ST. LOUIS — About two hours before the Midwest Region semifinals Friday night, Kansas star Thomas Robinson received a text message on his cellphone that made him flash the smile that has illustrated one of the great stories in college basketball this season. It was a message from his former AAU coach in Northeast Washington, Dwight Redd, a man Robinson calls “a father to me.”
Redd hadn’t told the 6-foot-9 junior forward he was coming to St. Louis, hoping to surprise him now that Robinson is on the cusp of completing his evolution from a skinny 13-year-old on the playgrounds of Southeast Washington to a chiseled physical specimen expected to be one of the top five picks in this year’s NBA draft. That, though, only made Robinson worry about tickets as the Jayhawks were getting ready for their Sweet 16 game against North Carolina State.
“He’s taken care of me my whole life, so when he told me he was here [Friday], I was kind of mad I didn’t know because . . . our tickets had to be in the night before the game,” Robinson said Saturday as No. 2 seed Kansas prepared to face No. 1 seed North Carolina on Sunday in the Midwest Region final.
“Basketball didn’t always look so clear for me and when it didn’t look clear for me I was just a regular kid in D.C., and Dwight, he didn’t see it as that. He took care of me no matter what my situation was. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have made it this far.”
Redd, though, had already purchased tickets, knowing full well the last thing Robinson needed was another distraction. After all, it was only 14 months ago that Robinson was receiving a wave of surprise phone calls for the worst reasons.
In a span of less than a month last January, Robinson had to deal with the deaths of his grandmother, grandfather and mother, Lisa, who raised him and his 9-year-old sister Jayla in Washington. Basketball has been his outlet and a way to channel his desire to provide for his family, something that hasn’t really changed even dating back to his days at Eastern High and Riverdale Baptist, Redd explained.
“People think he’s this overnight sensation, but it’s been years coming with a whole lot of hard work and determination,” he said. “At the end of the day, he knows the way Lisa loved Jayla, so he’s always like, ‘I gotta make sure my sister is okay.’
“He’s had to make the transformation from a boy to a man overnight. He’s still that happy-go-lucky, free-spirited kind of guy, but just with more responsibilities because he knows Jayla is all he has. At least that’s how he feels.”
Robinson doesn’t talk much about his sister or last year anymore, his focus solely on getting Kansas back to the Final Four. Jayla currently lives with her biological father, James Paris, in Washington and attends a private school thanks to money provided by a scholarship fund set up by Kansas fans.
If Kansas is to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2008, it largely will be because of Robinson. He’s averaging a team-high 17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds per game after taking on a secondary role the past two years behind first-round draft picks Marcus and Markieff Morris and is considered by some to be college basketball’s best player this season. That, though, was not always the case.
Riverdale Baptist Coach Louis Wilson still remembers how raw Robinson was when he first came to the school before his junior year of high school. But he knew there was something special in his new player and recalled telling former Maryland assistant Keith Booth at the time, “this kid, he’s gonna be really, really good.”
Maryland didn’t offer Robinson a scholarship until his senior year, when his recruitment went viral following a dominant performance at a Reebok summer camp in Philadelphia, but the Terrapins weren’t the only ones who underestimated him. As a junior at Riverdale Baptist, Robinson only mustered honorable mention All-Met honors. He left the area to play at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire for his senior year because “my mom wanted me to get out of D.C.,” Robinson said.
Robinson lived with Wilson in Upper Marlboro during the week while he attended Riverdale Baptist, and his work ethic was insatiable. After dinner most nights, he would beg Wilson to let him go back to the gym even though he had already been through a full practice.
“The sacrifices he’s made throughout his life to the game of basketball is why he’s now a star in the making,” Wilson said. “I get a smile every time I see him performing with that great, big old smile.”
It’s that toothy grin that defines Robinson these days. Teammate Tyshawn Taylor said Saturday that it’s ever-present whenever they’re hanging out together and believes “that’s how he keeps himself sane” in light of what he has faced over the past year.
Kansas Coach Bill Self said it has been an emotional season for him and Robinson, because he’s never quite sure when his star’s mind turns to the tragedies that fateful month. “But I don’t know if I’ve ever had anybody that I respected more for how he’s taken an unbelievable situation and somehow spun it in a way that betters his life,” Self said this week.
When asked about that radiant smile Saturday, Robinson offered a brief glimpse into his soul as he explained, “I was always taught and raised to stay smiling and never let anyone know what’s going on with you.”
“It still hasn’t hit what I’ve done this season,” he later added. “I just know I want to keep it going. I don’t want to stop now.”