Even the very best basketball players can be highly predictable, tirelessly flogging their pet moves, unable to go to their left, or in the case of someone like, say, Shaquille O'Neal, incapable of playing the game at all if it means moving more than five feet from the rim. But Purdue's Glenn Robinson, the 6'8" junior forward who is first in the nation in scoring (29.7 points per game at week's end), first in the Big Ten in rebounding (10.2 per game) and first in the next NBA draft if he chooses to make himself available, is nothing if not versatile.
"There are two sides of the street," Robinson once told an interviewer, speaking of the perilous avenues of his hometown, Gary, Ind. "You can choose to be on one side of the street—or you can go to the other side. I get along with people on both sides of the street."
On the court Robinson is equally adept at scoring in heavy traffic or hoisting one up from the corner. He can dribble from baseline to baseline, or he can reel in an alley-oop pass for a dunk. His 34-inch vertical leap would not be extraordinary except for his height, a point noted by Ohio State center Gerald Eaker, who watched Robinson torch the Buckeyes for 40 points on Feb. 23. "I didn't expect him to elevate that high," says Eaker. "He got the ball in the lane and he kept going up and up. There's really no way to guard him. All you do is try to contain him. I've never played against anybody like that."
At Indiana on Feb. 19, Robinson scored 39 points in an emotional 82-80 loss to Purdue's hated downstate rival. The Hoosiers had so little success guarding him that Indiana coach Bob Knight resorted to a matchup zone against Robinson in the second half, the highest and most painful compliment that Knight, the man-to-man man, can pay. Robinson's play so obviously rattled Knight that when Robinson was called for traveling with about four minutes to go, Knight clapped his hands over his head sort of like a seal and then began urging the crowd to do the same.
Knight had been given a foretaste of the damage Robinson can do a year ago, when Robinson unloaded 24 points on the Hoosiers in Bloomington. "He single-handedly ruined everything Indiana was trying to do in that game," recalls Boston Celtic scout Jon Jennings. "He destroyed them inside, and then he took them outside and shot threes. Versatility is the key to his game."
So much so, in fact, that Robinson may well be the most complete NCAA Player of the Year (a title he will not win officially until later this month) since 1979, when another Indiana phenom named Larry Bird won the award. Like Bird, Robinson has taken a nondescript bunch of teammates and elevated them beyond their wildest dreams, except that Robinson has done it playing in what may be the toughest conference in the country. As of Monday, Purdue was in first place in the Big Ten with a 25-4 record and was ranked No. 6 in the AP poll.
In the past decade the only players of the year who came close to matching Robinson's stats were LSU's O'Neal (27.6 points, 14.7 rebounds in 1990-91) and Navy's David Robinson (28.2 points, 11.8 rebounds in '86-87). But neither Shaq nor the Admiral possessed Glenn Robinson's arsenal. David Robinson had only one three-pointer in his award-winning season, and O'Neal had none, but Glenn Robinson had already made 61 through Sunday's games. Even Duke's Christian Laettner, that supposed paradigm of versatility, converted only 54 threes as a senior in 1991-92, and Laettner didn't have the boards (7.9) or the scoring (21.5) Robinson has. "Robinson plays a very simple game," Los Angeles Laker general manager Jerry West told the Los Angeles Times. "He just plays basketball the old-fashioned way."
Before Robinson ever played a game at Purdue, one of the school's custodians unleashed the nickname Big Dog on him. Robinson liked the name so much, he even had himself tattooed on the chest with the head of a snarling bulldog wearing a spiked collar. But Robinson might just as easily have left the tattoo parlor that day last year with a big red heart and the word MOTHER engraved on his breast, for in her formidable presence Big Dog is reduced to kibbles and bits.
Christine Bridgeman was an unmarried teenager when Glenn was born, but she was determined that her son would grow up straight and true. She had attended Roosevelt High in Gary, and she wanted her son to go there too. The school is a block away from the small house where Christine moved with her family when Glenn was old enough to enroll at Roosevelt High.
It was far from certain, however, that Robinson would play basketball at Roosevelt, for as recently as eight years ago his game was so shaky he refused even to go out for his seventh-grade team. "I had two fat little managers, a pair of twins, who used to outplay him when he was in the fourth or fifth grade," says Roosevelt coach Ron Heflin. "He wasn't very good. People don't understand how hard that kid worked. He hasn't always been a polished ballplayer."