Robertson indeed paved the way for players like Westbrook to ply their trade. He also fought a costly war that ensured they were paid fairly for their services.
The triple-doubles were grand. That 1961-62 season was spectacular. Yet if there were any justice in this world, Robertson would be known far and wide as the man who introduced free agency — and players’ rights — into the NBA. And Westbrook’s historic 2016-17 season should make us all take a moment to reflect on Robertson’s true legacy.
As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, the National Basketball Association had a problem. More accurately, the NBA had a rival in the American Basketball Association.
The ABA threatened the NBA’s tight grip on player movement. NBA teams owned players’ rights without question at the time. The only ways for a player to switch teams were in trade or if his former squad no longer wanted him. On top of that, owners controlled players’ wages.
Forget collective bargaining; there was hardly individual bargaining in 1970 — except for the ABA.
The existence of a second professional basketball league gave players a choice. And that scared the NBA, which initiated a merger with the ABA ahead of the 1970-71 season.
In the wake of Flood v. Kuhn, a Supreme Court case in which St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood challenged MLB’s similar reserve clause, Robertson stood up to both associations. He filed a lawsuit against the NBA as the president of the players union, which “contended the draft, option clause and other rules restricting player movement were violations of antitrust laws.”
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That suit dragged on for six years, until a settlement in 1976 introduced what we know today as restricted free agency. Players could negotiate contracts with other teams, but their original team still had the right to match any offer.
It was a small victory that cracked open the door for further legal fights down the road, eventually leading to players like Westbrook signing nine-figure deals that can exceed $200 million under the new CBA.
For that, today’s players can thank the Big O. No, scratch that — they absolutely should thank Robertson. He sacrificed his career for the greater good, after all, never working in the NBA in any capacity after the suit. The Hall of Famer believes he was blackballed for his battle; as he told the Indy Star last year, “There’s no doubt about it.”
On Wednesday night, with history set to repeat itself, Robertson was brought back into the family. Westbrook and the Thunder made sure he was greeted warmly.
One can only hope they and the rest of the NBA genuinely appreciate what the Big O means to them and their sport.