Thomas Robinson stepped out of a limousine Thursday morning and wrapped his arms around his 9-year-old sister, Jayla, who refused to let go. She clung to the right thigh of her 6-foot-9 brother and nestled her face in the side of his coat, concealing almost everything except the multicolored beads atop her head.
One month ago, Robinson was enjoying his sophomore season on the University of Kansas men's basketball team; Jayla was engrossed in second grade. Then came the death of their grandmother. Then the death of their grandfather. And last Friday night, Lisa Robinson, their 42-year-old single mother who lived in Washington, died.
On a chilled, snow-blanketed morning in Northeast Washington, Robinson and his sister helped lead a procession of some 20 family members into Antioch Baptist Church of Deanwood to bid goodbye to yet another loved one. A stray rose and a carnation lay behind in a mound of snow near the hearse.
Nearly 200 family members and friends filled the 14 rows of the church to celebrate the life of Lisa Robinson, whose cause of death was initially reported to be a heart attack but will be determined by an autopsy, and offer support to her three children: Jamah, Thomas and Jayla. The Kansas basketball team - along with Coach Bill Self and his wife, Cindy - also attended the funeral service after flying to Dulles International Airport on Wednesday despite inclement weather and not checking in to their hotel until 1:45 a.m. Thursday.
"We're family and this is something we wanted to do for Thomas," Kansas senior guard Tyrel Reed said in a statement released by the school. "Thomas is our brother and he and Jayla are hurting. We will do anything we can to make sure they get through this."
Before the service, each of Lisa Robinson's children placed a white rose into her casket. Thomas placed a Kansas basketball jersey in the casket, as well. Jayla placed a stuffed toy Jayhawk next to her mother.
The service, which lasted more than an hour, was filled with music and applause and a little laughter. But among the messages Rev. William H. Gibbs expressed during an impassioned eulogy was this: "This family needs you beyond today."
One after another, friends and family members walked to the front of the church and offered memories of Lisa Robinson - remembered as a health care aide who raised her kids well - and an outstretched hand to her children.
There was Randy Beeman, formerly a chaplain for the Kansas men's basketball team, telling Thomas to lean on teammates and coaches because they are family. There was Rev. George Gilbert, whose neighborhood in Southeast Washington has long wrapped its arms around Robinson's family, telling Thomas: "We've got a house for you. We've got everything you need. All you have to do is say the word."
The most moving moment came when Jayla stood behind the podium, her head barely visible. She had a note to her mom that she wanted to read. In 30 seconds, she used her soft, barely audible voice to tell her mom that she loved her.
It has been a whirlwind for the family. On Friday, Jayla called Thomas to tell him their mother had died. His world rocked by yet another loss, Thomas decided to play in Saturday's game against Texas. Then, early this week, he flew home with Barry Hinson, Kansas's director of basketball operations, to address details regarding funeral plans and Lisa's estate.
His grandfather's funeral was held earlier this week. Then came another funeral - his third in a month - Thursday, which attracted supporters far and wide despite the weather. University of Massachusetts forward Javorn Farrell, a close friend of Thomas who said he lived with him during part of his junior year of high school at Riverdale Baptist, flew to Washington from upstate New York, where the Minutemen had played St. Bonaventure on Wednesday.
MacArthur Wilder, a cousin of Thomas who gave the opening prayer in the service, thanked the Kansas community for its outpouring of support amid a turn of events that makes one wonder: "How much more can we bear? But we know there is a God, whose divine love will not allow us to suffer and to carry things on our own. See, he sent all these representatives."
The NCAA has helped Kansas assist Thomas by granting a number of waivers. It gave the program permission to fly to Washington for the funeral service. It allowed the athletic department to pay for the funeral expenses. And it will allow Robinson to bring Jayla with him to Kansas at the school's expense.
It's uncertain what the future holds for Jayla. Individuals close to Self and Kansas have reportedly expressed interest in adopting her.
"When you stop and think about it, [Thomas] has got a 9-year-old sister left in his family," Self told reporters after the Texas game. "And she is half the country away."
Self politely declined to comment after the service, but in a statement released by the school he called the service "beautiful," adding that it was "sad, but also very uplifting. It was great to see that Lisa had so many family and friends come to pay their respects and pay tribute to her."
Lisa Robinson's family is asking that, in lieu of flowers or other gifts, contributions 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, D.C., 20005-3364.