NBA legend raising awareness after cancer fight
Saturday , February 18, 2012 - 3:04 PM
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Oscar Robertson is stepping back into the spotlight.
After living quietly in Ohio, the NBA Hall of Famer is bringing awareness to an issue affecting people who might have never heard his name: Prostate cancer.
Robertson was stricken with the disease about a year ago and had his prostate removed in successful robotic procedure. Cancer-free, he is serving as honorary chairman at the International Prostate Cancer Foundation's gala in Orlando next month.
"I usually take test for it every year, but I didn't for whatever reason about a year ago. I was just a routine test that you take all the time and they discovered cancer cells," Robertson, 73, said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "I just wanted to know how I got it because had it checked every two years.
"But I had some numbers that went up a little bit and that was the indicator something was wrong."
While the initial news after a blood test last spring was surprising for the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season (1961-62), it wasn't the first serious medical issue he's faced since his playing days.
In 1997 Robertson donated a kidney to his then-33-year-old daughter Tia, who was suffering from lupus. That was a no-brainer for the father of two.
But with no previous history of prostate cancer in his family, he had to revert back to lessons he learned during his playing days and went into scouting-mode against his new opponent.
"I got on the Internet and found out about cures like radiation and some kind of process called protons," Robertson recalled. "I talked to lot of doctors about it and decided I'd rather have mine taken out."
Robertson sought a non-invasive procedure and doctors in Ohio eventually steered him to Dr. Vipul Patel, a renowned urologist in Orlando. The most experienced surgeon worldwide over all surgical specialties, Patel had performed more than 3,500 robotic prostate surgeries.
Having grown up in Los Angeles and been a fan of the hometown Lakers, Patel instantly made the name connection. After a brief consultation Robertson was sold and flew to Florida.
"Obviously, the Big O, everybody knows him," Patel said. "I actually met him in person the day before surgery. He'd already decided what he wanted to do."
The procedure was performed and he was able to go home the next day. Now approaching a year following the surgery, Patel said Robertson is cancer-free and has an excellent prognosis going forward.
During his more than 60-year association with basketball, Robertson earned both championships and pioneer status. Now, much like he did in helping out a future generation of NBA players in achieving a more favorable work environment, Robertson has shifted his attention to helping others through his own experience.
"I've learned that it is something that will get all men before you leave this earth," Robertson said. "If it's a situation where you have to get it taken out, take it out. If not, go on with your life.
"There have been situations for people I know that didn't survive. I guess I was one of the lucky ones."
He's working with Patel's newly-formed International Prostate Cancer Foundation.
A founder of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, Robertson also has already reached out to associates across the NBA, including current NBA players' union executive director Billy Hunter, to enlist their help in future awareness initiatives.
According to the National Cancer Institute, African-American men have the highest incidence rate for prostate cancer in the United States and are twice as likely to die from it as white males.
"No doubt about. I want to raise awareness in all communities," Robertson said. "Naturally I want to reach out to the African-American community because it's not as educated about this or may not be as proactive in utilizing some of these new medical advances.
"Years ago, born in small-town Tennessee, I seldom went to doctors. I didn't know about early detection, or about heart attack prevention or anything. Nobody knew about prostate cancer unless it killed them. If you got high blood pressure it was just something you lived with...If getting my prostate taken out and talking about my experience can help anybody, I'd like to do so."
He said he hopes his story strikes right historical apprehensions.
"Sometimes you feel like it's a situation you're not quite comfortable with," Robertson said. "But being comfortable with something that can take you out -- there's no decision to make. You should have it done. If I can get some basketball players to get involved, I think it's for the best."
Patel said the effect of Robertson's revelation is noticeable.
"We can see people calling and being screened. He's having an impact already," he said. "I spoke to him and told him every time he speaks on this issue he's gonna save a life and people are going to get screened."
It's just second nature for a man who has found greatness in virtually everything he's encountered.
"I feel like a man does what he has to do," Robertson said. "I like to help someone not because I have entitlement. I just feel if people get early detection can live a little bit longer. That's all I want for myself or anybody."
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://twitter.com/khightower.
Sign up for e-mail news updates.