Inside the small room with white cinder-block walls came glimpses of Thomas Robinson.
When one of the eight television cameras surrounding the Kansas junior shifted, wisps of beard on his face and large, earnest eyes emerged through the scrum.
There wasn’t room to move in the locker room at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., last week without touching someone else. All 6-feet-10 and 237 pounds of Robinson folded into a flimsy plastic chair, where he held his left pinky with his right hand and shifted fingers every few seconds.
Two photographers raised their cameras high above the crush of journalists thrusting six microphones and more recorders and breathless questions toward Robinson. The cameras’ clicks overwhelmed his voice.
Deep lines crossed Robinson’s forehead when he answered each question with just enough words for a sound bite. Robinson, one of four finalists for the Naismith national player of the year award and a projected top-three pick in June’s NBA draft, rubbed his chin. This was his 21st birthday. He shrugged off the day. And maybe, for an instant, the sadness Robinson carries surfaced.
Suddenly, Robinson and his 8-year old sister, Jayla, were alone.
That month follows Robinson each trip onto the court, like Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup between Kansas and N.C. State in St. Louis.
“Basketball has a whole different meaning for him now than it did a year and a half ago,” said Jason Smith, Robinson’s coach at the Brewster (N.H.) Academy his senior year. “He plays with that passion and energy, but there’s something else fueling that fire. He wants to make it a career to provide for his younger sister.”
Basketball became Robinson’s outlet. His grief has merged with his on-court gifts to create a player who averaged 17.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game while attracting constant double- and triple-teams.
“Everybody admires him that comes in touch with him around our game,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, “because I don’t know how many guys could do what he’s done.”
Robinson’s first two years at Kansas didn’t resemble those of most top-50 recruits. He was stuck behind Marcus and Markieff Morris, among others, in a deep rotation of big men. Points and rebounds usually trickled down in single digits. To Smith and Lou Wilson, Robinson’s coach at Upper Marlboro’s Riverdale Baptist as a junior, Robinson seemed to play at 100 mph. He would try not to make mistakes, play quickly and, more often than not, hand over the ball.
That’s not much different than the rangy, energetic 10-year-old Wilson first noticed playing for the AAU’s Fort Washington Bullets.
The aggression, relentlessness and borderline ferocity each possession hasn’t changed. Robinson still sucks the marrow from every trip down the court. But now he isn’t in such a hurry. Working with Kansas assistant and former KU star Danny Manning left him better understanding the game. Robinson wanted to be a smarter player. Then his jumper tightened up. So did his ballhandling.
“He’s progressed so much,” Kansas junior center Jeff Withey said. “People can’t do anything to stop him.”
His poise has increased, too. When Robinson first drew those double- and triple-teams at season’s start, he didn’t know what to do. At Kansas, he hadn’t been the focus of an opposing defense before. Frustration came first. Now he thrives on the attention.
Smith marvels at how Robinson has matured. So do Robinson’s teammates. Smith texts him reminders to focus on the NCAA tournament, not his draft prospects. The deaths of his mother and grandparents forced him to grow up, Smith believes. And, in the process, Robinson has become known for what he is doing on the court rather than what he endured off it.
Jayla Robinson lives with her father, James Paris, in the District after a custody dispute with Willatant Austin Jr., Lisa Robinson’s stepbrother, in Prince George’s County Circuit Court was dismissed in December.
Still, the sadness seems to come with any glimpse of Robinson. Self can’t seem to say enough nice things about his best player. Each mention isn’t far away from the words “tragic” and “terrible.”
“With the circumstances he’s under, he’s been really, really blessed,” Wilson said. “I know his mother is looking down on Earl, as she called him, and giving him a big smile and thumbs-up.”