It was a humble TV listing, informing readers that the Knicks would be playing the Washington Bullets on MSG that night. The short item noted that “The Knicks tried double-teaming Jeff Ruland in the second of those games, but the tactic didn’t work: He responded with a triple double-digit effort — 22 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.”
It was Dec. 29, 1984. And for the very first time, The New York Times had cited the triple-double.
On Monday night, Russell Westbrook completed an unprecedented 10th consecutive triple-double, with 21 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists as the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Portland Trail Blazers. Westbrook broke the record of nine, set by Wilt Chamberlain in 1968.
But while triple-doubles are no longer uncommon — Westbrook’s teammate Paul George turned in an even more immpressive line (47 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists) on Monday — the term is relatively new. Like Chamberlain, some of the greatest practitioners made every one of their triple-doubles when triple-doubles were not even a thing.
The Times quickly embraced the triple-double. Two days after its debut, the label made it into an ordinary sports article, this time without the clunky words “digit” or “effort.” Precedent had been set.
In those early days, some of the references to triple-double in The Times were in quotes, as if editors were afraid that the new term would pollute the newspaper’s august pages. Eventually the arbiters of style settled on no quotes, and a hyphen in between the two words.
The first triple-double in Basketball-Reference’s database is from 1950, when Andy Phillip of the Philadelphia Warriors tallied 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, although there were almost certainly others before that when stat keeping was less precise and complete.
Harvey Pollack, the longtime 76ers stats guru, is generally credited with inventing the term in the early 1980s, inspired by Magic Johnson, who made a habit of triple-doubling. (Ruland, though he was the Times’s triple-double pioneer, claimed only five in his career.)
There are also double-doubles — the career record is held by Chamberlain — and quadruple doubles, for those who can also manage 10 blocks or steals. That has only happened a handful of times in the N.B.A., and not since David Robinson in 1994.
There are even quintuple doubles, a stupefying exploit — 25 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists, 10 steals and 10 blocks — performed by the women’s star Tamika Catchings when she was in high school in 1997.
Westbrook has taken the triple-double to new heights, though, actually averaging a triple-double for the last two seasons. He is on pace to do so again this season. And unlike his early predecessors, he is keenly aware of the stat, often looking to add that one more assist or rebound that he needs late in a game.
Westbrook now has 127 total triple-doubles, closing in on Johnson, the inspiration for the term, who has 138.
But above all of them is Oscar Robertson, the only other man to average a triple-double; he had 181 in his Hall of Fame career.
His last one came in 1974, when the feat was still unnamed, at least in The Times.