She spent her childhood in the shadow of her dazzling, athletic older brother. When she followed him to Princeton, she was known as “Craig’s little sis.” He was the basketball star while she was the unsure college freshman.
Now as first lady, Michelle Obama has become the star player, eclipsing her big brother Craig Robinson, an ESPN basketball analyst. But just as they once shared a bedroom separated by a divider, the siblings remain close; he’s one of the few people in her inner circle who remember when the most famous woman in the nation was a girl skipping double-dutch.
“We used to play everything, and it started with playing catch in the house,” Robinson said Tuesday at an Aspen Institute forum on youth sports hosted at the Newseum.
“And it was a little house,” Michelle Obama interjected, smiling at her brother.
“Have you seen ‘Tiny House Nation’?” Robinson asked the audience.
“We were the originators,” Obama continued. “We were like, what’s the big deal? That’s our house.”
Their mother, Marian Robinson, laughed from her front-row seat.
Not all first families have enjoyed easygoing relationships with embarassment-free siblings. As a bond trader turned college basketball coach who had had his turn in smaller spotlights, Craig Robinson seems to have weathered the attention that came with the Obama connection. And in his on-stage chat with his sister at the Project Play Summit, moderated by ESPN host Michael Wilbon, the two described their rootedness in the childhood they shared.
“We used to play Nerf basketball in the living room with a Nerf basketball and a lampshade,” Craig Robinson told the audience of advocates and organizers for youth sports. “My mom’s here. You remember we almost burned the house down because we left a ball in the lamp and somebody turned the lamp on and my mother was like, ‘What’s that I smell? Is something burning.’ We looked at each other like. . . it’s the Nerf ball.”
The first lady laughed at the memory.
He and his sister have often described sports as key to their family life. When “Miche,” as he calls her, began dating Barack Obama, she asked her brother to play basketball with her beau and come back to her with his opinion. “He’s very confident without being cocky,” Robinson told his sister, according to his 2010 memoir, “Game of Character.” “He had passed the test with a definitive thumbs up on his playing and his character.”
Craig said his sister, who is known for her near-daily exercise routine, has now become the second-best athlete in the family, behind his daughter Leslie, who plays college hoops at Princeton. Michelle Obama teased that her big brother had dropped down to at least third place — or possibly seventh, behind his four kids.
The friendly sibling competition and ease of presence continued throughout their conversation, which included a strong call from the first lady and her brother for corporations to support activities and an infrastructure that make it possible for children to be active no matter their economic circumstance.
Robinson has said he has done his best to keep his relationship with his sister unchanged during her time in the White House. They mostly talk about their children and all of the worries that come along with parenting. Robinson’s older children, Leslie and Avery, have travelled abroad with their aunt, including a visit to South Africa where they met the late anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.
Despite jumping from working class to a higher social strata, both the first lady and her brother looked back nostalgically on their own youths. All of their children are involved in organized sports, which are often very expensive, and none have the same freedom to play outdoors in unstructured ways that they once did.
“We would play all day long. I mean, you would be rushing down your breakfast to go out,” Obama recalled. “We played this game that the kids in the neighborhood just called ‘chase.’ I don’t even know if there was a point to it. You were just being chased — you know.”
“Oh yeah,” Robinson said. “I remember that.”