. There were a bunch of ’80s guys who played very few minutes and did a lot of bench cheering (Tony Campbell, Mike Smrek, Adrian Branch, Milt Wagner… the list goes on and on!).

  6. Thanks, Darius, for refering tastefully to the issue of race as regards West vs Robertson and Bird vs Magic.

    The bias was very much present in both directions during the Magic/Bird era, which I was fortunate enough to see from the beginning, with the 1979 NCAA championship game.

    Many white basketball fans that I knew gushed over Bird (and the Celtics) Fundimental Basketball, and refered to Magic (and the Lakers) as style and flash over substance.

    Many of my black friends sneered at the very idea of a really great white player, and told me that Bird was more hype and “great white hope” than substance.

    Those stances softened over the player’s careers, as everyone saw both players numerous times and in numerous clutch situations, and saw that both of them were clearly great players.

    I am sure that Robertson and West were similarly scrutinized and seen through the very common racial biases that existed even more strongly in their era. But greatness on the court is greatness and both of them were clearly among the best to ever play.

  7. Great article, about a couple of players in the beginning of time, for the NBA. It is interesting that Jerry West made himself better, due to Oscar’s play. It is like Kobe watching Jordan, and then learning from him over time, and to make his game the best he can. Where you say, ‘be the best by taking down those they believe are at the mountaintop,’ this is what it is about. The great one’s taking down other great one’s to be the best of the best. We seem to have lost that this decade, somewhat. BTW, I always really liked A.C. Green.

  8. @#5,6, thanks for circling the discussion back to basketball. I grew up watching the Showtime Lakers and I never really considered Worthy a role player. To my kid’s eye, he was a star right next to Magic and KAJ.

    One role player who I think is gets overlooked regularly is Michael Cooper. He was considered a super sub. I still get chills thinking about the Coop-a-loop. Alley oops are more common now. But the first time I saw Cooper go up, all long arms and long legs put it down, I went wild. I would get so excited hearing Chick call out the Coop-a-loop.

    Cooper coming into the game was always a cause for excitement. Whether it was the potential of the coop-a-loop. A timely three or his D creating a turnover and transition opportunity.

    I also loved his backstory of having to work and scrap his way to the league. Cooper is a prime example of a great Laker role player.

  9. Oscar was a great player, as was West. I think Bill Simmons did a nice job chronicling both in his book of basketball.

  10. I didn’t see those guys play in college, but I did get to see a lot of their pro career (beginning in ’65, at the age of 13). It look like Jerry always had better talent to play with than Oscar. The Big O was always by far the best player on his team in his prime (don’t bring up Jerry Lucas, he wasn’t all that). While the Logo shared the spotlight and scoring responsibility on his team with Elgin Baylor.

    Baylor & West were nicknamed “Mr Inside & Mr. Outside. I always thought Oscar was the better player, he had to do so much more on his team. And he did. Still the only player to AVERAGE a triple double for a whole season, and came very close a 2nd time. And this was at a time when NBA statisticians didn’t hand out assist like candy, and rebounding immortals like Russell, Chamberlain, & Thurmond roamed the court (since there were far fewer teams then, each team played each other 6 to 8 times). And let’s not forget, West played 2 guard, Oscar played point.

    Bottom line: until Magic & MJ proved themselves, The Big O & The Logo were considered the dream backcourt. On my NBA All-Time list I have Oscar as the 2nd best point guard behind Magic. As for West, I have him as the 3rd best two guard behind MJ & Kobe….currently. D-Wade compares very favorable with West thru their 1st eight seasons in the NBA (only a difference of 4 games played & both were the same age at the time, 29).

    West went on to have 6 more very productive seasons. We’ll have to wait to see if Wade continues to keep up.

  11. Oscar was probably a 1 (point guard) by today’s standards, but I don’t think that’s true for Jerry. We assume that he played the 2 because he shot a lot of jumpers and looks like the classic 2 guard. But, he regularly led the Lakers in assists, brought the ball upcourt, and the offense went through him, all of which seems to describe a point guard. Even when Gail Goodrich joined the Lakers in the early ’70s, it was West who led the team in assists, though most people, perhaps unconsciously, consider Goodrich the PG. I think it’s more accurate to simply call both men guards, neither 1 or 2.

  12. Incidentally, in the re-issue of The Book of Basketball, Simmons moved Kobe up to #8. Being Simmons, he did this while trashing Kobe, but he is still 8 on Simmons’ new list.