ATLANTA -- Long before he established himself as one of the greatest players in basketball history, Oscar Robertson was among the many African-American children of his generation who had a genuine appreciation for Jackie Robinson and the black ballplayers who helped paved the way for equality both in sports and
ATLANTA -- Long before he established himself as one of the greatest players in basketball history, Oscar Robertson was among the many African-American children of his generation who had a genuine appreciation for Jackie Robinson and the black ballplayers who helped paved the way for equality both in sports and many other walks of life.
"When you're in the ghetto, you play all sports, but baseball was the dominant sport," said Robertson, who grew up in Indianapolis during the 1940s and '50s. "Everybody played baseball, but in my high school there wasn't a baseball field. So my older brother gravitated toward basketball and I followed."
Though his focus was placed on basketball, Robertson continued to show interest in what Robinson, Hank Aaron and other African-Americans were doing in baseball once Major League Baseball's color barrier was broken in 1947. He eventually developed a friendship with Aaron, the legendary figure with whom he was reunited on Friday, when the Braves kicked off Heritage Weekend.
One of the highlights of this event came with the presentation of the 2016 Hank Aaron Champion for Justice Awards. This year's recipients included Robertson, Braves vice chairman John Schuerholz, co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association Dolores Huerta and National Urban League president Marc Morial.
"Every game I remember [Robertson] playing, he dominated no matter who he was playing against," Schuerholz said. "He did it consistently and with great professionalism. He was a very, very talented man and he set himself up to be one of the greatest players ever from the NBA."
Along with possessing tremendous athletic talents, Robertson possessed leadership skills that enabled him to long serve as the president of the NBA's Player's Association. Within this role, he filed an antitrust suit that eventually opened the door to free agency and ultimately the highly lucrative contracts basketball players have gained over the decades that have followed.
As Robertson progressed through his journeys, he never lost sight of the fact that the opportunities he was given to shape the future were provided by the sacrifices that had been made by Robinson, Aaron and the other African-American athletes who had come before him.
"When Jackie came along, it was a tremendous time for him to take what he did in order for guys to play today," Robertson said. "That is something a lot of the players don't know and still don't to this day. He sacrificed his life. He died prematurely. There was too much pressure on the guy. But he paved the way for everybody, not only in baseball, but in all sports."
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.