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Emboldened by the money, ballplayers began to get freaky. Doc Ellis threw a no-hitter on LSD. Gaylord Perry let everyone know he was throwing a spitball. Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley, a shrewd huckster, cashed in on the counterculture by offering his talented players bonuses to grow luxurious mustaches and accept outlandish nicknames like "Catfish" Hunter and "Vida" Blue. After winning three consecutive World Series, however, the cheapskate A's owner lost his team through free agency, and rebel players like Reggie Jackson went on to charge up several other contentious (and successful) clubhouses. What started out as a decade belonging to the clean-shaven, dress-coded Cincinnati Reds ended up with the free-spirited, sartorially splendiferous We-Are-Family Pittsburgh Pirates, whose championship club disintegrated into a spiral of cocaine abuse.
What Curt Flood was to baseball--the name on the lawsuit that helped change his sport--Oscar Robertson was to basketball. And The Big O also changed the game by the way he played. Robertson v. NBA, while much less ballyhooed than Flood's futile fight, was actually more effective. As head of the Players Union (which he presided over for 10 years), Robertson challenged the legality of the option clause, arguing that it represented a conspiracy to restrain competition for labor. The NBA finally settled in 1976, two years after Robertson retired, eliminating the option clause and creating free agency. This agreement--and not Robertson's triple-double 1961�62 season (when he averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists), or his 1971 championship with the Milwaukee Bucks--is the crowning chapter in The Big O. "I am so proud of what we accomplished," he writes. "Years of struggle were justified, generations of players vindicated."
Robertson, like Dick Allen, was in the 'tweener generation of black athletes: between stoic barrier breakers like Bill Russell and economically and culturally liberated free spirits like Julius Erving. He was sensitive enough to recognize that racism was an anti-American outrage, proud enough never to accept it, and financially successful enough to live out his autumn years in the same town that once treated him so shabbily.
Robertson was born in small-town Tennessee and grew up a quiet and serious kid in the black part of Indianapolis. "In those days," he writes, "if you were black, you were told you weren't smart. You were bad. You were inferior." Still, he was mostly insulated from it, until basketball took him to places most black folk didn't usually go. "Oh sure, racism was present in my life, but it was sort of like polluted air," he says. "I inhaled it and did not realize the damage it was doing." He attended segregated Crispus Attucks High School, a memory he treasures; lost in the playoffs his sophomore year to the small-town Milan team immortalized by the movie Hoosiers; and then won the state championship as a junior. Even then, the experience was bittersweet: He noticed right away that the parade route through downtown Indianapolis went through different neighborhoods than Milan's did. "It is hard to forgive them for this," he writes. "I try, but I can't." Attucks went undefeated his senior year, repeating as champion, and Robertson was named Indiana's Mr. Basketball, then the most prestigious high school award in the country.
By that time he had already endured numerous death threats, seen his star opponents billed as the Great White Hope, and watched his talented older brother's career get screwed by white coaches. "Although I am not writing this book to relate every injustice I've suffered," he says, "it's simply impossible to tell my story without talking about race." In college Robertson desegregated the University of Cincinnati's basketball team, and was one of the first-ever blacks to attend the school. "I was a shy country boy, and the last role I was ready for was a barrier breaker," he writes. Yet that's exactly how his life would play out. Whenever he was faced with indignities such as having to sleep in a different dormitory from his white teammates, he would leverage his star status by threatening to quit if it ever happened again.
He was College Player of the Year as a sophomore and helped lead a historic 1960 U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in Rome. As an NBA rookie drafted by the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings), Robertson broke several barriers in his first contract negotiation by using the leverage of threatening to play instead for the Harlem Globetrotters. Although agents were banned back then, he was represented by a lawyer, who negotiated unprecedented clauses preventing a trade without his consent and giving him a percentage of ticket sales.
Conditions for other players were still lousy: no health insurance, no pension, no money for exhibition games. Robertson became president of the NBA Players Union and filed suit to challenge the option clause. Meanwhile a new television contract, plus the appearance of the rival ABA, meant salaries started to take off, and with them individualism.
"Creativity became a more distinct part of the game," Robertson writes. "The ABA's reputation as an outlaw, playground league had its role in opening up the game....Now there was a new breed."
Robertson, though schooled in basketball fundamentals, was part of that new breed simply by virtue of being six feet, five inches tall yet able to play point guard. He played like Earvin Johnson two decades before Magic entered the league, averaging a triple-double over a five-year period before the phrase had even been invented. Time magazine made him the cover boy for an article about how the game was changing for the better. "I represented a step forward in the game's evolution," he writes.
He represented a huge step forward in the evolution of the sport's business as well, winning the fight for free agency, which paved the way for basketball to become a global juggernaut in the 1980s. In just a generation, players went from being petrified of speaking their minds--"No owner was going to have on his team an outspoken black man making political statements," Robertson writes. "My career would be over; it was that simple"--to cutting rap albums, supporting Muslim organizations, and writing books about race in America.
By then, a lifetime full of race- and union-based slings and arrows had caused Robertson to see plots behind most every setback, making his name nearly synonymous with bitter whenever he's mentioned on ESPN. But while this feeling bubbles up in The Big O, so does his evident pleasure at owning a series of businesses in Cincinnati and helping a new generation play and live how they see fit.
Sadly, the most carefree and expressive player of the three biographies, Joe Namath, is the one who has become the most pathetic. Dick Allen, almost unbelievably, eventually forgave everybody (including himself) and has become a popular fan liaison in Philadelphia. Broadway Joe, however, is a national laughingstock after drunkenly trying to paw a female ESPN sideline reporter on national TV in December 2003.
Of the three books, Namath is by far the most ambitious in scope and therefore ultimately the most frustrating, because author Kriegel tries to get inside the head of a spectacular flameout without having any access to his subject. (Namath's brutish consigliere, Jimmy Walsh, demanded "a financial relationship and editorial control.") Along the way, though, Kriegel brings terrific insight into the perfect confluence of Namath's roguish charm, the dawn of sport's television era, and the carnival-barker creation of the American Football League, led in part by Jets owner (and former legendary MCA talent scout) Sonny Werblin.
Namath, who won only two postseason games in his career, nevertheless continues to parlay his famous Super Bowl III performance into a lifetime of paid speaking gigs and a generation's good will. As a groundbreaking, society-shaping vaudeville act, he has few equals in the world of sport. He was the first major star to rake in major endorsement income, he opened several nightclubs ("Bachelors III" being the most famous), consorted with mobsters (precipitating his first major "retirement," when the NFL balked at his behavior), starred in movies, showed up at the Academy Awards with Raquel Welch on his arm, hosted his own talk show, smoked pot in public, railed constantly against "hypocrisy," and ended up on Richard Nixon's enemies list, for starters. Bizarrely, and wonderfully, he became universally beloved for his extravagant antics and style, eventually filming children's commercials for Ovaltine that proved wildly popular.
But the constant conflicts such an in-your-face celebrity lifestyle demanded--with the press, his teammates, and a parade of females--exacted a toll we can only begin to imagine. Or maybe the screw-up just rode a lucky streak for two decades before regressing back to the mean.