Jeremiah Robinson-Earl uses an iPhone to access the 22-year-old footage — a high school slam-dunk contest promoting a teenager from Baton Rouge, known as one of the most violent dunkers in America, and a slender kid from Philadelphia who went by Kobe.
The future NBA Hall of Famer was the projected winner, but after windmills, 360s and a leap over a rack of basketballs, the judges didn’t pick Kobe Bryant. They preferred Lester Earl, the high school senior from Baton Rouge.
Robinson-Earl has watched this highlight reel dozens of times, initially at the request of his father, a former Kansas Jayhawks forward. He's in awe of what he sees.
“He thinks I can still do that now because I look like I can play or I look like I can run and jump — but that’s not the case,” Earl says. “I just tell him that one day he’ll have some wings and then he can fly like that.”
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That day might be near.
Robinson-Earl, a 6-9 Bishop Miege junior, is the 15th-ranked prospect in the 2019 class, according to Rivals.com. Like his father two decades before him, Robinson-Earl is one of the most coveted high school players in America.
Two years before he could drive a car, he had a scholarship offer from KU, his mom and dad’s alma mater. In all, he has collected 12 Division I offers, with more certain to come. He could re-fuel the basketball rivalry between Kansas and Missouri as both vie for his commitment. But more on that later.
Robinson-Earl lives full-time with his mother. Earl has seen his son play just twice this season, the most recent two victories, which sent Bishop Miege to the Kansas Class 4A Division I state tournament this week.
College coaches were in attendance for each of those two games, providing Earl subtle reminders of what once was.
Of what might have been.
Of what could be.
Robinson-Earl’s introduction to organized basketball arrived in early elementary school. He was always the tallest player on the court, but he refused to take advantage of it. Didn’t really like to shoot much. Didn’t like to block his opponents’ shots, either.
“He was too nice,” his mother, Katie Robinson says. “He wanted everyone else to score, too.”
That was the first indication that Robinson-Earl might forge his own path. That he might not embody the player — or the on-court personality — of his father, even if he grew to love the sport that once made Lester Earl a well-known name in Lawrence, Kan.
For the first 14 years of his life, Robinson-Earl used only his mother’s surname, appearing simply as Jeremiah Robinson on basketball rosters. He added the Earl three years ago after enrolling at Bishop Miege. “I like the ‘Earl,’” he says. “It’s part of who I am.”
His parents never married, but both say they have remained on good terms. Robinson-Earl considers himself close with each of them. “I got the best traits from my mom, and I got the best traits from my dad,” he says.
He has always been particularly close with his mom. While Robinson has a big family and says her son “basically had five mothers from the day he was born,” her residence includes only the two of them. When Robinson-Earl was in kindergarten, he was so attached to his mother that his teacher would quite literally need to peel him off of her each time she dropped him off at school. Robinson-Earl and his mom bumped into that teacher a few weeks ago, and that was the story she brought up.
“We’re like the same person,” Robinson-Earl says. “We share everything. It’s a best-friend relationship.”
Robinson and Earl met while they studied at KU. After Robinson left for a year abroad in England, where her parents temporarily resided, she returned to Lawrence, and she and Earl reconnected.
It sent a proverbial shock wave through her faith-rich family when she announced she was pregnant. It altered her college plans, too. She had been preparing for medical school but instead decided to pursue a degree in business.
“Of course it was a huge blessing, but did I have to plan a little differently with a few things? Sure,” Robinson says. “I needed to start making money to take care of him.”
Before her son was a year old, Robinson moved back to England with him. Earl was playing basketball in Spain, and they occasionally traveled to see his games.
Earl, 41, works and lives in Kansas City now. He has three sons, two in Kansas City and another who plays football at Louisiana State, where Earl started his college basketball career. Robinson-Earl has become a huge LSU football fan because of it, though he’s never met his half-brother.
This isn’t the life that Earl expected. He admits that. When he was a high school senior, he was ranked as the No. 2 basketball prospect in his class, behind only Kobe Bryant. The whole world was in front of him. But the opportunities came crashing down quickly and publicly.
