NBA Hall-Of-Famer Beats Prostate Cancer

Oscar Robertson is considered one of the NBA's greatest all-time players. He was diagnosed with stage three prostate cancer a little more than a year ago. He's now cancer-free and wants to raise awareness about screenings. He speaks with host Michel Martin about why many men may be afraid of getting tested.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, NASCAR fans and drivers are gearing up for this weekend's Daytona 500 in Florida and among the fans are young people who hope to be zipping around the track themselves one day and it might surprise you to know that a lot of those kids started racing when most kids are learning to ride their bikes.

"Racing Dreams" is a new documentary that tells that story. It premiers tonight and we will meet one of the young drivers profiled in the film. Her - that's right - her name is Annabeth Barnes and she will be with us shortly.

But, first, it's time for a Wisdom Watch conversation. That's where we hear from individuals who've made a difference through a lifetime of achievement in their work and in their lives.

Today, we hear from a basketball legend. Oscar Robertson played 14 seasons in the NBA and is regarded as one of the greatest NBA players of all time. Here's a clip of one of his many electrifying plays on the court.

(SOUNDBITE OF NBA BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Willis(ph) another rebound out of the pack, past Godie Smith(ph). Robertson steals cleanly from him, bounce it to Van Lier, who streaks in, makes the layout. Robertson snatched it out of Smith's hand as he went by. That was a real steal.

MARTIN: Robertson was inducted into the Hall of Fame back in 1980 and has gone on to a successful life off the court, but now he's speaking out about facing down one of his toughest challenges since he left the NBA.

A little more than a year ago, Oscar Robinson was diagnosed with stage three prostate cancer. Today, he is cancer-free and promoting cancer awareness and encouraging men to get tested. In fact, he'll be doing that this weekend at the NBA All-Star game, which is being held in Orlando this year and that's where we caught up with him.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

OSCAR ROBERTSON: Well, thank you for having me on your show.

MARTIN: I just wanted to say I think - I'm sure I speak for a lot of people when I say that we're so glad that you're doing well now. And how do you feel?

ROBERTSON: I feel much better now that I had my prostate taken out. It was about maybe nine months ago, a little situation that I hadn't anticipated, of course, but it came up all of a sudden and I'm glad I had the able doctors here to remove it for me.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask, though, going back to your urging people and trying to raise awareness about this, what made you go in and checked out?

ROBERTSON: It came up during a routine physical that I take every year and they discovered that I had some cancer on the left-hand side of my prostate. And, after talking to several doctors, several people who had this situation and several people, family members and whatnot, we decided through my wife's doctor to get in touch with Dr. Patel in Celebration, Florida.

MARTIN: Do you mind sharing what went through your mind when you were first, you know, diagnosed? I mean, I can imagine where, you know, you might have a little bit of, why me? You know, I just wondered if you could - if you don't mind sharing just some of those feelings.

ROBERTSON: No. I didn't say that, really. I didn't say, why me? I just felt that, you know, prostate cancer? Didn't feel anything. It didn't hurt. Walked around, usually, like I do every day, but I just realized that this can happen to different people and I didn't think of the - you know, God, why do I have cancer now? I just felt that I wanted to go right away and see if I could get it taken care of.

But I was told by the doctor, when this happened that, if it stays the way it is - the way it was, I should say - that I could live on for a few more years, but when he told me that, I said, a few more years? What do you mean by that? You know, he says, one, two, three or four or five? No. He said - so he said that something else might kill me before this would, but I wasn't quite sure that I believed what he said.

MARTIN: And you decided you wanted to be aggressive about dealing with it?

ROBERTSON: Yes, of course. I talked to several of my friends who had gotten seeds radiation, etc., etc. to try to combat this and I Google up a lot of things on the internet and found out that, you know, the best way to get around this is to have it completely taken out because with the seeds and other remedies, it may come back.

MARTIN: According to the American Cancer Society, African-American men have the highest documented prostate cancer rates in the world and they are twice as likely to die of it than white men. I wonder if you have any sense of why do you think that is.

ROBERTSON: Because they don't go to the doctors. If they went to the doctor's, got this taken care of, you know, maybe this is in their family history, also. That could be a possibility.

MARTIN: Do you - I'm just wondering if you think this is a matter of access or do you think it's a matter of not trusting the medical establishment to take good care of you? I mean, there are those who feel that men, in general, are a little bit more suspicious and that African-American men, for all kinds of historical reasons, are just a little bit more skeptical. I wonder if you think that might be part of it.

