To most basketball fans, he’s the same Robby Robinson who challenged Tony Clark for the county high school scoring title two years ago.
Although the jeri curls have been trimmed considerably, they have not been phased out. The release on his jumper looks familiar, so does the high-pounding dribble that can mesmerize opponents. Even the debate over for which position he’s best suited--point guard, shooting guard or small forward--still rages in his mind.
But in this case, appearances are deceiving. Robinson has undergone quite a transformation since he switched his playing address from Madison High to Mesa College. And it has little to with basketball.
In fact, for a year, basketball had little to do with Robinson. Those who knew him or watched him play during high school would probably find that hard to believe.
But to Robinson, the sport that gave him fame also betrayed him. And some of his so-called friends let him down when he needed them most.
His odyssey began in the winter of his senior year when he became sexually involved with a 15-year-old student at Madison. The parents of the girl discovered their daughter was having sexual relations with him and went to the police.
Soon after that, Robinson was charged with rape. But the district attorney decided the girl’s case was not strong enough and the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor--unlawful sex with a minor.
Because Robinson was one of the more high-profile athletes in the county and recently had turned 18, local newspapers reported it extensively.
For the first time, Robinson experienced the downside of being a basketball star.
“I had never had any negative publicity before,” he said. “I really didn’t know how to handle it.”
Robinson said he thought part of the family’s motivation to press charges hinged on his race.
"(The girl’s family) was hurt more than anything (by the fact) I was black,” Robinson said. “I was a basketball star, and their feeling was . . . ‘He can’t expect to do whatever he wants.’ ”
Robinson never denied having sexual relations with the girl, and although his lawyers advised against discussing the incident publicly, Robinson said he was always willing to talk. But until now, he never has.
In June 1989, Robinson pleaded no contest to the charges of unlawful sex with a minor. The four-month ordeal ended with Robinson being sentenced to probation--which includes staying away from Madison, where the girl is a senior--and community service.
But by that time, the damage had been done.
Robinson missed classes because of court appearances, and he became so withdrawn that he almost stopped going to school. His grades were in such dire straits that he said: “By the end of school, it was a question of whether I was going to graduate.”
After scoring poorly on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, Robinson didn’t bother to take it again.
“The people who I thought were behind me, let me fall,” he said. “I really took a new attitude on who I let in to my world after that.”
Robinson was invited to play in the San Diego County All-Star game and the Southern California All-Star game, but he kindly declined.
Bill McClelland, an assistant coach at Madison during Robinson’s junior season and currently an assistant at Mesa, said it was painful to watch what happened to Robinson during that time.
“In addition to reports about the incident with the girl, there were rumors floating around the recruiting trail that Robby had a bad attitude,” McClelland said. “All of a sudden there were kids that Robby was better than getting scholarships. He became a little more quiet.”
Robinson’s mother, Linda, said the experience humbled her son.
“It was a learning experience for him,” she said. “I think the whole basketball thing went to his head a little bit. I always told him, something he would be tested by something during his life. . . . He learned something about life. He had to come out of that whirlwind he was in.”
And so for the first time in his life, Robinson realized there was more to life than basketball. Before he could even think about playing again, Robinson figured he’d better get his life back in order.
“I was disappointed in myself over what had happened,” Robinson said. “I had a lot of expectations for myself and I wasn’t living up them. I looked for the easy way out of a lot of things. . . . I definitely didn’t need basketball, and I needed to stay out of the spotlight for a while.”
But he didn’t want to totally withdraw from society, so he enrolled at Mesa College and took a couple of classes.
“I saw that I could live without basketball,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘You can do this.’ I proved a lot to myself. A lot of my friends began to look at me differently. I think they said: ‘This guy’s got it together.’ ”
Linda Robinson said she also saw that her son’s life was coming together.
“His still the same confident young man, but he thinks now before he acts,” she said. “He’s slowed down a lot. Now he’s in control.”
Robinson discovered something else during his hiatus from basketball--construction is no way to make a living.
“I dreaded that job,” he said. “It was living hell. In fact, it was my boss who told me ‘This is not what you wanted to do for the rest of your life.’ He’s probably 40% of the reason I decided to think about playing basketball again.”
“When I didn’t play basketball, I felt like an outcast,” he said. “But that year away did show me I can live without basketball.”
So in the summer, an out of shape Robinson told McClelland: “Sept. 1, I’ll be in shape.”
He lived up to his promise and reported to McClelland and Mesa Coach Jay Mulvehal in shape, but very rusty. Although Robinson had been playing some pickup basketball at the University of San Diego during his layoff, he had not played in any game conditions for about 18 months.
Robinson began the season shooting in the 30% range and averaging less than 10 points a game. But lately, his shooting percentage has edged up to 48%, and his scoring average has improved to 12 points a game for the 9-5 Mesa Olympians, who played at Mt. San Jacinto Wednesday night.
Still, Robinson said he is not playing up to his standards yet.
“I’m not satisfied at all,” he said. “But I also try to keep reminding myself that I took a year off and it’s going to take time.”
Last week, he showed flashes of the old Robby Robinson. Against second-ranked Cypress, he scored 18 points and followed it with a season-high 25-point outburst against third-ranked Antelope Valley.
But even when his production was a lacking some, Mulvehal said Robinson’s heart and mind were not.
“His attitude every day is, ‘I’m here, and make me a better player,’ ” Mulvehal said. “He is a very unselfish player and that’s contagious. He just has a very aggressive attitude about things. He wants to be the leading rebounder on the team.”
He nearly is. Robinson, 6-4, currently being used as a shooting guard, is averaging eight rebounds a game. Second on the team. He’s also second in assists with four a game.
But McClelland says Robinson is still a notch away from the player he remembers in high school. In McClellan’s last year at Madison, Robinson led the Warhawks to a 28-3 record and a trip the state semifinals.
Though he was only a junior, McClelland said Robinson was by far the most mature player on the team.
“Robby was the heart of the team and he refused to lose,” McClelland said. “There were a couple of kids who were jealous of him. There was some frustration, because it was a team full of stars. But he (turned) them into a team.”
Jim Thompson, the head coach at Madison, said Robinson was “the most mature kid I’ve ever coached.”
“He sees things the way a coach does,” Thompson said. “He played with so much intensity and so much heart that the other kids saw that. He was the glue on that team.”
Mulvehal said Robinson is giving Mesa the same type of leadership.
“He has a very good perception of the game,” Mulvehal said. “He makes very good decisions. It’s something a coach can’t give a kid.”
Robinson said he’s never been the rah-rah type, but he’s always tried to be positive and coachable.
“I’ve always felt (the coaches) are taking their time to make me a better player, the least I can do is listen,” he said. “I don’t know everything.”
But Robinson and people such as Thompson and McClelland can see he knows a lot more about life than he did a couple years ago. One of his goals is still to “get a shot at the NBA.” Another, is to get his Associate of Arts degree from Mesa, and a bachelors’ degree from a four-year school.
His grade-point average is still not where he wants it--2.5. But major college coaches are starting to realize Robinson is getting close academically and athletically.
USD, San Diego State, Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine are asking Mulvehal about him.
Thompson said he couldn’t be happier for Robinson.
“He’s come out of it well,” Thompson said. “I always believed everything would work out for him. He’s matured quite a bit. I know everything’s positive now. He has realistic expectations. He never wanted to be thought of as only a basketball player anyway. He wanted to be thought of as a good person.”
“I think people need to reevaluate him as a person and as a basketball player. If they just give him a chance, they’ll find out he’s a jewel.”