NBA legend raising awareness after cancer fight

Posted Feb. 15, 2012, at 9:13 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 15, 2012, at 10:54 p.m.
This Feb. 18, 2010 file photo shows Oscar Robertson before an NBA game between the Cavaliers and Nuggets in Cleveland.
Tony Dejak | AP
This Feb. 18, 2010 file photo shows Oscar Robertson before an NBA game between the Cavaliers and Nuggets in Cleveland.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Oscar Robertson is stepping back into the spotlight.

After living quietly in Ohio, the NBA Hall of Famer wants to raise awareness about prostate cancer.

Robertson was diagnosed with the disease about a year ago and had his prostate removed. He is serving as honorary chairman at the International Prostate Cancer Foundation’s gala in Orlando next month.

The 73-year-old said his diagnosis followed a routine PSA screening.

“I had some numbers that went up a little bit and that was the indicator something was wrong,” he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

Most men over 50 get PSA blood tests, but they’re hugely problematic. Too much PSA, or prostate-specific antigen, only sometimes signals prostate cancer is brewing. Moreover, most prostate tumors detected after screening will prove too slow-growing to be deadly. But it’s hard to tell in advance who will need treatment and who can safely skip it.

Treatments include surgery or radiation; some men opt for close monitoring and treatment only if the cancer grows.

While the initial news was surprising to Robertson, 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.

But with no history of prostate cancer in his family, Robertson went into scouting-mode against his new opponent before making his decision.

“I talked to lot of doctors about it and decided I’d rather have mine taken out,” he said.

Robertson wanted a minimally invasive procedure and doctors in Ohio eventually steered him to Dr. Vipul Patel, a urologist in Orlando.

Having grown up in Los Angeles and been a fan of the hometown Lakers, Patel instantly made the name connection.

“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.”

Patel did the surgery and Robertson was able to go home the next day. Now, almost a year later, Patel said Robertson is cancer-free and has an excellent prognosis.

During his more than 60-year association with basketball, Robertson earned both championships and pioneer status. He was the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season (1961-62). He was a founder of the National Basketball Retired Players Association.

Now, Robertson has shifted his attention to helping others through his own experience. 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.

“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,” he said.

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 it. I want to raise awareness in all communities,” Robertson said.

He’s working with Patel’s newly-formed International Prostate Cancer Foundation. Patel said Robertson is having an effect.

“We can see people calling and being screened. He’s having an impact already,” Patel said.

Robertson said he isn’t taking his current health for granted, having known people who have died from prostate cancer.

“I guess I was one of the lucky ones,” he said.

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