June 24, 2013
The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game, Oscar Robertson (2003)
It is 1956 and Oscar Robertson has just led Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis to its second straight state championship.
After winning the state title, we had one more tournament to play: the Indiana-Kentucky series. I can't adequately relate how important this series is to the basketball fans in each state. Both states claim the game of basketball as their own and follow high school and college games with a fanaticism that borders on religious. In 1940, they started playing a series, matching the best Indiana high school seniors against Kentucky's finest, with all revenues going to the Blind Fund. During the first fourteen years, they played just one game a year, in the Butler Fieldhouse. Indiana won all but one, and of course Kentucky fans raised holy hell, citing a homecourt advantage as the cause of the lopsided record. To this day the series is still going, one game played in each state, and each contest is sold out and played before a totally partisan audience. As it happens, in 1955, the same year the series went to two games, Kentucky also started naming black players to the squad.
In 1956, my senior year, the series was being billed by reporters as a battle between opposites - me and "King" Kelly Coleman, a braggadocious white boy from the Kentucky hills. Coleman had broken all Kentucky state scoring records, and he told reporters that the real contest might not be between him and me, but whether he'd score fifty in each game. He wasn't shy about telling them that he had averaged more than forty-six a game during his senior year ..., and he was certain that a bunch of Indiana players could not guard him. When he showed up late for practice, he told reporters, "I didn't think I needed any practice against Indiana."
I didn't say anything to the press, but certainly read his comments. Before the first game, which was in Indiana, our team had steaks at a restaurant called the 500 Club and discussed strategy. ... When [coach] asked who wanted to guard Coleman, about half the team raised their hands. Angus looked at all of them, then at me. "Oscar, you've got him."
Butler Fieldhouse was again packed for the first game. The papers say it was humid in the arena, and I knew from memory that when the place was packed like that, it didn't take much for your shirt to stick to your back. Coleman and I both wore the traditional number one, which is awarded to each state's Mr. Basketball. Before the opening tap, I shook hands with him. "Talk is cheap," I said.
Kentucky continued the tradition of teams getting off to comically fast starts against me. Their squad came out onto our home court and scored the first seven points. We regrouped enough to tie the score at 10, then took a 12-10 lead. Throughout, I worked pretty hard on defense, crowding Coleman and denying him the ball. He ended with three points in the first half, and we stretched our lead. During the second half, whenever Kentucky threatened, I either drove and hit someone for an assist, nailed a jump shot, or finished a play myself. We took the first game going away, 92-78. I ended up with thirty-four points, breaking the single-game scoring record by six. Coleman finished with seventeen, most of them coming during the fourth quarter.
The second game was more of the same, only this time it was played in Louisville, Kentucky. We scored thirty points in the third quarter and blew their doors off, 102-77. This time, Coleman ended up with all of four points, from one of nine shooting. I broke my new record, scoring my fortieth and forty-first points, when our coach reinserted me into the game with seconds left, for a shot at the buzzer.
After the second game, Coleman said he was out of shape and had a bad leg and, considering his condition, would never have made those kinds of predictions. But the coach for the Kentucky all-star team thought Coleman's performance had less to do with his leg than with me. He told reporters that I was "a pro playing with a bunch of high school boys. He's the best high school basketball player I ever saw." Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Collins wrote, "If there's anyone who doubts now that Oscar Robertson is the best high school player in the world, he's speaking in very faint tones. Most of his colleagues agreed. Of the 108 sportswriters voting for the Star of Stars in 1956, 106 voted for me.
Tiger Den Basketball