Wednesday, April 16, 1997
Big O shows he is
both hero, father


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Oscar Robertson had hoped to do this quietly. He wanted to give his daughter a kidney without giving away her privacy. He knows now that this was naive.

When Robertson checked into University Hospital last week, it was under the alias of Oscar Panama. His daughter, Tia, registered as Tia Paradise.

But their secret could not survive his celebrity. Twenty-three years since he last bounced a basketball professionally, Oscar Robertson is still a big deal in this town.

Once word of his operation got out, it got very loud very fast.

''The assumption Oscar had was that his donation of an organ was not a newsworthy event,'' said Robert Brown, friend and attorney of the Robertson family. ''The family had hoped to keep it private. But once it became a topic of public interest, they realized there was an opportunity to promote organ donations.''

Oscar Robertson was known as The Big O, but the initial never indicated Ostentation. Great as he was on the basketball court, his game featured a relative economy of movement and a subtlety of style.

He was an athlete of a more understated age, and he has not changed to correspond to coarser times.

His style always understated

He volunteered to be his daughter's donor because this is what he thinks a dad is supposed to do. Asked Tuesday if he felt like a hero, the erstwhile icon arranged his features into an expression that said the question was absurd.

''No, I'm not a hero,'' Oscar Robertson said Tuesday. ''I'm just a father.''

Happy the man who can come to the aid of his ailing child, even at the point of a scalpel. Oscar Robertson acknowledged some tightness and some pressure five days after his operation, but said his pain ''is not that excruciating.''

Certainly, it is insignificant compared to the anguish of parents who see their children suffering and can do nothing to stop it.

''I'd do it again,'' Robertson said, and suddenly his voice broke and the tears flowed. It was a rare display of emotion from a reserved man, and exactly what you would expect from a parent who had helped deliver his daughter from a debilitating illness, in this case systemic lupus erythematosus.

Mrs. O: Don't overdramatize this

''I don't think we want to overdramatize it,'' Yvonne Robertson said, as her husband regained his composure. ''It was a magnificent thing to do, but I think every loving parent would do it. They do little things like this that are not made this big every day. This was just a dramatic event to show love for a child ...

''We wanted this to be a private event when this started out. Now that we have to share it with everyone, we do hope that people will become very aware of organ donor gifts and that they will be very concerned about the problems with lupus and kidney transplantation and all of those kind of things. We hope that there's an awareness that comes from this.''

Probably, the impact will be profound. Mickey Mantle's 1995 liver transplant - necessitated by his dissolute lifestyle - brought the national need for donors into sharp focus. Though Mantle died shortly after his surgery, his story contributed to a record 5,357 cadaver organ donors that year.

Hopes donor programs benefit

''Gallup polls show that over 90 percent (of Americans) favor organ donations,'' said David Lewis, executive director of Ohio Valley LifeCenter. ''What's important is that people talk about it. When stories come up like Mickey Mantle, it makes people talk to one another and share what their feelings would be.''

Now that his cover has been blown, Oscar Robertson is inclined to share his feelings on behalf of others. Lewis said his office has already seen a surge in phone calls since Robertson's surgery.

''How naive I was,'' Robertson said. ''I thought it would go unnoticed. But I hope now that we can take this further than today, that people become aware of what lupus is all about, what the donor program is all about.

''If I'm able to be a spokesman for something that would be beneficial, I would be glad to.''

Oscar Robertson need not be a hero to be a help. He just happens to be both.

SULLIVAN ARCHIVE