On April 10, a mile from that 9-foot sculpture, the reluctant celebrity and the second of his three daughters were registered at Cincinnati's University Hospital as Oscar Panama and Tia Paradise. Tia, 33, is one of 1.4 million to 2 million Americans, 90 percent of them women, with lupus, a disease in which a person's antibodies attack connective tissue and vital organs—often, as with Tia, the kidneys. Despite her father's wish for privacy, word of the transplant leaked to the press. As Robertson left the hospital five days after the successful surgery, he found himself facing a media crush. At one point the 6'5" Big O, composure incarnate as a player, put his fingers to his mouth, then broke down. "I'm no hero," he said through tears. "I'm just a father."
Seven years ago, Tia Robertson was working—on Wall Street as a regulator for the National Association of Securities Dealers—when she noticed red spots on her fingertips. "Then it started developing into a butterfly rash on my face," she says. "I had a little problem with my joints too." A dermatologist diagnosed the condition as discoid lupus, a less severe form confined to the skin and treatable with corticosteroids. But increasingly, Tia says, "I felt kind of tired and worn down."
Oscar got Tia to return to Cincinnati—she later bought a three-story house just blocks from her parents—and offered her the post of director of corporate development for Orpack, a corrugated-box manufacturer that is one of three companies Robertson started after his playing career ended in 1974. Tia's condition gradually deteriorated. She tried playing softball but found herself stumbling. And "when she played tennis, her arms really hurt," says Yvonne, Tia's mother and Oscar's wife of 37 years. Adds Oscar, softly: "I looked at her suffering over the years. It hurts. It tears you apart."
In September 1994, the Robertsons consulted Dr. Shashi Kant, a kidney specialist who treats lupus patients at University Hospital; he determined that Tia's kidneys were failing. A biopsy confirmed that the cause was systemic lupus—the most severe form. (A third of the people with lupus have kidney involvement). Treated with steroids and immunosuppressive drugs, she remained relatively stable for two years. But last September her renal system was closing down, and in November she was placed on a kidney machine every night for seven to eight hours. "The dialysis wasn't fun at all," says Tia. Now she had a choice: Either endure the grueling treatments for the rest of her life—greatly restricting her freedom—or undergo a transplant. "I had to start and stop all night," she says. "I really didn't get a lot of sleep. I was ready to have a transplant."
Roughly three-quarters of all kidney recipients in the U.S.—some 12,000 last year—obtain their organs from cadavers. But the waiting list for such a kidney is presently 35,000 patients long, so it's far more expeditious, and less likely to end in the body's rejection of the kidney, if the donor is a living relative. Oscar volunteered at once to be tested for compatibility. But since siblings are typically the best donors, Tia's sisters Shana, 35, and Mari, 28, also stepped forward. "Anybody would have given their kidney if they had an ounce of compassion," says Mari, who is working toward her Ph.D. in economics at Northwestern University. Though Mari didn't match, Oscar and Shana both proved to be nearly ideal candidates. Still there was no doubt who the donor would be. "Tia is my daughter," Oscar says simply. Moreover, although donors generally lead normal lives with one kidney, he wasn't about to sit back and allow Shana to surrender a vital organ. "I am proud of him," says Shana, a vice president of Orchem, Oscar's chemical company, of her father's insistence that he be the donor.
Robertson's courage has never been questioned. Reared in Indianapolis, he was the first nationally recognized black athlete in University of Cincinnati history. "The players today don't know anything about racism," he says, recalling places like Tulsa and Raleigh, N.C., where he heard cries of "Nigger!"—and worse—from the stands. He stuck it out, leading the NCAA in scoring three straight years. A 12-time NBA all-star, he dished 9,887 lifetime assists, none of which could match the one he gave Tia on April 10. Father and daughter were wheeled into adjoining operating rooms, and Dr. James Whiting made a 15-inch incision to remove Oscar's unusually large, 7½-inch-long kidney. Afterward, Dr. John Valente, Tia's transplant surgeon, asked Oscar if the operation had hurt as much as a hip pointer, a common basketball injury. Robertson smiled broadly. "Not even close," he replied. Later, sharing a room with Tia, Oscar's emotions overtook him. "I was crying," he admits. "I was happy she would not have to go through this again."
Tia's lupus is now being controlled. Dr. Kant says there is a very small chance the disease will reappear in the donated kidney, though rejection of the organ "can happen at any time." So far, the transplant has taken nicely. "Oscar's kidney is so large, it is doing the work of two," notes Yvonne. The donor is feeling so good he's itching to return to a favorite pastime, golf. "He was a great dad to do this," says Tia. But as they sit amid the African art in Oscar's family room, Tia lets on that she is considering one more request of her doting father. "I want new golf clubs," she says, grinning. "They are pretty expensive—I need those titanium clubs to keep up with Dad."
GIOVANNA BREU in Cincinnati
- Giovanna Breu.
IT WAS JUST LIKE OSCAR ROBERTSON to be discreet about the profoundest act of his life: donating a kidney to his daughter Tia. In his 14-year Hall-of-Fame career as a guard for the Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks, Robertson, now 58, was arguably the finest all-around basketball player of his time. Yet he played with an understated elegance—style purely in the service of purpose. Characteristically, Robertson balked when, in 1994, a statue in his likeness was erected at the University of Cincinnati, where he'd been a collegiate star. "It was embarrassing," he says.