Amid tragedy, KU's Robinson never quits
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Before he became one of the nation's best players a year after one of the most difficult weeks of his life, Thomas Robinson was driven to excel.
One night, about midway through Robinson's junior season at Riverdale Baptist High School in Upper Marlboro, Md., the school's basketball coach, Louis Wilson, and his son, Bryan, returned home after a practice session. By that point, the schedule had revealed Robinson's growth: He had matured from a young player who was timid with the ball to a complete talent who learned to create scoring chances off the dribble.
Wilson and his son had witnessed Robinson's progress in leading the Crusaders through early challenges of an eventual 31-6 year. That day, midway through the season, Robinson's focus at practice had impressed Bryan, now a junior guard at Bowie State. He turned to his father and wondered if he recognized how special Robinson could become.
"Dad," Wilson recalls his son telling him, "I think you've created a monster."
Four years later, the rest of the nation has learned how much of a force Robinson can be. Almost a year to the day after losing his mother, Lisa, to a sudden heart attack, the junior forward for Kansas leads his team in scoring (17.8 points per game) and rebounding (12.3 per game) following the seventh-ranked Jayhawks' 18-point rout of No. 3 Baylor on Monday. Tests remain, but Robinson has persevered to become one of the country's elite talents.
Against the Bears, the same drive Wilson and his son admired was on display at Allen Fieldhouse in one of the most-charged environments of the season. With the score tied at 2-2 a little more than three minutes into the game, senior guard Tyshawn Taylor dribbled past Baylor's Pierre Jackson just past mid-court. Moments later, Taylor lofted the ball to the left of the rim toward Robinson's 6-foot-10, 237-pound frame -- beyond the reach of center Perry Jones III.
In mid-flight, Robinson gripped the ball with his right hand and threw down a strong slam dunk that made 16,300 fans scream in unison. He landed and looked into the crowd dressed in blue to his left, as if to capture the moment before jogging back on defense.
Robinson finished with 27 points -- his sixth game of at least 20 this season. Afterward, he was asked about the key to producing against Baylor's lineup that includes three starting forwards of at least 6-foot-7.
"Attack it," Robinson said, leaning into a microphone. "Got to be in attack mode the whole time. I knew that their zone would probably be a problem, but I knew if I was the one to deliver the first punch, hopefully I'd get the upper hand on them, and it worked out."
But in what ways has Robinson's attack helped the Jayhawks' chance of winning their eighth straight Big 12 regular season title?
Through his maturity: When Robinson scored a career-high 30 points in a victory over North Dakota on Dec. 31, Kansas coach Bill Self said he saw his star play with joy. Robinson admits he has more patience this season -- a year removed from averaging 7.6 points and 14.6 minutes per game off the bench during a campaign that ended with an upset loss to Virginia Commonwealth in the NCAA tournament.
"I can't even put it into words," he said. "I know I am a better basketball player."
Through his strength: In addition to becoming the Jayhawks' top scorer, Robinson has some of the nation's best rebound totals. He trails only Siena's O.D. Anosike (12.7) in that category, and he has earned 13 double-doubles.
"I don't go into the game thinking I have to get a double-double," he said. "I'm not being cocky or arrogant, but I feel like I can get that pretty easily as long as I'm on the floor."
Through his confidence: Robinson is a tough, high-energy presence who has demands for his team's play as well as his own. Days before an 18-point rout of then-No. 23 Kansas State at Allen Fieldhouse, he said the Jayhawks' non-conference losses to Kentucky, Duke and Davidson had sickened him.
"All I wanted to do tonight," he said after scoring his career-high against North Dakota in a game that closed the Jayhawks' non-conference schedule, "was to send a message and get a full head of steam going into conference."
So far, Robinson's level of play has continued. After the victory over Baylor, one that gave Kansas sole possession of the Big 12 lead, Self put the progress in perspective. He said Robinson had grown since the Jayhawks won two of three games at the Maui Invitational in November. To Self, Robinson's vision had improved, and the Washington, D.C., native had become poised in his shot selection.
But beyond basketball, Robinson has had to endure growth after tragedy. On Jan. 21, 2011, Lisa died late in the night in Washington, D.C. She was 43.
A day later, Robinson chose to join his team in playing against Texas. He stood in Allen Fieldhouse during a moment of silence before Kansas' eventual defeat. Signs of support were held throughout the crowd. Next to Robinson, then-Jayhawks junior forward Marcus Morris cried.
Five days later, Robinson's teammates joined him and about 200 mourners at a funeral service in snowy D.C.
Lisa's death left Robinson and his sister, Jayla, nine-years-old at the time, without most of their immediate family following the loss of their grandfather and grandmother all within three weeks. At Lisa's service, Robinson placed a white rose and a Kansas jersey inside her white casket.
Now, as Robinson draws attention for possible National Player of the Year honors more than 11 months after that somber day, Wilson and others look on with pride. He knows his former player has come far in a trying year. Still, there is progress to be made. To Wilson, Lisa's memory serves as a guiding force in a season that could become special.
"Even though she's not here on Earth to see it," Wilson said of Robinson's rise, "I truly believe that she's his angel watching over him. … Thomas is such an enjoyable young man to be around. He's humble. It's a strange mix -- he's passionate, and he's a terror out there on that court. But he's a humble young man."
And through life's turns, Robinson's drive to achieve has never left.
Even after a year when he learned to endure.