Thomas Robinson looked into the distance, his lungs letting in a deep breath of air as his eyes welled with tears. All the waiting was finally over. All the uncertainty wiped away.
“I’m just happy to be here, man,” Robinson said to a television audience, his voice shaking. “Thank god…”
Moments earlier, Robinson had been selected by the Sacramento Kings with the No. 5 overall pick of the NBA Draft. It was perhaps a few spots lower than Robinson had envisioned — the Charlotte Bobcats had passed on him at No. 2, and his hometown Washington Wizards had done the same at No. 3. But after the Cleveland Cavaliers made him wait just a few more minutes by unexpectedly taking Syracuse guard Dion Waiters at No. 4, Robinson’s wait was nearly over.
When his name was finally called, Robinson leaned over and swallowed up his little sister, Jayla, in an emotional embrace. For it was Jayla whom Robinson had promised to take care of after the death of their mother, Lisa, in January 2011.
On Thursday at the draft, held inside the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., Robinson was visibly moved as he fulfilled his family mission.
“I ain’t stopping for nobody,” Robinson said. “I got work to do, and I’m gonna do it.”
The night completed a meteoric and emotional ascension for Robinson.
Four years ago, Robinson was still just a little recruited power forward from Washington D.C., a player who would transfer to Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H before the 2008-09 season. He would reach the national scene that summer, narrowing his college choices to Kansas and Memphis. Perhaps it was coincidence, but when Robinson made his campus to Kansas that fall, the program was celebrating its recent national championship with a traditional ring ceremony. Robinson committed to KU a few weeks later.
One year ago, Robinson was still just a little-used power forward in Lawrence, a player that had played a supporting role on two teams that finished a combined 68-6 and earned No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. In 2010-11, Robinson averaged just 14.6 minutes per game while Marcus and Markieff Morris became first-round picks.
“To think where he was when he came, and all the things he’s been through,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “And to see that he is going to be able to provide for his family in ways that he could only dream of, even going into the season, is remarkable for him.”
Robinson averaged 17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds points game while earning consensus All-American honors in 2011-12. He would lead No. 2 seed Kansas on a run to the NCAA title game, a tourney performance that included upset victories over No. 1 seed North Carolina in the Elite Eight and a come-from-behind win over Ohio State in the Final Four. The ride would end against No. 1 seed Kentucky in New Orleans, a game in which Robinson finished with 18 points and 17 rebounds.
Now Robinson becomes the highest drafted Kansas player since Drew Gooden was taken No. 4 overall in 2002. He’s also Kansas’ first top-10 selection during the Bill Self era.
As far as his new home, Robinson is now a member of a Kings franchise that finished 22-44 and in last place of the Western Conference’s Pacific Division last season. The Kings now add Robinson’ relentless motor and rebounding prowess to a front court that already includes former first-round picks DaMarcus Cousins and Jason Thompson, a restricted free agent. Sacramento’s young core also includes guards Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, and Jimmer Fredette, last year’s first-round selection.
“They’re a talented team with Tyreke at the guard spot and DeMarcus down low,” Robinson told reporters at the Prudential Center. “I’ll try to build them up with rebounding and energy.”
But on Thursday, as Robinson accompanied his family in the draft’s green room, his focus seemed to stay on Jayla — on the tragedy they endured and the journey they completed together.
“I worked hard to get here and to see it all right in front of me, I got emotional,” Robinson said. “It was everything. everything that I had been holding in came out.”