The Search For Stability: Thomas Robinson’s Journey From Kansas to the NBA

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Photo Credit: Ryan Simpson

By: Kendall Garriss

Twitter: @kgarriss14

“And with the fifth pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, the Sacramento Kings select Thomas Robinson, from the University of Kansas.” When Robinson’s name was called on draft night he could not help but to break down in tears as he embraced his younger sister, Jayla. As Robinson walked to the stage to shake NBA Commissioner David Stern’s hand, there was a cathartic aura that surrounded the moment, given all the tragedy and heartbreak Robinson had endured.

Robinson, a Washington, D.C., native, played his high school ball at Brewster Academy before he committed to play for Bill Self and the Kansas Jayhawks. As a freshman, Robinson quickly became friends with the Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus. Their mother, Angel, also lived in Kansas and was widely regarded as the “team mom”. “[Angel] just took care of everybody,” Barry Hinson, then director of basketball operations at Kansas, said. “She was mama to me. She was mama to the staff. She was mama to the players. Everybody just naturally drifted toward her.”

Robinson’s mother, Lisa, asked Angel for an important request: to take care of her son. Angel served as Robinson’s second mother. Angel gave Lisa frequent updates about how Thomas was progressing or why he had not called back on a certain day. Usually Robinson could be found in gym, working out with the Morris twins. Robinson describes his relationship with Angel and the twins as being deeper than basketball. “I idolized them when I first met them,” Robinson said. “Because I met people just like me, [with] similar backgrounds, and the way they worked.”

During Robinson’s sophomore season tragedy struck. Within the span of 25 days, Robinson’s grandmother, grandfather and mother died. The losses of his grandparents in such rapid succession was enough of a hardship but matters only worsened with the unexpected loss of Lisa, who died at 37, of a heart attack. It was during this time when Robinson’s bond with the Morris family reached a new level as they served as his pillars for strength and support.

Kansas Head Coach Bill Self remembers trying to console Robinson and was awestruck at the totality of his loss: “I said, ‘Thomas, is there anyone you want me to call?’ He just said, ‘Coach, they’re all gone.’”

Robinson’s losses resonated with the entire basketball program. While many have experienced loss, this was on another scale entirely. Within the span of a few weeks Robinson went from being a carefree college athlete to essentially an orphan. “I watched right before my eyes, a kid become a young man,” Hinson said. “He’s making decisions on what to do, what not to do, because he was the only decision-maker there. He was it. Can you fathom, at 19 years old, somebody saying we need you to pick out an outfit for your mother to wear in a casket?”

Additionally, Robinson had to remain strong and stable for his 9-year-old sister, Jayla. Robinson’s father had never been really been in his life and Jayla’s father was serving time in prison for a drug conviction. Without Thomas’ grandparents and mother he was forced to become the man of the house.

Regardless of his setbacks, Robinson could only move forward. As a freshman, Robinson had to fight for minutes behind the Morris twins but during his second year his numbers bumped up significantly and he improved to average 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds in 14.6 minutes. During his junior season Robinson finally had his breakout year. Robinson averaged 17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds, while leading the Jayhawks to the national championship game, where Anthony Davis and the Kentucky Wildcats defeated them. Soon after, Robinson declared for the NBA draft.

On draft night, Robinson didn’t have to wait very long until he heard his name called. The Kings drafted Robinson with the hopes of pairing his abilities with their star center DeMarcus Cousins. However, Robinson got off to a rocky start during summer league and the beginning of the regular season. Robinson admits that he was not ready for the adjustment to the NBA and he quickly discovered that he could no longer just out work everyone else, as he had done in high school and college. Further, the instability and turmoil that had plagued the Kings organization for years did not make assimilating to the NBA any easier. During his rookie season, Robinson only played 51 games before he was shipped off to the Houston Rockets prior to the trade deadline in an attempt to cut payroll.

Over the next few years Robinson would become an NBA journeyman, bouncing from team to team, hoping to would find a spot where he could stay around for the long term. Robinson’s time in Houston was even shorter than his stint in Sacramento. Robinson’s only played 19 games for the Rockets before he was traded to the Portland Trailblazers over the summer. It was during his time in Portland that Robinson played his best basketball as a professional. He served as a spark off the bench and praised by his coaches for being an aggressive rebounder. However, Robinson found it difficult to truly prosper with the limited minutes he was getting as LaMarcus Aldridge’s backup. In February, Robinson was traded to the Denver Nuggets, who proceeded to waive him. Robinson had several suitors and was claimed off of waivers by the Philadelphia Sixers. Finally, Robinson was in a situation where he had the opportunity to excel. The Sixers were a team that was devoid of any star players, giving Robinson a stage to showcase his worth to all of his doubters. During his time in Philly, Robinson posted career highs of 8.8 points and 7.7 rebounds in 18.5 minutes per game.

For many of us, we will never truly understand the complexity of the NBA lifestyle. When we get a ESPN or Bleach Report notification saying that a player has been traded, we don’t grasp the severity of what that means for a player. Within a matter of hours a player’s entire life is uprooted. In Robinson’s short career, he has already been traded, waived and claimed off waivers. In total, Robinson has already played for six different NBA teams; his most recent stint was with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2017.

Currently, Robinson plays for Khimki of the VTB United League but still has aspirations of being an NBA all-star. Robinson knows better than most that life can change at any point and when he gets the call from his next NBA team, he’ll be ready to step up to the challenge as he always has.

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