Barack Obama's Brother-in-Law, Basketball Coach Craig Robinson, Already Has a Crucial Victory to Celebrate
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Craig Robinson was explaining how it feels to be on the verge of becoming the First Brother-in-Law to the first African American president of the United States. He was slumped into a soft-cushioned chair at a downtown Washington hotel, not far from the buffet table where the Oregon State Beavers basketball team he coaches was about to chow down.
Robinson has spoken only briefly to his sister, Michelle, and President-elect Barack Obama since the historic election on Nov. 4. He hasn't had time to sit down with his wife, Kelly, and reflect. He has barely had any private time at all to process his own emotions. He's a first-year coach of a team that was 0-18 in the Pac-10 last season, and is knee-deep in his own challenge to reverse the culture of losing.
History in the Oval Office? "It's hard to get my arms wrapped around it," he said. "It feels like somebody has told me a joke, and I'm waiting for the punch line."
As Robinson himself put it, he already had vetted Obama as a brother-in-law 17 years ago, sizing him up on the basketball court, in long chats. "Which to me is harder than voting for a guy. I got one sister, and I gave him the seal of approval back when he was just coming out of law school talking about community organizing."
And now his brother-in-law will be running the country? "Forget about the being-related-to-him part. How about growing up as a black man in the United States, having a black president? . . . It's going to start to sink in . . . what that means and how that makes me feel about this country and all the people who went before him," he said. "I don't have any words for you yet because I want to let it marinate and digest a little bit."
The digesting began on this trip to the nation's capital, where last night his Beavers squared off against the Howard University Bison. There was something about opening his team's season at Howard, and Obama's historic election, and this beloved sport he returned to in middle age, leaving behind his comfy affluent life, that all melded into a moment that just settled in his mind. He and Howard's coach, Gil Jackson, were both thinking, Robinson said: "Can you believe all of this is happening at this time, at this place?"
The Bison basketball team does not normally host major-conference schools in its tiny Burr Gymnasium, where games have the rockin', closed-in feel of a powerhouse high school matchup. The game was arranged before Robinson arrived -- a favor to OSU forward Calvin Hampton, who is from Fort Washington. But Howard is a giant in black education, and no one comes here without a measure of respect for its tradition. And that was what Robinson was feeling since his team arrived on Wednesday.
Founded in 1867, Howard has produced more African Americans with doctorates than any university in the nation, not to mention a long roster of notable leaders past and present, including novelist Zora Neale Hurston, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Nobel laureates Ralph Bunche and Toni Morrison. Presidents are known to address Howard's students, and it is not uncommon to find some of country's most prominent figures on campus giving talks. Just hours before Oregon State and Howard tipped off, former secretary of state Colin Powell was giving a speech at Cramton Auditorium. The campus was hoping beyond hope that Michelle Obama might actually drop by for her big brother's game -- or even the president-elect -- but they were back in Chicago.
And so this trip across the country was not just about a basketball game. On Thursday, Robinson took his players up to the Hart Senate Office Building and right to Obama's office -- the one he'll be leaving soon, as he's resigning his seat tomorrow -- and his team was given a tour. And after that tour came a tour of the Capitol.
"I'm excited that my guys are experiencing this," said Robinson. "I really am. This is the reason why you get into coaching and teaching. You want to expose kids to stuff that they would not be exposed to if it were not for the situation."
Robinson's team has been so caught up in politics this year, meeting Obama in Oregon during the campaign, players texting their coach as he waited backstage with other family members on election night in Chicago's Grant Park, that the coach sometimes wonders if he is striking the right balance. "I want those guys' lives not to be flipped over because of this. If they're trying to get to the next level, if they're trying to learn how to win games, if they're trying to learn how to play or deal with me, I don't want to take any of that away from them. I want them to feel like they're getting everything from me."