By now, Thomas Robinson knows that personal tragedy has come to define him. No matter how many dunks or rebounds or blocked shots he tallies, he is that rare star for whom “basketball player” is only part of his identity. He knows this won’t change, even if he’s no longer interested in telling the world about his three loved ones dying in an unthinkable three weeks last year.
This is a wonderful, terrible, promising and completely unfair position for a guy who turned 21 only last week.
His should be a story only about basketball. Robinson is the scowling muscle behind Kansas’ push toward another Final Four, the strutting hulk treating each court as his own, the most valuable player in the country and a certain millionaire if he makes this his last college season.
Based on basketball alone, his is the kind of story that makes a lot of us love major-college sports. He is a second-tier recruit turned first-team All-American, a skinny kid turned LeBron James’ body double, an energy guy off the bench turned raw force that opponents double-team even when he doesn’t have the ball.
And yet, this awful thing that happened to him 14 months ago remains his identity to so many.
He’s the guy whose grandmother died, then his grandfather, then his mother, all within 25 head-turning days, leaving his little sister to live with her ex-con father back in D.C. and Robinson to change his entire worldview.
One day, Robinson is telling people his mother is the reason he plays. The next day, she’s gone.
This is the part they always mention on television.
“No comment,” he says when his mother is brought up.
The tragic part of Robinson’s story will probably be told to millions during Friday night's Kansas-North Carolina State broadcast. He would prefer to keep private what’s been a plainly public grieving process, and that’s to be respected. For now, the young man wants to talk only about basketball.
Thing is, some who know him well will tell you the two parts of Robinson’s story cannot be separated.
Maybe it would be nice to hear that Thomas Robinson has come to terms with all of this. Maybe it would be nice to hear that he only smiles remembering the good times with his mother, that he’s content knowing she’s proud of him, that he’s totally ready to provide for his baby sister.
It’s just that those are all lies.
“He’s still figuring it out,” KU coach Bill Self says. “He’s just a kid.”
That’s easy to forget sometimes, isn’t it? Robinson is 6 feet 9 with a 37-inch vertical leap, 240 pounds and precious little of it is fat. Millionaire coaches develop entire game plans around him. Major-college basketball players need help from at least one teammate to defend him.
And yet, Robinson is still a kid in some of the ways that matter most. He is not far removed from beaming as he introduced Jayla to his high school teammates, of spending bus rides bragging on her piano skills. He is not far removed from taking his life’s biggest challenges to his mother for advice, of making sure he got a little bit better every day to keep his promise that he was making himself a better life.
Robinson, when he is unencumbered by what life has thrown at him, is a goofy kid. You hear this over and over from people who know him. John Webster, a high school friend, remembers Robinson constantly joking, always wearing that smile where his face wrinkles up like a shar-pei. Javorn Ferrell, another high school friend who now plays at UMass, calls Robinson “just a lively dude.”
This is still Robinson. Most days, anyway. It’s just that there other days now, too — “gray days,” as Self calls them — and this is one place where the celebrity of being a star basketball player at KU doesn’t help.
“I think about it all the time,” says teammate Conner Teahan. “The guy really has no family. Like, nothing. It’s him taking care of his sister.”
This is an impossible place to be, 21 years old with what feels like the world watching your every move and no parent to talk to about it. Self says he made a conscious decision not to let up on Robinson, even as he might want to, for fear of losing the kid and the player both.
But players need someone outside the basketball office, someone to tell them when they need to listen, someone to tell them to shape up. Angel Morris — mother of former KU players Marcus and Markieff Morris — has taken Robinson under her wing, but she can only do so much. Sometimes, a kid needs his family.
Because who doesn’t know what Robinson has been through? Who hasn’t seen the heart-wrenching picture ofhim and Jayla at their mother’s funeral touching television pieces
on their story? Who hasn’t heard him say his mother was his “reason for breathing”?
That kind of public grieving lends a sort of artificial feel, where strangers know personal details and closer friends don’t ask how he’s feeling, because they think he’s hearing that from too many others.
