If not great, Rick Robey is a very good college basketball player who soon will be a wealthy young man. Now given the equivalent of $1 an hour for work that helps the University of Kentucky sell 23,000 season tickets, Robey will get his reward in the next month or two. He's big, he's white, he hustles and he can play. The pros like all that.
"Your son played a great game tonight," someone said to Fred Robey, a Defense Department investigator who had the foresight 22 years ago to produce a child who would grow to 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds.
"There were 13 pro scouts here tonight," the father said. And he winked.
Robey had scored 14 points, making six of eight shots and getting seven rebounds in Kentucky's 91-69 victory over Miami of Ohio Thursday night in a semifinal game of the NCAA Mideast Regional. More important, Robey twice demonstrated quickness and speed extraordinary in so large a man.
Early in the first half, on a Kentucky fast break, Robey filled the left lane. He has an unusual gait, his upper body seemingly tilted too far forward. He resembles no one if not Groucho Marx in a hurry. But here he came, on the fly, outrunning everyone.
The ball was passed to Robey, who didn't miss a step as he sailed high, very high, for a monster slam-dunk at full speed. Then, only 30 seconds into the second half, Robey stole the ball near the Miami foul line. Again this giant outran everyone, even Miami's little guards, for a fast-break layup.
Playing defense against Miami's leading scorer, Robey limited the 21-point man to two points until Kentucky had a 20-point lead. Robey scored on little hook shots inside, power layups and even threw in a 15-footer that caused his proud papa to say, "Rick showed 'em a little bit of everything, didn't he?"
And it may translate into big bucks.
Not only for the greater glory of good old Kentucky is Rick Robey playing the best basketball of his life. It would be nice to help Kentucky win the fifth national championship in its storied history. But for the Robeys, father and son, today's Mideast championship game against Michigan State is also an important step toward the cash registers of the National Basketball Association.
The Robeys won't talk about it, but Kentucky people say the European professional league wants Robey dearly. In the NBA, Boston and Golden State are said to be in love with the idea of this angel-faced big guy taking their money.
"He's definitely a first-round pick," said Bob Perry, general manager of the Washington Bullets, who was here for the Kentucky-Miami game. Told that Fred Robey expects his son to be one of the first five players selected in next month's pro draft, Ferry said. "That wouldn't surprise me . . . He's a good player who's very active and quick. And he's one of the few big men who likes to run."
Every basketball game every season is a story rich in drama. There to see, hidden by no helmet, unprotected by war gear, the athletes strut and fret in font of thousands of people who have invested emotion in them. In today's Mideast game, Rick Robey's professional future is only one of several subplots that intrigue students of the art.
For instance, Kentucky's coaches at this moment may be concocting schemes to take advantage of Earvin (Magic) Johnson's one weakness. Magic does tricks for Michigan State. Without him running the offense, Michigan State is a mediocrity. Anyway, a magazine photographer asked Magic to pose yesterday spinning a basketball on his forefinger.
"Naw, man," Magic said, embarrassed. "I can't do that. It's the only thing I can't do with a basketball."
Seriously, folks Kentucky doesn't know what to do about the Magic show. "Someone suggested we use a box-and-one, said the Kentucky coach, Joe B. Hall, naming a defense that normally sets four men in a box-like formations and assigns one to harass a certain player. "And they told me," Hall said, "to put the box on Earvin."
In Michigan State's easy victory over Western Kentucky two nights ago, Johnson made only three of 17 shots. He'll do better than that today, but he needs to do much better - 14 of 17, say - if Michigan State expects to beat Kentucky.
Until its two big men fouled out with almost 10 minutes to play, Western Kentucky was competitive with Michigan State. And Kentucky is 20 points better than Western Kentucky. With Robey, 6-10 Mike Phillips, 6-5 Jack Givens and 6-6 James Lee, Kentucky has four muscle men who weigh 900 pounds. They have 25 pounds per man of State's inside men.
With that size, Kentucky has strength and aggressiveness. Jud Heathcote, the comedian who doubles as State's coach, said, "Even watching Kentucky bruises you."
He quickly added that he meant that as a compliment. "There is no substitute for aggressiveness and intensity," he said. A smile came and he said, "I just hope the refs call a foul every time Kentucky touches us."
And that's another element in today's drama: critics say Kentucky is ruining the game with its emphasis on strength. The implication is Kentucky wins by brutality and people say things like, "I wouldn't want to meet them in a dark alley." Heathcote said that yesterday. No one laughed.
The concept is wrong. Kentucky is big, true, and highly aggressive, true. That combination produces collisions, and little people get bruised in collisions with big people. But Kentucky doesn't look to hit people. "We don't hatchet, we don't set moving screens, we don't give you forearm shivers on the baseline," Hall said.
Anyway, it's nothing new, this idea Kentucky gives no quarter. "When I was playing at St. Louis University," said Bob Ferry whose size was rather intimidating itself, "oh, my God, Kentucky had a guy named Johnny Cox who put 11 stitches in my eye. Against Kentucky, you didn't cut down the middle of the lane."
You still don't.