Tough love benefits Thomas Robinson
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The world wanted to protect him, to wrap him in the warm cocoon of a bear hug.
Overcome with grief and riddled with helplessness, the Kansas community was determined to turn its sadness into action.
A ride to class, a lunch buddy, a friendly ear or a supportive shoulder, whatever Thomas Robinson wanted, they were there to help.
They couldn't make it all better. There is no bandage big enough to cover Robinson's heartache. But his KU family would be damned sure to love him and coddle him to comfort.
All except one man, one outlier who refused to soften his approach.
And that one man made all the difference.
By now, almost everyone in college basketball knows Robinson's heart-wrenching story. He lost his beloved grandmother and grandfather in the span of three weeks.
Then, five days after his grandfather's passing -- on Jan. 21, 2011 -- his mother, Lisa, died unexpectedly, leaving Robinson, in the midst of his sophomore season at Kansas, in charge of his 9-year-old sister, Jayla, who lived half a country away.
Were that the end of the story, had Robinson's tale stopped at Lisa's gravesite, with the heartbreaking picture of Jayla wrapped around her brother's waist, this would be a tragedy.
Instead, the final chapters are a long way from being written, and Robinson, once the brave figure who played in a game the day after Lisa died, is a hero.
He is the front-runner for national player of the year, a guaranteed future All-American, and his Jayhawks, who travel to Texas A&M on Wednesday before hosting Missouri on Saturday in an epic Border War showdown, are ranked No. 5 in the country.
The same player who averaged 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds as a sophomore now accounts for 17.7 and 11.8.
Robinson got here, to sniff the game's rarefied airs, not because the whole world pitied him, but because one man refused to.
"I thought if I do really care about him and want him to live out the dreams he has for himself and his family, then I owe it to him not to budge," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "I told him at the beginning of the season, I'm not going to budge. I am not going to kiss your butt."
When Self walked into his office over the summer, he'd hear the bounce of the ball. Like a lot of coaches with newfangled basketball facilities, the KU coach arranged his space so that from his desk, he can raise the blinds and spy on the practice courts beneath him.
NCAA rules prohibit Self from working with his players in the summer, but nothing prevented him from seeing who was already at work.
"If I'd get in at 9, Thomas was either finishing up or I'd hear the ball bouncing and know he was there," Self said. "I'd say maybe 60 percent of the time that happened."
I thought if I do really care about him and want him to live out the dreams he has for himself and his family, then I owe it to him not to budge. I told him at the beginning of the season, I'm not going to budge. I am not going to kiss your butt.” -- Kansas coach Bill Self
There are only two places to go when dropped to rock bottom: You can wallow there forever, asking questions that will never have palatable answers, or you can climb your way out and live.
Robinson really didn't have a choice. In the span of 24 hours, he went from being a carefree college kid to someone who has a major say-so in the life of an elementary schooler. (Jayla's father, James Paris, is her legal guardian.) His decisions, serious or foolhardy, would no longer affect just him; every one would affect Jayla, too.
It was not necessarily a welcome reality. Robinson admits there are days, even now, when he envies the simplicity of his teammates' lives. One second he'll be goofing off, the next filling out paperwork so Jayla can take a school trip back home in Washington, D.C.
In some ways, instant adulthood crossed his path at just the right time. Before Lisa died, before life went haywire, Robinson was well aware that in his junior season, Kansas' success or failure would sit firmly on his broad shoulders.
Without twins Marcus and Markieff Morris, it would be up to Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor to determine how the Jayhawks' season would go.
And honestly, not many thought this Kansas team was equal to the squads that won at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title the previous seven seasons.
"Last year if we lost a game, nobody would blame me; they'd blame the twins," Robinson said. "Now it's my turn, and I didn't want to be the reason why our team wasn't good this year."
A hard worker by nature, Robinson, now fueled by the need to provide for his sister, became a workout monster. He averaged three workouts a day in the summer -- alone, with the big men and then with the guards.
And on the days he wanted to roll over, to bag a conditioning drill or take a day off, he'd think of Jayla, of an NBA dream that once was all about success but now also offered the promise of security.
Thanks to the NBA lockout, Robinson was never at a loss for a challenge, spending plenty of days measuring his game against the Kansas greats who already called the NBA home.
Those sessions only taught Robinson what he already believed -- that he could make it.
"He really believes that, when he steps on the court, if he plays well he can be the best guy on the floor, regardless of the situation," Self said. "I'm not sure a guy who played 14 minutes a game last year should feel that way entering a season, but somehow or other, he did. A lot of that came from the summer."
