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Old 12-18-2004, 12:12 PM  
Mr. Laz Mr. Laz is offline
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KU: Russell Robinson adjusting to life at Kansas

Posted on Sat, Dec. 18, 2004

A BRONX TALE

Kansas a world away from the one Robinson knows

By JASON KING
The Kansas City Star

LAWRENCE — One by one, they swing open the glass doors of Allen Fieldhouse.

Practice ended 45 minutes ago, and now the Kansas Jayhawks jog toward the parking lot, trying to escape the chill that's left a frosty film on their windshields. No one thinks to offer the freshman guard a ride.

Russell Robinson doesn't mind, though. As he steps out into the 29-degree air, he doesn't even zip up his coat. Whether it's a fall hike through the apricot leaves and campus hills or tonight's peaceful stroll to his apartment, Robinson has come to cherish walks like this. They remind him of where he's been — and make him appreciate where he is.

No honking horns, no neon lights, no winos arguing in front of a liquor store. Just silence.

Robinson, a Bronx native, pulls his hood over his head.

“It's nice,” he says, “to be able to walk somewhere without having to look over your shoulder.”

***

Some days, Robinson can't decide if the silence is good or bad.

In just six college games, he has established himself as one of the top freshmen basketball players in America. He's averaging 7.3 points — and playing some maddening defense — as the first guard off the bench for No. 2 Kansas.

Dads are buying replicas of Robinson's No. 3 jersey as Christmas presents for their sons. Strangers stop him in Wal-Mart and ask for autographs. Coach Bill Self marvels at the 18-year-old's comfort level in running KU's offense.

“Russell is the only freshman that's not overwhelmed right now,” Self says.

Ask Robinson about his first six months of college, and he will tell you some challenges simply aren't tough enough.

After all, this isn't New York. This isn't home.

“I'm having to grow up,” says Robinson, reclining in a leather chair at Allen Fieldhouse. “I've started to realize that maybe my way — the way I've grown up — isn't the only way.”

Robinson's parents, Theresa and Russell Sr., separated when he was in the third grade. When Army duty called for his father to move from New York to Killeen, Texas, Robinson went with him. They stayed 15 months before relocating to Fayetteville, N.C.

Robinson had trouble relating to classmates from well-to-do suburbs and felt isolated, often spending his recess time alone. He missed the brash streets of the big city, the pickup basketball games in the parks, and the subways that whisked him from borough to borough to see his buddies. By junior high, he was back with his mom in the Bronx.

“I'm a city kid,” Robinson says. “And I thought New York was one of the best cities in the world.”

And yet, when Robinson walked out the doors of Rice High School each afternoon, he saw gang members lingering in the parking lot. When he rolled home, he sometimes passed childhood friends who had become dropouts and peddled drugs on a street corner in his neighborhood. When he visited his father's apartment on Mosholu Avenue, he often passed an adult bookstore or stepped over homeless people sleeping near the front stoop.

Robinson became immune to it all. He was an “A” and “B” student in high school whose passions were drawing, making collages of his newspaper clippings and spending quiet nights with his girlfriend.

New York and all its temptations were the ultimate challenge, and staring them down made Robinson feel as big and bad as the city.

“I don't want to make it sound like a danger zone,” said Demetrius Hicks, Robinson's former teammate and a current senior at Rice High School. “But there are plenty of obstacles around here that make you grow up — fast. You either go one way or the other.”

Robinson went the other.

***

Blood speckles dotted the hardwood under Robinson's feet. It was the summer before his senior year, and a pickup game against some roughnecks from Jersey had turned nasty at a local gym.

Fighting for position in the paint meant a forearm to the chin. Layups were met with a shove in the back. A simple jump shot was reason enough to trash-talk.

“It wasn't basketball; it was a boxing match,” Russell Robinson Sr. says. “And Russell caught one of the best shots of the day.”

After examining his son on the sideline, the elder Robinson insisted they rush him to a hospital for stitches. Robinson's bottom lip was split wide open, the aftermath of a vicious elbow to the face.

“He wouldn't do it. He wouldn't go — not until after the game was finished,” Robinson Sr. says. “He went right back out there and kept playing, basically drinking his own blood.”

Robinson saved his battles for New York's basketball courts, where street-ball legends attract fans and filmmakers on famous blacktops such as Rucker Park and West Fourth.

“Where I'm from, a foul ain't a foul unless you see blood,” Robinson says.

For Robinson, summer afternoons meant catching the subway with friends and moving from park to park — or as he calls it, “traveling.” Winners played until they were defeated. Lose one time, Robinson says, and you might as well call it a day, considering how many players were waiting for a game.

“Sometimes my community traveled with as many as 15 people,” Robinson says. “The games were five-on-five. But it was always good to have a lot of your boys there to watch your back … you know, in case something happened.”

From Manhattan to Harlem to Brooklyn to Queens, Robinson developed a reputation as one of the best ballers in the area, even though he was often going up against men 10 and 20 years older. Hicks remembers a game when his and Robinson's team matched up with a group of players who were “on the wrong path in life.”

The more Robinson beat them to the basket or made a steal, the angrier they became.

“They kept getting in Russell's face and threatening to beat him up,” Hicks says. “I got a little worried, you know, thinking we should leave. But Russell wouldn't do it. He just kept on schoolin' 'em. When it was over, they had no choice but to hug him and pay him respect.”

That toughness paid dividends for Robinson at tradition-rich Rice High, alma mater of NBA players such as Felipe Lopez and Kenny Satterfield. Robinson led his team to the state title as a sophomore.

Fueled by his summer-league success with the AAU Gauchos, Robinson entered his junior year as one of the nation's top recruits. But one particular recruiter stood out.

