When the Big O First Played the Garden: 56 in ’58
By OSCAR ROBERTSON
At halftime of the University of Cincinnati’s Big East Conference tournament first-round game on Wednesday, the Bearcats and Madison Square Garden will commemorate the 50th anniversary of my first game at the old Garden at Eighth Avenue and 48th Street.
That evening, Jan. 9, 1958, I scored 56 points against Seton Hall to set a Garden scoring record, college and pro. The Cincinnati basketball program and I enjoyed an immediate spike in awareness from the national news media. I have had a warm spot in my heart for New York ever since, and New Yorkers continue to reciprocate.
In 1958, I was just another unsophisticated 19-year-old college sophomore from the provinces, looking forward to his first visit to the big city. I had not imagined it would be in a Cincinnati uniform.
After two state titles, including an undefeated senior season at Crispus Attucks in Indianapolis, I was Indiana’s Mr. Basketball and the 1956 national high school player of the year. I had always hoped to play for Indiana University, but Coach Branch McCracken’s racial attitudes intervened.
Cincinnati had pursued me more ardently than any other college, and even with a few early bumps, it turned out to be a good move for me.
I knew that Madison Square Garden was special and that every college player wanted to play there. In the world of sports, the Garden was the equivalent of Broadway in theater or Carnegie Hall in music. It was home to championship boxing as well as the Rangers and the Knicks, who often anchored N.B.A. doubleheaders. It also presented college basketball doubleheaders and, at the end of the season, the National Invitation Tournament, then considered on a par with, if not more prestigious than, the N.C.A.A. tournament.
But in 1958, neither college nor professional sports enjoyed the news media exposure they do today. Visiting athletes were known primarily by reputation. When I was in college, few people had actually seen Elgin Baylor, Jerry West or Wilt Chamberlain. Fans knew there was a 7-foot giant at the University of Kansas, but they did not know what he looked like or how he played.
In New York, seven newspapers, three wire services and the national broadcast media saw everyone. So a good performance there, before the world’s most critical audience, could immediately establish your credibility and increase your national profile.
Coming from basketball-crazy Indiana, I was accustomed to playing in pressure situations before large, screaming, generally hostile crowds. (Crispus Attucks’s gym was too small, so we played all our games on the road.)
But I was totally unprepared for the passion and the knowledge of the game that New Yorkers brought to games at the Garden. Or for their lung power relative to the size of the crowd. Although black players in major college basketball were still a rarity then, I also found a welcome absence of the racial invective that came with the territory when you played in Indiana in the mid-’50s.
Was I nervous? Not really, except during a high-speed, bone-jarring cab ride from the airport to our hotel. Frankly I was more in awe of the size and energy of the city. Once on the court, I knew I would be primed for the game to begin. Ours was the second game of a doubleheader; in the opener, our crosstown rival Xavier, which went on to win the N.I.T. later that year, defeated Iona.
When we took the court that night, we had an 8-2 record. A guard in high school, I was playing forward and averaging about 30 points and 16 rebounds a game. An injury had sidelined our 6-10 senior pivotman, Connie Dierking, so we were still adjusting at both ends of the court. We were a fast-breaking, high-scoring team, and given the opportunity, my teammates could put the ball in the basket as well.
Our game tipped off in front of what seemed like a mostly empty building. (I think the crowd was about 4,500.) I missed my first jumper, but on the next possession, I backed my defender down, then spun off him for a scooping layup. From that point, I was pretty much in a zone, hitting jump shot after jump shot, or posting up, or finishing fast breaks. The ball kept going in the basket for me, and our whole team was fast-breaking and scoring at will. I was taken out with two minutes left, and the final score was Cincinnati 118, Seton Hall 54.
I did not know how many points I had until I was cornered in the dressing room by the largest horde of reporters I had ever seen, all of whom wanted to ask about my record night. I had hit 22 of 32 field-goal attempts and 12 of 12 free throws.
I’m afraid I wasn’t a very exciting interview, giving mostly monosyllabic replies and identifying my first state high school championship as my biggest thrill to date. One writer stayed until after all the others had left, and introduced himself as Milton Gross of The New York Post.
“You know, if you’re a star, you have to learn how to talk to the media,” he said.
“But I don’t know them,” I replied.
He said he would be willing to give advice on dealing with the press — an offer I was happy to accept — and he became a trusted friend and confidant for the rest of my college and professional careers.
When I finally dressed and left the Garden, it was late; the streets were empty and glowing. A light snow was in the air. I was with my roommate, Chuck Machock. The team had long gone, so we walked back to the Paramount Hotel, talking about the game we had just played and everything that had happened afterward. I was not sure why, but I had a sense that my life would never again be the same after that night.
Oscar Robertson, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and a 12-time N.B.A. All-Star, is the author of “The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game” and the publisher of the Web site thebigo.com.