Here's to you, Mr. Robinson
In 2001 I wrote an article for Sports Illustrated about a 90-year-old scout for the Pistons named Will Robinson. After waiting two months for it to get published, I finally picked up the phone and called the office. "It's on hold until we have room for it," the editor told me.
"Um, he's 90 years old," I explained. "I don't think we have all that much time."
Robinson got the last laugh, of course. He lived six more years. I should have known.
Robinson's death won't make big news. Most NBA fans are too young to know or care about the legendary former coach and scout credited with helping discover Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman. But he truly was a remarkable man, and one of the more colorful characters I have met in more than 20 years of writing about sports.
Robinson's life story was amazing. He was much more than just a basketball scout, as I tried to explain in my piece. Robinson played a role in some of the biggest moments in basketball history, from being the first black Division I coach (where he helped turn Doug Collins into the No. 1 overall pick) to the Spencer Haywood decision.
But while he made his mark as a coach, Robinson will be remembered also as a terrific human being and wonderful character. Friendly and outgoing, the ageless wonder was widely beloved by his former players and fellow birddogs. In researching the SI article, I couldn't find anybody to say a bad word about him.
Dumars sat with me for a good 30 minutes, way more time than I needed. It was clear how much he felt Robinson had influenced his life. Collins and Haywood also took the time to call me back and fill my notebook.
Just about every scout had a favorite Robinson story. Many mentioned his penchant for nodding off in his seat while "scouting" during his later years. Others mentioned his amazingly youthful appearance. Even in his early 90s, Robinson easily could have passed for 70. Others liked to tease him about his incredibly bad driving, his fondness for flirting with waitresses or the way he used to get squired around on scouting assignments by his good friend and fellow birddog Dick McGuire.
Robinson was black. McGuire was white. They used to call them Salt and Pepper.
Robinson's relationship with McGuire was a thing of beauty, indicative of both men's character. After a lifetime of facing racial prejudice in many forms, Robinson had plenty of reason to shut off his heart to a white man of the same generation. But he and McGuire were like brothers.
When talking to me about the racism he faced throughout his life, Robinson betrayed no hint of bitterness. He clearly was a man willing to forgive, and he loved his country. In 1968, when members of the Olympic track team staged their gloved protest, Robinson helped defuse the situation for the entire U.S. contingent by counseling Haywood and the black members of the basketball squad to put aside their anger and continue playing.
Robinson was also a proud family man, and a supporter of public education. He always said he was just as proud of the many kids he helped send to college, to become doctors and lawyers, as he was about those he helped become pro athletes.
A few months after that SI article appeared, I got a call from somebody in Hollywood. They were interested in making Robinson's life story into a movie. I don't know if they ever did, but they should.