At an age when many of his contemporaries are pushing I up daisies, Will Robinson is still beating the bushes. " Indianapolis, Toledo, East Lansing," the spry 90-year-old says with a chuckle, listing his next scouting itinerary for the Detroit Pistons. "Looks like it's going to be a light week."
Hopscotching the country in search of college talent might leave another nonagenarian lost in space, but not Will Robinson. Every few days he packs his bags and heads to the airport in search of the next Joe Dumars or Dennis Rodman, players he helped discover as the right-hand man of Jack McCloskey, Detroit's general manager in the 1980s. Usually Robinson coordinates his schedule with 75-year-old New York Knicks scout Dick McGuire, a longtime friend who chauffeurs him around and helps look after him on the road. Fellow bird dogs call them Salt and Pepper.
The gregarious Robinson, whose official title is assistant to the president of basketball operations, has been a Pistons scout for 26 years. Before that he was the coach at Illinois State from 1970 to '75, the first African-American coach at an NCAA Division I college. "It was hard just to schedule games," Robinson says, recalling the racism he encountered as a black coach at a lesser-known school. "I played anywhere I could. And the refs would cheat a lot. I remember we had a basket waved off for a three-second violation—on a fast break!"
Robinson led Illinois State to five straight winning seasons and helped develop Doug Collins into the school's first All-America and the NBA's No. 1 draft choice in 1973. Collins, the coach of the Washington Wizards, still calls Robinson "one of the most influential people in my life."
Before breaking down color barriers, Robinson was a high school coaching legend in Detroit. In 33 years at Miller, Cass Tech and Pershing, his teams won 85% of their games and two state titles. Five players from the 1967 Pershing state championship team went on to play pro sports: Spencer Haywood and Ralph Simpson ( NBA), Glenn Doughty and Paul Seal ( NFL), and Marvin Lane (major league baseball).
Despite such success, Robinson's skin color prevented him from getting offers to coach big-time college teams. In 1969, he says, he was promised the University of Detroit job, largely because he had delivered the Titans' Haywood, whose legal guardian he had become, but school officials reneged at the last minute. Robinson calls this his biggest disappointment.
Haywood left Detroit the next season and signed with the ABA's Denver Rockets. The NBA didn't allow underclassmen to turn pro, so Robinson and Haywood filed a lawsuit challenging the rule. A federal court ruled in their favor; the Spencer Haywood decision, forcing the NBA to accept "hardship" cases, was a milestone in basketball history.
" Will Robinson was always about more than X's and O's," says Haywood, who went on to a 12-year NBA career and is now a successful businessman in the Detroit area. "He taught us about life. He stressed education, and he made sure we did the right thing at all times. He was more like a father than a coach." For Haywood that could be bad (as when Robinson made him take ballet lessons in high school to improve his footwork) and good (as when Robinson hopped a plane to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City to soothe Haywood's nerves before the biggest games of his life).
Robinson also taught his players not to let bitterness over society's prejudice blind their judgment. At the '68 Games, when racial tensions erupted on the U.S. team over the display of black-gloved fists by John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Robinson counseled black athletes to put aside their anger for another time. "I told them they were representing a country, not a race," he says. "Though I agreed with them on some points, it wasn't the right time or place."
For Robinson, whose own son, William Jr., is a coordinator of equal opportunity programs at Wayne State in Detroit, it has always been about doing the right thing. Though he has sent 16 players to the pro ranks, he says he's most proud of the more than 300 players who have graduated from college, many of them now doctors and lawyers.