ROBERTSON: I guess that, with all historical problems that African-American men have with diabetes and being overweight and high blood pressure, etc., etc., they just felt that, you know, this was - the last thing they need to do is have someone to give them an exam in certain areas of their bodies that they don't feel right in their own mind about. And it's a lack of education, lack of not knowing, lack people not talking to them about it, all this and the above things, and I'm sure this is the reason, you know. But, and once people are educated and know all about it and are knowledgeable about the situation they can prolong their life if this is one thing that can cause them harm.

MARTIN: Well, why did you decide that you wanted to talk about this publicly? I can imagine, of course, you are a celebrity and people are interested in what you have to say, but this is kind of personal and I'm interested in why you decided that you would be willing to talk about this?

ROBERTSON: Well, one reason was my wife, who...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTSON: ...needled me to death about getting it done, and for my friends that almost everyone that I talked to who I considered a friend of mine either knew someone that had this done or had it done to themselves. And I just said well, why you never said anything about it, said well, you never asked me. And I resisted this for a long time. But I just felt sometimes in life that you're here not only just to sleep and get up in the morning, not only just to go out and play basketball for most of your life, there are other things involved in your life that you should be involved in. And maybe it's fate, maybe, who knows what it might be. But sometimes something says hey listen, let someone know what's going on. Maybe you could help him, because one out of six men are going to have this problem. Maybe I can help the one out of six stay alive if he gets it.

MARTIN: So what's your message here? Is it go get an annual physical? What specific message do you want to leave men with?

ROBERTSON: The message I want to leave men with is become aware of not only with the prostate, but any, everything about your body. You know, don't be afraid to go to the doctor. You know, you should have all the doctor's telephone numbers in your phone or book as it is to know if something happens don't say oh, well, it'll go away or don't, oh, get me a little drink of alcohol, that'll take care of it, but that's not going to happen.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with NBA legend Oscar Robertson. He is one of the greatest NBA players of all time. But he was diagnosed with prostate cancer more than a year ago, and he's now talking about it, hoping to raise awareness about the disease and the need for men to get screened.

Before we let you go, you know we have to talk a little basketball before we let you go.

ROBERTSON: Just a, just a little?

MARTIN: Just a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Halfway through the season ended way through the season, just wondering what teams have impressed you so far?

ROBERTSON: The same ones that impressed me last year: Miami, Chicago. The Clippers with the trade, the Chris Paul trade; they're near the top, not at the top. But I'm disappointed with the Lakers. They have really taking a step backwards in their progress in trying to recapture another championship. And San Antonio has come to life. And just the teams that really have the stars who played well yesteryear, yesterday and yesteryear are the same ones that are playing very well today.

MARTIN: Any comment on Jeremy Lin, who seems to be, you know, burning up the headlines and so much talk about, you know, how he's doing and how people are talking about how he's doing. I was just wondering if he's caught your eye at all, what you think of him in his play?

ROBERTSON: Well, he really hasn't caught my eye. But everything is bigger in New York City. You know as well as I do that, you know, if it's in New York it's got to be everywhere.

I think right now you Jeremy Lin has done some good things in basketball. But I think now he's going to get everyone's attention and the little things he got away with yesterday he won't be able to get away with them tomorrow. And if he's a great ballplayer, he'll get away with those things. If he's a good ballplayer, he might not. So it remains to be seen.

New York needed something because they were going nowhere, to be honest. They have a lot of high-powered, high paid basketball players who are not getting the job done.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Duly noted.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Before I let you go...

ROBERTSON: No. I mean it's...

MARTIN: I know. Right? Just telling it like it is. That's right.

ROBERTSON: I mean I just - I read it in The New York Times.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, we called this our Wisdom Watch conversation, where we like to ask our guests to share some wisdom, and I just wonder if I could ask you to share some wisdom. It could be to maybe a younger you. It could be, you know, one of your peers, any friends, or ever you wish to speak to. Do you have some wisdom for us?

ROBERTSON: No, I just wish people could understand the ways of the world and how we live and how we could be a better person to our families and also through our religion as well. And understand that we are only here for a little while and we're not going to be here forever, so just make the best of it.

MARTIN: Oscar Robertson, The Big O, and as he was known during his playing days, as a former NBA player. He's a member of the NBA Hall of Fame. And he's been talking about his battle with prostate cancer and urging men to get checked. And he joined us member station WMFE in Orlando, Florida.

Mr. Robertson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ROBERTSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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