He left LSU. The program was put on probation after the NCAA found it guilty of violations while recruiting him. A decade ago, he wrote an apology to a newspaper in Louisiana for his involvement.
He transferred to KU, where injuries to both knees drained his career. He’s had nearly a dozen surgeries between the two of them.
“I know that some of my choices could’ve taken me down a different path,” Earl says. “But I enjoy the path that I chose because I have three beautiful boys that I enjoy watching grow and become men.”
In-person visits between Earl and Robinson-Earl are sporadic, but they say they talk often on the phone. They text. They discuss school, grades, life and Robinson-Earl’s future.
They rarely mention basketball.
“My adulthood started in high school,” Earl says. “No kid should have to become an adult in high school. That’s (a time) to enjoy your teen years.
“I want Jeremiah to do something that I didn’t do — enjoy it. I want him to enjoy the last two years of high school, enjoy connecting and meeting new friends and basically just build lifelong friendships with people you come in contact with now.
“Because after this, it’s all a business. You become property of the institution.”
The teenager from Kansas City prefers life outside the spotlight, even as his talent has placed him directly in it. His Twitter is a ghost town, and if you’ve sent him a direct message in the past year, he probably hasn't read it.
The teenager from Baton Rouge adored the limelight. Wanted people to remember the time they saw Lester Earl play basketball. His personality on the court was best described as loud and in-your-face.
“I wanted to make the spectacular play,” Earl says. “Jeremiah, when I watch him play, it’s exciting because he does a lot of things I would have liked to do when I played. He makes some decisions that I would have liked to have made. He likes to get more people involved.”
Robinson-Earl is averaging 21.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in his junior season. He was the Kansas freshman of the year in 2016. He was the Kansas sophomore of the year in 2017. He is a finalist for the Kansas Gatorade player of the year in 2018.
The coaches at Bishop Miege rave about his personality every bit as much as his basketball talent. His is an exceedingly positive person — patient, level-headed, stress-free, looking to break the tension with a joke or lighter moment. “He teaches me life lessons every day,” Robinson says.
On the rare occasion things don’t go well on the court for him, Robinson-Earl shows little emotion, and that’s by design. He learned that from studying his favorite NBA player. Before every game, his mom sends him a quote from that favorite player — the same man whom Earl bested in that dunk contest 22 years ago.
Back then, Earl was caught up in the excitement of it all but further caught up in the business of it. To the contrary, there’s an easiness to the way Robinson-Earl has approached his recruitment. One of his first offers came from Kansas coach Bill Self when Robinson-Earl was a freshman.
“When (KU) coach (Bill) Self offered me, that was a big deal,” Robinson-Earl says. “That means something because my dad played there and my mom went there.”
Robinson has a long history of family members attending Kansas, so long that she’s unsure exactly how far back it dates. But she doesn’t expect her son to pick a college based on that. Nor does Earl expect him to follow his footsteps.
Roy Williams, who coached Earl at KU, has visited Bishop Miege, though he’s yet to present a formal offer. Missouri is particularly interested, as well, and there’s an intrigue to the way that program has been rebuilt this season. Although the MU and KU rivalry has left the basketball arena, it could sharpen in a battle for Robinson-Earl.
In the decision-making process, Robinson-Earl considers personal relationships the most important factor. He is fiercely loyal to people, a characteristic ingrained in him while growing up in a household with a single mother. He has had only one barber in his life, and no one would dare try to convince him to go to anyone else.
Whatever the case, there will be no shortage of options. There’s a smoothness to his game. He can handle the ball, and Miege even has one late-game situation with him playing point guard.
For the past year-plus, Robinson-Earl has been working to tweak — or supplement — his game. Ball-handling. Outside shooting. Elements in his repertoire that Earl wishes he'd had.
“I’m not trying to be the next Lester Earl,” Robinson-Earl says. “I’m trying to be the first Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.”