Thomas Robinson was hanging out with the Morris Twins — Marcus and Markieff — in their apartment when an unknown number kept popping up on his cell phone about 11 p.m Friday two weeks ago.
The Kansas sophomore finally checked the voice mail and it was his sister Jayla, asking her big brother to call her back.
"I hung up the phone and the first thing I did was try and call my mother," Robinson said. "I tried twice, but there was no answer."
Robinson’s 43-year-old mother, Lisa Robinson, had died — and moments later, his 7-year-old sister was the one delivering the news.
"She was crying," Robinson recalled the conversation. "And I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what to do."
Who can blame Robinson for not being able to comprehend fully what he was just told?
His grandmother had died a few weeks earlier. His grandfather passed away just days earlier.
Robinson had returned to Washington, D.C., to attend his grandmother’s funeral, but his mother told him a second funeral in the span of just a couple of weeks was too much for a 19-year-old to handle.
"She didn’t want me to go (to his grandfather’s funeral)," Robinson said. "She didn’t think I could handle another funeral."
But Robinson had no choice after his mother, who was having difficulty coping with her parents’ deaths, died abruptly of an apparent heart attack on Jan. 21.
"I felt that it wasn’t fair," Robinson said. "Why would all this happen to me? I thought that — multiple times."
Robinson’s teammates, his coaches and even the mothers of some of the players remained with Robinson until the middle of the night after his sister informed him of the news.
"It was just so sad," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "The whole team was there, and Thomas was so out of it."
Robinson is just 19 and had lost his mother and both of his grandparents within a month. Now all he had was his 7-year-old sister, who was more than 1,000 miles away, and his 27-year-old brother Jamah, who also lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
"He doesn’t have anyone else," Self said.
Robinson didn’t have any relationship with his own father, and he barely knows Jayla’s father — who lives in D.C.
"The toughest part has been seeing my sister," Robinson said. "She’s just a kid. I don’t know what she’s thinking. I think she understands what happened somewhat, but not to the full extent."
"It’s unbelievable, beyond words, how tough it’s been," he added. "But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger."
Kansas director of basketball operations Barry Hinson and Angel Morris, the mother of Marcus and Markieff, accompanied Robinson back to Washington, D.C., to help plan the funeral last week.
Robinson had to pick out a casket. He had to walk into his mother’s apartment, along with his kid sister. He had to help shop for the clothes his mother would be buried in.
"We didn’t stay long in the apartment," Hinson said. "It was just too emotional."
Then, the power went out just prior to Thursday’s funeral, which was held at Antioch Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., with the entire team in attendance. The streets were closed because of the weather, and some family members thought about canceling it altogether.
However, Jayla read a letter to her mother at the service, put a stuffed toy next to her mother and then each of the siblings placed a white rose in the casket.
"I couldn’t turn around when she was reading," Hinson said. "She’s so precious and I was so welled up. I’ll never forget that as long as I live."
"And Thomas was a rock through all of it," Hinson added. "Through the whole process."
Robinson returned to Lawrence in time for the rout against Kansas State. After receiving a standing ovation from the crowd upon checking into the game, he missed a wide-open dunk the first time he touched the ball.
"I should have laid it in," Robinson said without a crack of a laugh.
There was no name written on his sneakers, no pointing to the sky and no outward sign of honoring his mother. Robinson did it in the way he knew best.
"I went out there and played," Robinson said. "That’s how I honored her. She would have wanted me to keep playing — and that’s what I did."
The reckless abandon that made him one of the nation’s top recruits coming out of high school began to take over, and Robinson wound up with 17 points and nine rebounds before leaving the game as the entire crowd stood, some with tears streaming down their faces.
"Basketball is therapy to me," Robinson said. "I’ve always used it to get my mind off everything else."
Robinson has been blown away by the support in Lawrence and also from around the nation. He’s happy that a fund has been set up to help his little sister and her education.
But he’s worried about Jayla.
There’s been no shortage of people, including nearly every member of the Kansas coaching staff, who has been more than willing to take care of his sister. But Robinson doesn’t know whether she’ll remain in D.C. with her father or come to be with him in Lawrence.
"Right now we’re still finalizing that," Robinson said. "I’m not sure what’s going to happen yet."
"I appreciated all the people that want to help, but at the same time I still have the responsibility to take care of my sister," Robinson said.
Robinson doesn’t want anyone treating him any differently and certainly doesn’t want pity.
Not from Self or the rest of the coaching staff, not from the fans, especially not from his teammates.
"I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me," Robinson said. "If I mess up, I want coach to yell at me. I don’t want any special treatment — from him or anyone else."
But Robinson does need help, even if he’s reluctant to admit it. He just lost nearly his entire family in the blink of an eye.
It’s unfair. It’s something most of us never quite will understand.
"He left a boy," Hinson said. "And he came back a man."
That may be the case, but he’s still only 19.
Lisa Robinson Scholarship Fund information:
Contributions can be made to the Lisa Robinson Scholarship Fund, for the benefit of Jayla, c/o SNR Denton, 1301 K Street NW, Suite 600, East Tower, Washington, DC 20005-3364.