SI Vault
Leigh Montville
November 20, 1989
Rumeal Robinson arrived at Michigan from a home stamped with caring
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November 20, 1989

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Rumeal Robinson arrived at Michigan from a home stamped with caring

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"I hear you have a problem," she said. "How would you like to come to my house for dinner? We're having chicken."

News accounts have said that Rumeal was "abandoned" by his natural mother, but Louis says that term is too harsh. Rumeal was born in Jamaica and lived there with his grandmother for his first seven years while his mother worked in Massachusetts. His parents were separated before he was born. By the time his mother sent for him, she had become a stranger, and even now the circumstances of her life remain a mystery to him. He had grown used to a lenient lifestyle at his grandmother's house. His mother wanted a stricter environment. They fought. He left to live with foster parents. He came back. He and his mother fought again. He left again.

He evinced a determination, even at that tender age, that seemed unique. He knew what he wanted. He was fearless. He did what he thought was right.

"We had some cross words once, maybe a couple of months after he came to live with us," says Louis. "I don't know what we were arguing about. It was nothing. But he says to me, just like this, 'I'll leave if you want.' I said to myself, Whoa, back off. This kid is different."

The Ford Hotel was exactly what the kid needed. He fell into the old house's rhythms, especially in sports. He played basketball on the dirt court in the front yard, where the rim was attached to a large oak tree. The kids didn't do much dribbling because of the rocks, so everybody charged at the hoop for layups. Donald would scream to his mother to come out and watch. Then he would roll past the new kid and dunk. Soon, the new kid started working on that.

Days and weeks and months accumulated at the Ford Hotel. The kid never left. He grew more confident and open as time passed. He drew a picture of Dopey of the Seven Dwarfs one day in the kitchen and presented it to Helen. She put it on the side of the refrigerator and has never taken it down.

"Finally, we decided to adopt him," says Louis. "I sat him down and explained what we wanted to do. He asked if he would have to change his name. I told him no, that he had a fine name. He said he liked it, too, but if we wanted him to change, he would. We said no."

In Cambridge, basketball was important during much of this time because Patrick Ewing was from the neighborhood. First he was leading Rindge and Latin High to one state championship after another, and then he was at college, leading Georgetown to the NCAA title. Everyone was playing basketball. Helen knew Ewing, and sometimes she would visit his mother. Sometimes she would bring along Rumeal. He would stare at the trophies.

When Georgetown won the national championship, in 1984, she talked with the mayor of Cambridge and suggested that the town hold a Patrick Ewing Day, with a parade. The mayor asked her to plan the festivities. "I became the Cambridge expert on parades," she says. "How was I to know that someday I'd be planning one for my own son?"

There were signs. When Louis headed to work every morning at 5 a.m., 15-year-old Rumeal would be coming through the front door, back from running—along the Charles River, through the courtyards of MIT, around the fringes of Harvard, all the while wearing a 40-pound vest. He played basketball nonstop. Rindge and Latin would win another state championship, this time with a guard, not a seven-foot center, as its star.

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