That his game grew at all is nothing shy of amazing. If Robinson didn't improve or if his numbers dipped, who would have blamed him? He had every right to crawl into the fetal position.
Instead, the staggering blow of his mother's death has blossomed into the strongest of inspirations.
"It's why I play the way I play," he said simply.
Robinson has gotten very good at answering questions about that awful four-week stretch. He has been asked so many times to put it in context that he can sound a bit rote or distant, even when he is sincere.
Every once in a while, though, there is a glimmer, more than just a stock answer to let you know where this bottomless reservoir of inner strength is coming from in a kid of all of 20 years.
When asked recently what he would do when he makes it in the NBA, Robinson paused for a long time, exhaled loudly and thought hard.
"Wow, that's a tough question," he said. "Wow. I guess I don't know, I guess, I'd take my little sister out to dinner and then probably renew the stone on my mother's grave, get her a nicer one."
Earlier this season, Self had a few friends in town. They were getting ready to go out to dinner when the women among the couples, every single one of them, wanted to know whether they could invite Robinson to join them.
"Everybody," Self said, "loves him. Everybody. It's amazing. I don't think I've ever been in a situation like this, where in people's mind Thomas can do no wrong."
Men want to mentor him; women want to nurture him.
No one wants him to suffer, not even for a millisecond.
Which puts Self in a rather interesting predicament.
"He's playing at Kansas and he's obviously a talented kid," Self said. "He's a good-looking kid. He's a humble kid, and he's had these awful, awful tragedies, and everybody adores him.
"Which to me," Self continued, "is bad. I mean, who does he answer to? Who holds him accountable when everyone adores him?"
Self decided it would be him. He would take the unpopular stand, and love Robinson enough to coach without kid gloves and demand as much, it not more, of his star player.
He would, in essence, be the parent Robinson no longer had.
Coaching is not unlike parenting, anyway.
It's a constant high-wire act without a net. Fun is OK; friend is not. Being disliked is acceptable; being disrespected is not. The coaches who find the balance, who aren't afraid to risk popularity points in the short term, usually earn long-term loyalty from their players and success on their résumés.
That's how Self always coached, unafraid to tell his players -- especially the really good ones -- that they were behaving like knuckleheads or that they weren't nearly as good as everyone else thought.
But how do you do that to a kid who has endured so much suffering?
Self is human. His heart ached for Robinson. He was there when Robinson's grandparents died. He was there in the minutes after Robinson got the call from Jayla, saying their mother had collapsed. He was there when Robinson insisted he could play against Texas one day later. And he was there at the funeral and then later, back at Lawrence, where the season went on but normal never returned.
Robinson would be distracted in practice, and Self's first instinct was to ride him. Then he'd pause. What if, Self wondered, Robinson was distracted because he just walked by the tree planted on the Kansas campus to memorialize his mother?
"There are a lot of days when he's just zoned out for a period of time," Self said. "I wonder what he's thinking."
Self, however, knew what Robinson wanted -- to succeed in a way no one predicted a year earlier, to carry a team to greatness so he could carry his sister to happiness.
And as a coach, there is only one way Self knew to make that happen -- to coach him like he always coached him. He would be the one who demanded more, who even now sees a kid averaging nearly 12 rebounds a game and insists he could average 14 if he pushed a little harder.
Self admits that by playing Robinson 31 minutes a game, he's probably doing his statistics a disservice, that the physical exhaustion at times might cost him productivity.
To which Self has basically said, tough. Jeff Withey has come on as a serviceable frontcourt mate, but the Jayhawks won't win without Robinson on the floor.
"There is a human side to it, and it was hard, really hard," Self said. "But I knew what I needed to do. I had to be the person to hold him accountable. He's tested me, to see if I would budge, and I didn't."
It was exactly the right call. Self's tough love and Robinson's own determination have created a wonderful monster, a fierce competitor who is not only the best player on his team but perhaps the best in the country.
Responsibility, it turns out, is not always a millstone.
It can be a buoy.
"I used to wonder sometimes if all of this makes me more stressed," Robinson said. "But I also question if I'd be as good as I've been without it, without the focus. I don't think I would be. I actually know I wouldn't be."
Jayla wants to play basketball, or at least tinker with it. She's asked her big brother about it on more than one occasion.
He keeps telling her no.
"I don't want her to play," Robinson said, laughing. "I'm too competitive. I worry if she's not good, it will bother me."
Maybe Jayla just needs the right coach, one who will love her enough to push her.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter @dgoneil1.