The Big O and the Merry Prankster

Oscar Robertson is an NBA champion, MVP, and twelve-time All-Star, and he was the first NBA player to average a triple-double over the course of a season. In college, he averaged 33.8 points per game for the Cincinnati Bearcats, and he left school as the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history.

The 1957-58 season was Robertson’s sophomore year at Cincinnati and the first in which he saw playing time for the Bearcats. Robertson immediately made his presence felt, to the tune of 35.1 points and 15.2 rebounds in 38.8 minutes per game, helping Cincinnati to a 25-3 record and a Missouri Valley Conference championship.

Meanwhile, up the road in Oxford, Miami University was on a run of its own. Behind future NBA player Wayne Embry, the RedHawks finished a respectable 18-9, but notably went 12-0 in MAC play, the last team to accomplish that feat and only the second-ever team to complete an undefeated conference schedule (the 1949-50 Cincinnati team was 10-0 in the MAC before leaving the conference). One of Miami’s reserves was Ken Babbs. Listed at 6’3″, the Mentor, Ohio native contributed eleven points and four rebounds in the ten games in which he appeared for the RedHawks that season.

On January 30, 1958, the RedHawks traveled to Cincinnati for a matchup with Robertson’s heavily favored Bearcats. A box score is not readily available, but Babbs recounted his memories of the game in a live interview streamed last night. According to him, Miami coach Richard Shrider, who was in his first season with the RedHawks, thought his team had no chance against Cincinnati and told his players as much, which rubbed the competitor in Babbs the wrong way. Miami planned a box-and-one defense against the Bearcats, with Babbs drawing the assignment of the “one” to mark Robertson. Determined to put up a fight, he said he planned to guard Roberston aggressively, “like stink on shit.” Then laughing, Babbs confessed: “I fouled out in two minutes.” Cincinnati won by twenty.

Both teams reached the NCAA tournament that spring. With their first-round win over Pitt, Miami became the first MAC team to win a tournament game. The Bearcats did not win any tournament games that year, but they made deep runs in Robertson’s two remaining seasons there, finishing third overall both times.

Robertson, of course, went on to professional basketball fame. Babbs, meanwhile, found fame of a different sort. That fall, after graduating from Miami, he pursued graduate studies in creative writing at Stanford. There, he befriended fellow student Ken Kesey, with whom Babbs and others soon would form the Merry Pranksters, whose culturally influential escapades with sound, film, and LSD were in part memorialized in Tom Wolfe’s memorable book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and would help propel the career of the Grateful Dead.

You can watch Babbs discuss his 1958 on-court encounter with Robertson and a later, off-court reunion here. A film of a Grateful Dead benefit concert supporting a Kesey-family creamery the Pranksters helped produce is available for a limited time below.

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