John Calipari says that when he was asked to introduce the keynote speaker at Thursday's ninth annual Lexington Bluegrass Area Minority Business Expo, he initially declined.
He had recruits to woo and a summer camp to operate.
Too bad, he was told, because Oscar Robertson was the speaker.
"I said, 'Who!?' So, obviously, I made myself available."
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Calipari, the University of Kentucky basketball coach, told the story as he did indeed introduce the Hall of Famer in the Lexington Center's Bluegrass Ballroom. The coach then excused himself, noting that he had a plane to catch because "I've got to go try to get a couple players so we can keep winning."
Robertson, 72, is among basketball's all-time greats.
At the University of Cincinnati, he led the NCAA in scoring all three seasons (1958-60). (Freshmen were then ineligible for varsity ball.)
As a pro, he "changed the game," Calipari said. "The head fakes you see now, the jumping in the air to make a pass on a drive, that started with this man right here."
Over a 14-year NBA career, Robertson averaged 25.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 9.5 assists. His second year in the league (1961-62), he averaged a triple-double — 30.8 points, 12.4 rebounds and 11.4 assists.
An NBA champion, rookie of the year and MVP, and a nine-time first-team all-NBA selection, Robertson led the league in assists six seasons.
Now an entrepreneur, broadcaster and author living in Cincinnati, Robertson is president of OR Solutions and Orchem Inc., and general partner in Oscar Robertson Media Ventures.
Business, he said, is like basketball: "If it was easy, everybody would do it."
He told Expo attendees of 12 lessons he learned in basketball that carry into the business world, one of which was "get up when you're knocked down."
He said Muhammad Ali once told him, "Oscar, when you get hit hard, that's when you learn to fight."
During a later news conference, Robertson summed up the lessons by saying that one needs strength and persistence, and to have passion for the task at hand.
As for Calipari's description of him as "one of the greatest to ever play this game that we all love," Robertson declined when asked to name the greatest player ever.
"There were a lot of great players. There's not one ballplayer," he said. "It's impossible to say. They say Michael Jordan was great. I think Elgin Baylor was great. Bill Russell. Jerry West. Bob Pettit. So there are a myriad of basketball players who were great in their own right.
"Television has done a lot, especially for Michael Jordan and a lot of players that are playing today, and you think they're the cream of the crop. People didn't see a lot of other players play. It's unfortunate."
Robertson discussed a variety of other basketball topics.
■ On the NBA lockout — "The NBA is in a quagmire and I think it's there because there are some teams obviously losing money. The NBA cannot control what owners pay players. Some are way beyond the salary cap, some are below. ... You shouldn't pay out more than you take in, but some people are wealthy individuals (and) they don't mind doing that. Some teams can't afford to do that, and this is the big problem."
■ On how the game has evolved — "Overall, I'd like to think the players have gotten a lot better, but then you see them play and you say they haven't gotten better. I don't think they've gotten any smarter. I think the game is something that has caught on world-wide, which is great. ... There's a lot going on in basketball. It's a great game. But it has a few problems. They have to straighten those out. The fundamentals are always going to be there."
■ On Olympic basketball now versus the gold-medal team he played on in 1960 — "They're all pros. There are no amateurs anywhere playing ball. That's what I don't understand. The AAU talks about non-pros being in the Olympics and, then, to have this happen. Isn't that hypocritical? ... I'd rather have it the way it's set up to be, where amateurs play the game."
■ On the growing trend of one-and-done players in the college game — "If you get your money guaranteed, you should take it. But a lot of these guys are not going to be great pros. ... It should be called the Diaper League. Kids are too young. They don't understand. They don't know how to play yet. Maybe in time they will be able to play. And they get with bad teams, and you don't progress that fast when you're with a bad team. Years ago when Kobe (Bryant) went to the Lakers and Magic (Johnson) went to the Lakers, they got with good teams. It makes a big difference."