Norm Roberts, a former Kansas assistant under Self, was raised in Queens and related to Robinson so well that “he could finish my sentences,” Robinson says.

Roberts knew it would be difficult persuading Robinson to move halfway across the country. In the 106-year history of the program, only five players from New York had worn a KU uniform. Still, each time he watched Robinson play, Roberts knew he couldn't give up.

“When the game got tougher, he got better,” says Roberts, now head coach at St. John's. “When he needed to get a stop defensively, he could do it. When he needed to make a big shot, he could do it. He's one of those kids who's always smiling. He's soft-spoken in a lot of ways. But it's amazing how he transforms when he gets on the court as far as personality.”

After touring campuses at Kentucky, Connecticut and Georgia Tech, Robinson agreed to visit Kansas the weekend of the KU football team's upset victory over Missouri in September 2003. He was among the thousands of fans who rushed the field after the game and joined the mob as it carried the goal posts to Potter Lake.

“That day I felt what everyone else was feeling — I felt the KU spirit,” Robinson says. “I knew right then that this was where I wanted to be.”

Robinson announced his commitment the following week. The Jayhawks had a new style of player.

“New York kids bring a different kind of toughness,” Roberts says. “There's nothing tougher than playing in a Rucker Park tournament. You've got your whole community watching. There's nowhere to hide. You've got to be tough all the way through.

“Russell grew up with all of that. Kansas needed a player like him.”

And Robinson needed a place like Kansas.

***

The phone stopped ringing in September.

Theresa Robinson had grown used to getting calls from her son during his first month in Lawrence. Eventually, though, hearing Mom's voice became too painful for Robinson. He missed her, missed his girlfriend and his boys back in the Bronx. He missed the whole lifestyle.

Robinson couldn't walk out of his apartment and buy a hot dog from a street vendor or eat chicken fried rice at his favorite Chinese restaurant down the block. He didn't have a car, and there were no subways to sweep him away for an afternoon of shopping.

When he attended KU summer school in June, it all seemed like one big road trip. Once he moved for good, the enormity of the change set in.

“I started to think, ‘This is what I'm going to be dealing with. This is my life for the next four years,' ” Robinson says. “I started getting homesick, and calling back to New York just made it worse.”

Robinson pauses, looking down as he twiddles his thumbs.

“Everything here was just so different.”

It wasn't just the atmosphere. It was the people. Everyone was friendly as could be, but Robinson couldn't relate. Like the grade-school kid who sat alone at recess, Robinson was once again socializing with the upper crust, and he stood out as much as his accent.

“I came here thinking the New York way of life was the only way — the right way,” Robinson says. “Now I'm realizing that's not exactly the case.”

Robinson has had no choice but to adjust. In the last two months, he's spent more and more time talking with classmates from different backgrounds and cultures. He's letting his guard down a bit, opening his mind to new ideas and his heart to new people.

“I haven't met one arrogant person in Lawrence — not one,” Robinson says. “Seeing how other people do things has helped me grow as a person. Everybody thinks their way is the right way. Now I see that there are a lot of right ways.”

Things are taking shape for Robinson when it comes to basketball, too. He's averaging 14.7 minutes a game as the first player off the bench and is one of the Jayhawks' top defenders, the label he embraces the most.

“For me defense is a pride thing,” says Robinson, who ranks second on the team in steals. “I just think, ‘Hey, I'm not going to let this guy go by me. I'm not going to let him outplay me.' It should hurt when someone scores on you.”

Self marvels at Robinson's composure. He said the trend for most freshmen is to follow a good play with two bad ones, or a strong game with a lousy game. Robinson has been steady — just as he was on the unforgiving asphalt of New York.

“That's the reason I don't get rattled,” he says. “I've been playing in pressure situations like this my whole life.”

***

Back in the Bronx, Robinson's father has ordered the Full Court Package through his cable provider. A postal worker, he's yet to see his son play for Kansas in person. But, even a thousand miles away, he can see that things are going well in Lawrence.

“You can tell Russell is happy — shoot, he plays happy,” Robinson Sr. says. “It's good to see him smiling again. The people there have embraced him. He feels welcome at Kansas.”

Hicks, the high school friend, senses it, too. He says Robinson told him a few weeks ago that he can envision himself making his home in Lawrence once his basketball career is finished.

“I know there are about 47,000 people out there,” Hicks says. “But the way Russell talks, it's like one, small community where everyone knows each other and gives each other love. I think he's appreciating that more and more each day.”

A few months ago, Robinson learned to drive. He's got his license now and, before long, his father will buy him his first car. Robinson is hoping for an SUV; Dad says he'll suggest something smaller and a bit more modest.

Either way, Robinson is looking forward to those afternoons when he's alone, when he can cruise through Lawrence with no particular destination in sight.

“I'll just drive around,” he says, “where everything is open and free.”

To reach Jason King, Kansas reporter for The Star, call (816) 234-4386 or send e-mail to jking@kcstar.com.




New York Jayhawks

Russell Robinson is one of the few KU players to hail from New York.


Player Seasons Hometown
G Don Auten 1945-47 Rochester
G Tim Banks 1981-82, 1983-84 New York City
G Terry Brown 1989-91 Clyde
C Art Housey 1979-81 Bronx
F Ron Johnston 1954-57 Sea Cliff

South Carolina at Kansas

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Old 12-18-2004, 12:45 PM   #2
Skip Towne Skip Towne is offline
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KU and Robinson seem to be a good fit.
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Old 12-18-2004, 03:41 PM   #3
Ari Chi3fs Ari Chi3fs is offline
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man, that story gave me goosebumps. Wow. He is definately a "baller"... everytime he is on the court he makes shit happen.

Norm Roberts was HUGE in recruiting for Bill Self... kind of a shame that he is gone.
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