Rick Roberson Hawks

Anderson Varejao, Rick Roberson and a Cavaliers record in rebounding

Anderson Varejao willed the Cleveland Cavaliers to an overtime victory it never appeared they'd steal from the Orlando Magic on Thursday night.

He finished with a team-high 18 points to go along with 25 rebounds. The latter had not been accomplished by a member of Cleveland's professional basketball team for over 30 years.  

The last Cavalier to grab as many as 25 rebounds in one game, however, is markedly less celebrated than Varejao and nearly forgotten in Cavs lore.

Rick Roberson, who appeared in 125 games for the Cavs from 1971-73, first set the standard for rebounding excellence in Cleveland on March 4, 1972. During his time with the Cavaliers, the 6'9" center averaged 12.8 points and 12 rebounds while setting the single-game rebounding record against the Houston Rockets with 25.

He'd stand alone in the franchise record books for over three decades until he was joined last night by Varejao.

Over the last 32 years, a handful of Cavaliers came close to matching Roberson's elusive mark. Elmore Smith and Brad Daugherty would each collect 24 rebounds during a game while wearing a Cleveland  uniform. As Cleveland Jackson mentioned on December 6 when referencing Roberson's heroics, Tristan Thompson came within four rebounds earlier this season. 

The Nixon Administration, however, was the last time a Cavaliers big man grabbed as many as 25. Until now.

So Who Was Rick Roberson?

Rick Roberson was born on July 7, 1947 in Memphis, Tennessee. He was an undersized big man who played center for most of his NBA career. 

After starring at the University of Cincinnati, Roberson was drafted 15th overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1969 NBA Draft. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went first that year to Milwaukee for some perspective. Future Cavaliers Bingo Smith and Butch Beard went sixth and ninth to San Diego and Atlanta, respectively. 

Roberson would play two seasons for the Lakers from 1969-71. He'd then play two more for the Cavs from 1971-73 and one season each for the Portland Trail Blazers (73-74), New Orleans Jazz (74-75) and Kansas City Kings (75-76). The now 66-year-old Roberson had his best two seasons with the Cavs. He'd also go on to average 13.5 points and 10 rebounds for Portland the next year. Throughout his career, however, he played with a reckless passion defensively that unfortunately resulted in a series of injuries. Those injuries inevitably cut his overachieving career short.

The following Sports Illustrated article on Roberson was written the year after Cavs coach Bill Fitch traded him from Cleveland to Portland. It offers some perspective on the type of player Roberson was while also referencing the type of advanced scouting techniques that NBA coaches used back in the early 70's.  

1973 Sports Illustrated Article on Rick Roberson: You Might Say He Arrived In The Rick Of Time

Roberson's record with the Cavaliers shows some decided successes. Last year (1972-73) no center managed 30 points in any game against him and only three, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens and Neal Walk, scored more than 22. But the segment of his record that seemed to attract most of Cleveland Coach Bill Fitch's attention was the column under games played, which showed that in the past two seasons Roberson missed 39 with everything from congestion to contusions.

At the end of last season Fitch offered Roberson and Forward John Johnson, who has also made a significant contribution to the Blazers, for Portland's first draft choice, Jim Brewer of Minnesota. "Rick had only played against us once or twice last season, so I was not too familiar with him," says Blazer Coach Jack McCloskey, who came to Portland a year ago after 16 seasons coaching Penn and Wake Forest. "I keep a book that I write in after every game assessing the team we've just played. When the front office told me Rick was available, I looked back on what I had written. It said something-like, 'Very quick on defense. Strong rebounder. Shooter with limited range.' He sounded like just what we needed."

Both Fitch's and McCloskey's judgments have turned out to be correct. Roberson has already missed five entire games, plus all but three minutes of another, with a leg injury. In his absences, Portland's record is 2-4. With Roberson on full-time duty, the Blazers are 5-1, the only loss coming last week against the streaking Bulls, who made Portland their 11th straight victim. No center has scored more than 14 points against Roberson, and more important, his Cowens-like quickness and agility at stepping out from the middle and pop-switching on smaller, supposedly faster men have allowed the Blazers to employ an aggressive switching defense. In games started by Roberson,Portland has given up an average of 102 points, 10.3 fewer than last season.

"I'd be bulljiving myself if I thought I could stand in the middle and block a lot of shots the way the real big dudes do," says Roberson. "I've got to come out and play the small guys. You know, face-to-face. I got to get up on 'em and spread out so they can't drive by or pass around me to the big guy I've switched off. Being active like that means that I have to take some risks with my body. I don't think I'm injury prone. It's just the way I play that causes me to get hurt sometimes."

Beyond the "bulljiving" drop which is priceless, it's interesting how similar Roberson's playing style seemed to have been in many respects to that of Varejao. Like Roberson, Varejao plays bigger guys face-to-face as opposed to being a shot-blocker. He's also missed time with injuries throughout his career due to being active and taking some risks with his body in the name of winning basketball games.   

Now, these two hard-working bigs are tied atop the franchise record books. And after learning more about Roberson, that seems to make even more sense than I first realized.

The Night Roberson Grabbed 25 Rebounds

Roberson also scored 23 points the night he set the Cavs rebounding record in 1972. The only Cavalier to score more points that game was Austin Carr who went for a team-high 27. Bingo Smith scored 12 points for Cleveland while Walt Wesley scored 16 and Butch Beard 18. The Cavs beat the Rockets 130-123 in regulation.

Houston, meanwhile, was paced by Stu Lantz who scored 31. Calvin Murphy scored 27, Elvin Hayes 21 and Rudy Tomjanovich also netted 20. 

Varejao On The Night He Grabbed 25

"It feels good," Varejao said after the game on Thursday. "But the most important thing for us was the win. I still don’t know how we won this game. It was crazy, but I’ll take it.” 

I'll take it too. And congrats on the record Mr. Varejao, you're in good company. Think you might have liked playing with this Roberson guy.

Brendan Bowers

About Brendan Bowers

I am the founding editor of StepienRules.com. I am also a content strategist and social media manager with Electronic Merchant Systems in Cleveland. My work has been published in SLAM Magazine, KICKS Magazine, The Locker Room Magazine, Cleveland.com, BleacherReport.com, InsideFacebook.com and elsewhere. I've also written a lot of articles that have been published here.

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