NEW ORLEANS — One win away from a national championship, Thomas Robinson sat in front of tape recorders Sunday for likely one of the last times in his college career and wanted to talk about how personally he took an early-season loss to Kentucky.
He wanted to talk about how he felt “embarrassed” with his performance, how Kentucky got the best of him emotionally and physically. He wanted to talk about a payback opportunity in Monday’s national title game five months after the most frustrating game of the season for the all-American.
But after answering basketball-related questions for 22 minutes, a television reporter abruptly changed the subject, asking Robinson about this season being easier now that it’s more than a year after his well-chronicled personal loss. Robinson leaned forward and asked the reporter to repeat the question.
“Did you say easier?” Robinson said. “It’s never easier, nah.”
About an hour later, Kansas director of basketball operations Barry Hinson sat in the Jayhawks’ locker room. Hinson was in Washington with Robinson on that snowy morning in January 2011 for the funeral of Robinson’s mother, Lisa. In one month, Robinson and younger sister Jayla lost their maternal grandparents and mother.
When told about the inartful question in Sunday’s media session, Hinson’s eyes welled up. He looked away and paused for several seconds before saying, “Yeah, I hate . . .” He never finished the sentence.
“That’s when you want to be there to protect him,” Hinson said. “You see what he has done [maturity-wise], even handling that question, my god.”
All of the players who will compete in Monday’s national title game have been bombarded with silly, insightful and irrelevant questions from reporters for a month during tournament play. But every time Robinson addresses reporters, he knows that at any moment he could be asked about his feelings on a topic more private and personal than his national player of the year credentials.
At any moment, a question could rekindle memories. On Thursday, Robinson was asked whether his sister would be in attendance at the Final Four. He politely declined comment.
“We’re all very protective of him, especially Coach [Bill] Self,” Hinson said. “Because everybody wants to talk about it. And we don’t want to talk about. He shouldn’t have to talk about it every day. It’s not fair for him to have to go over the moment. On one side, it’s a feel-good story. On his side, it’s not.
“Everybody wants to reach out to hug him. What they don’t realize is that every time a hug comes it’s a remembrance of what happened.”
Over the past year, the Kansas basketball office has been flooded with e-mails and letters from people saying what an inspiration Robinson has been. There was the mother who lost her daughter because of a drunk driver. There were others who wrote after losing husbands and wives and other loved ones.
Every once in a while, Hinson will show Robinson some of the letters. They commend Robinson on how he has handled the loss publicly with maturity and class, and how he has comforted and cared for Jayla, who currently lives with her biological father, James Paris, in Washington. They commend Robinson on how he has channeled his emotions into dominating on the basketball court.
But sometimes Hinson won’t share the letters because of the emotions they stir.
“I try not to do it very much,” he said.
Just from a basketball perspective, Robinson’s journey is noteworthy, having grown from a two-year role player into arguably the best overall player in the country. He plays with an energy and passion that even he acknowledged is hard to find among those he is competing against.
And the NCAA tournament has provided Robinson with head-to-head matchups with the best at his position. He outscored all of North Carolina’s long-heralded front-court players in the Midwest Region final. Then, in the national semifinals, he scored a team-high 19 points while outdueling Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger in Saturday’s come-from-behind victory over the Buckeyes.
And now Robinson gets a rematch with the Kentucky team that beat Kansas, 75-65, at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15. In the loss, Robinson scored just 11 points on 5-of-12 shooting.
“Just extra motivation for payback,” Robinson said of that loss in the second game of the season.
A victory Monday would cap an extraordinary basketball season for Robinson. But Hinson knows that Robinson does not need a national title to validate how he has thrived amid enormous hardship.
In the coming weeks, Robinson likely will forgo his senior season at Kansas and enter the NBA draft. Projected to be a lottery pick, Robinson will be in position to provide financially for his sister.
Whenever that move comes, Robinson will never be far from the family in Lawrence, Kan., that has protected and at times shielded him from painful memories.
“He is getting ready to take the next step,” Hinson said, “and I hope somebody is there to protect him. I hope it continues to be a great story. He’s got to have somebody there at all times — and all he has to do is reach back to Kansas.”