New Tricks For Big Dog
The Bucks' Glenn Robinson, once deemed one-dimensional, is flashing an all-around game
Bucks coach George Karl, who has spent many a day this season ripping his best players, ceases and desists when the subject is Glenn (Big Dog) Robinson. "Right now there's no better small forward in the East," Karl says.
The fans have been slow to agree: At week's end Robinson wasn't in the top 10 among Eastern Conference forwards in the All-Star balloting—proof, perhaps, that the No. 1 pick of the 1994 draft is still perceived as merely a jump shooter. The vote doesn't take into account Robinson's leadership of the surging Bucks. After a 3-9 start Milwaukee had gone on an 18-6 roll through Sunday's games to close the Hornets' Central Division lead to a half game. The 6'7" Robinson was Milwaukee's leading scorer (22.1 points per game) and rebounder (7.4), and he ranked second in assists (3.7). He had even improved his defense, especially on the perimeter.
That sort of all-around play has been awhile coming for the 1994 college player of the year, who was drafted out of Purdue ahead of Jason Kidd and Grant Hill but didn't earn his first playoff win or All-Star berth until last season. Big Dog attributes his improvement to teammates who bring out the best in him. "I know he appreciates me," says point guard Sam Cassell, Robinson's best friend on the Bucks. "When he made the All-Star team last year, he called me at 7 a.m.—before he called his mother, before he called his agent—to thank me for pushing him."
Robinson's development as a pro was hindered in several ways. He didn't make a good first impression in Milwaukee when he missed his rookie preseason while holding out for what would be a 10-year, $68 million contract (which the Bucks extended in December 1999 through 2004-05). He was slow to embrace the notion of defense. Four sub-.500 years also set him back. "Glenn went through a lot of losing, and he had to protect himself from the criticism," Karl says. "Players in this league put on a layer of armor to rationalize what they're doing, but the truth is, you can't be special with that armor on. You've got to throw it away and be willing to take the criticism as it comes."
If anyone understands how to deliver armor-piercing criticism, it's Karl. In December he publicly scolded Robinson and kept him out of the starting lineup for one game for missing a team meeting. "Since then, Robinson's game has gone through the roof," says 76ers coach Larry Brown.
Frustrated by Karl, Robinson vented to his longtime agent, Charles Tucker, who doesn't believe in coddling his clients. "He's come to me a little ticked off a couple of times," says Tucker. "I tell him to make sure he's doing 100 percent of what he's supposed to do—not 99, but 100 and then some. The first tiling you need to do is to be good enough to make up for the mistakes of your teammates."
Robinson accepts similar admonishments from his mother, Christine Bridgeman, who was an unmarried teenager when she began raising him in Gary, Ind., and who watches every Bucks game. "She always tells me she can't wait until I get to the free throw line," where the TV cameras show a close-up, Robinson says. "She says, 'I can tell if you've been staying up too late and not getting your rest.' Sometimes I think I should steal some of my girlfriend's makeup and pat it on, but she'd see through that too."
His life off the court remains as simple as his quick-release jumper. "He keeps to a budget of $5,000 a month, which isn't bad for a guy who's making what he's making," says Tucker.
Last summer, when free agent Tim Thomas signed a $67 million contract to stay with Milwaukee, his agent, Arn Tellem, said the team promised Thomas that he would start at small forward—an indication that G.M. Ernie Grunfield planned to trade Robinson, whose career average of 21.1 points ranked third among active forwards, behind Karl Malone (26.0) and Grant Hill (21.6). "I didn't believe George and Ernie could make that promise, knowing the player I am," says Robinson, who nonetheless spent the summer working himself into the best shape of his career. Grunfeld says he merely assured Thomas that he would have an expanded role, which Karl recently supplied by starting him at power forward.