What Robinson gains from knowing KU fans filled a scholarship fund for Jayla he loses in being unable to deal with his loss in any way that’s authentically personal.
“It can affect the mind,” Webster says, “the replaying of it over and over again. To say he’s fully settled with it, he’s just not.”
If Robinson’s personal story is best set to soft classical music, his basketball game is pure heavy metal. Relentless, head-ringing, unapologetic heavy metal.
“It’s hand-to-hand combat with him,” Missouri coach Frank Haith says.
“He can manhandle you,” North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried says.
“He’s in a different category of his own,” N.C. State forward C.J. Leslie says.
If they wanted to, KU officials could fill their pregame-hype video with nothing but Robinson highlights. The one-handed alley-oop against Baylor is one of the best dunks in Allen Fieldhouse history. His dunk from a step inside the free-throw line against Oklahoma. The block on Phil Pressey that sent the last Border War into overtime. Or the one against Lewis Jackson at the end of the Purdue game.
We can do this all day, because Robinson has done it all season. Back in December, Wayne Simientweeted
that KU should take down his own jersey from the rafters to make room for Robinson’s.
This is a rare basketball creation: an energy guy with refined post moves; the strongest man on the court who also happens to have the best footwork; the most physically gifted player who also happens to have the most desire.
He is a projected top-five pick in the upcoming NBA draft built out of raw ability, the latest and perhaps best in an incredible run of professional post players coached by Self and assistant Danny Manning at Kansas.
A year ago, with the pain still raw and pulsating, Robinson faced the most important decision of his life. Should he turn pro? Should he stay another year at Kansas?
NBA scouts figured him to be a mid-to-late first-round pick, and it’s hard to think of many prospects with more compelling reasons to chase a seven-figure payday. But Robinson came back to school. Jayla is back with her father, James Paris, whose sentence on a drug conviction ended last year. Paris loves Jayla, Robinson says, and Jayla loves her father. For now, at least, that’s enough.
Robinson’s decision figures to be much easier this year. He’d have very little to gain by coming back again, and so much he could accomplish by going pro. Driven every day by the idea of providing a better life for his sister, and of living up to the memories of his mother, Robinson has secured himself millions of dollars and an unshakable place in KU basketball history.
Actually, some who know him say this wonderful second part of Robinson’s story may not have happened without the tragic first part.
Ferrell talks to his old friend regularly, but only rarely do they speak about the past. Ferrell watches every Kansas game that he can, and says one of his UMass teammates jokingly called Robinson “the best player at KU since Wilt.”
Robinson is more serious now, Ferrell says. More passionate, more focused, and Ferrell makes the direct connection: Robinson is a better basketball player because of the scars on his heart.
“Definitely. Probably moved him from top 25 to top five,” Ferrell says.
Various draft projections back Ferrell, and this should translate into a difference of roughly $4 million in NBA salary over Robinson’s first two seasons alone.
Ferrell isn’t the only one who sees it. You probably see it too, the evolution of Robinson and the unmistakable difference between a guy playing for all the usual reasons and one playing for something much bigger.
Teammate Travis Releford says Robinson is “more hungry about it.” Teahan says he’s “10 times more focused.” Webster says “it’s really no joke for him now — a grind, his job.”
“He’s playing for different reasons now,” Self said. “Most young people, the future is what we’re going to do this weekend or next weekend. That’s the way he was. He doesn’t see it quite that way now.”
So maybe this is the beginning of a new story for Robinson. Maybe this entire season, and now the NCAA Tournament, is serving as a platform to show a nation of fans that he really is this good and ready to lead not just a team, but a family.
This is as close as Robinson will get to talking about what’s happened to him.
“I agree with them, that I am more focused,” he says. “Because, you know, I have things I have to handle off the court. So my focus on the basketball court will handle that.”
This makes him a better player, Robinson says. He is sure of it and nods his head up and down to emphasize the point.
He stares straight ahead for a moment, and you can’t help but wonder if this is the small consolation he takes from a tragedy he’s still trying to work through.