Like Father, <i> Not</i> Like Son : Purdue’s Glenn Robinson Stays on Right Side of the Street as He Dominates the College Game
You want to know what tough love is? It isn’t turning your back on someone to prove a point, it’s the exact opposite. It’s what Purdue All-American forward Glenn Robinson does every day, which is to wonder if his real father is dead or alive, in jail or on the streets, selling drugs or taking them.
Somewhere in this broken-down city, you will find the father of the country’s best college basketball player. As recently as nine days ago, he was one of 501 inmates at the county jail in nearby Crown Point. This time he was there for possession of cocaine, one in a long line of arrests, the majority of them drug-related, that date to 1973, the year his son was born.
His name is Glenn A. Robinson Sr., though the Gary police also know him by his street name, “Red Cap.” He was barely old enough to buy a legal drink when he became a father. A handful of years later, he disappeared, leaving Christine Bridgeman to raise a son in a city of 116,000 where unemployment is 13.1% (more than double the U.S. average, almost triple the Indiana average) and the homicide rate per capita is the highest in the nation.
Now he is free, that is, until authorities are able to serve him with another arrest warrant, this one for skipping a hearing at Superior Court of Lake County, Division One, Judge Nicholas Schiralli presiding.
Declared to be indigent by the court, Robinson Sr. was given the benefit of a public defender. Too broke to make his $5,000 bail, he was returned to county lockup, where he awaited a Jan. 27 bond reduction hearing.
Two days before the hearing, a message was delivered to him. Would he consent to an interview? Deputy Warden Ginny Ratajczak returned with the answer:
“He said, ‘If Glenn doesn’t know I’m here, then I don’t want to talk to (a reporter).’ ”
Robinson Jr. didn’t know he was there, at least not this time. But according to Ratajczak, Robinson Sr. has talked about his famous son on previous occasions. He told her that the son looked out for him, that the son sent a lawyer to help him out once before.
But not now. This time he was on his own.
The next day, Robinson Sr., address unknown, made bond. “Happens all the time,” the prosecutor said.
Who knows where he is now? Sooner or later, it seems, he returns to Gary. Sooner or later, he usually finds handcuffs placed across his wrists.
Meanwhile, a son wonders. And worries.
Like some sort of sonic boom, the steady thumping of rap spills out into the hallway whenever a player emerges from the Purdue locker room. Practice is finished for the day, which means the work of others is only beginning.
Seated outside the door on a nearby wooden bench are two middle-aged women. One of them is clutching a new red autograph book she received for Christmas. The other is discussing the importance of being a Christian, no easy feat as the muffled sound of bass and profanity-laced lyrics fill the corridor with each player’s exit.
Together they wait. They are on a mission.
“Big Dog,” says the woman holding the autograph book. “We’re waiting for Big Dog.”
That would be Robinson Jr., who, much to his dismay, has become a national sports celebrity.
At the Boiler Bookstore across the street from Mackey Arena, a handwritten sign is propped against the window. “Big Dog T-shirts Sold Here,” it reads. Sure enough, for $15.99, you can buy one of the few remaining shirts, which feature a snarling dog dribbling a basketball and the words: “The Big Dog Is Hungry Tonight.”
Just the other day, someone from Maryland called and ordered a shirt. So did someone from California, as well as a customer from Arizona.
“I guess it’s because it’s so unusual for Purdue to have a player like that,” store manager Shura McKinney said.
Also available are Robinson replica jerseys, each going for a cool $60. As for “Welcome to Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” shirts, you’ll have to wait. All 280 of those are gone, and as usual, not a penny of the profits will find their way into this Mr. Robinson’s pocket.
Purdue, a 70-minute drive from Gary, has had its share of famous people. Purdue graduate Neil Armstrong was the first person to set foot on the moon, and Eugene Cernan, another Purdue alumnus, was the last. Robinson, however, is the first Boilermaker to defy gravity without the use of Atlas rockets.
Without him, Purdue wouldn’t be 17-3 and ranked eighth in the country. It would be Northwestern, but with nicer uniforms.
Robinson’s 28.5-point average is third-best in the country and tops in the Big Ten Conference. He adds 10.6 rebounds a game and generally compensates for the Boilermakers’ assorted weaknesses.
Laker General Manager Jerry West, who last year suggested that Robinson might have been the first player taken in the ’93 NBA draft--and didn’t that go over big with Purdue Coach Gene Keady--still has to wipe the drool away after watching the 6-foot-8 junior forward.
“Last year, I said he was absolutely an incredible player, the best player in the country,” West said. “My position hasn’t changed. He plays a very simple game. He’s not really flashy. He just plays basketball the old-fashioned way.”
So overwhelming was Robinson against Michigan last season, Wolverine Coach Steve Fisher later said: “We have nobody who can guard Glenn. But no one else does, either.”
Illinois Coach Lou Henson once called Robinson “Superman.” Greg Lackey, an assistant with 18th-ranked St. Louis, called Robinson probably one of the top 50 players in the world.
Even Purdue’s coaching staff has yet to be numbed by Robinson’s play. There have been times during practice when Robinson will do something so incredible that Purdue assistant Frank Kendrick, who recruited him, will look at Keady and say: “Coach, did you see that?”
In two seasons--he sat out his freshman year because of Proposition 48 restrictions--Robinson has become a cottage industry and a reluctant star. The City of Gary wanted him to be grand marshal of the July 4 parade. Fast-food employees ask for his autograph when he pulls up to the drive-through window. Middle-aged women sneak into Mackey Arena and conduct stakeouts at the locker room.
“I’m just regular, just like y’all,” Robinson said. “I’m a normal person. But if I go out to the mall, people stare at me. If I walk past someone, I’ll look out the corner of my eye and I’ll see them all turn around. Little kids follow me sometimes, but there’s nothing wrong with that.”
He says this minutes after a local photographer has all but pleaded with him to bare his tattoo for a snapshot or two. Robinson tells him he’ll think about it.
“See, it’s hard to stay normal,” said Robinson, as the photographer mopes away. “When I go out, I’m not like how I am around here. When I’m out in public, I’m very quiet. I like to keep off to myself. I really don’t like to talk to a lot of people. But, you know, that’s just me.”
The legend of Robinson began at Gary’s Roosevelt High, the city’s oldest black high school and a place so pristine that you would never guess it was located across the street from the Delaney projects and only blocks from the inner-city blight common in metropolitan areas.
Not a single can of spray paint has been pointed at the school’s outer walls. There is no barbed wire, no broken windows, no graffiti. In years past, students weren’t even allowed to walk on the grass--out of deference to the landscaping.
Out front is a fiberglass sign. On one side: “Congratulations, Winston Garland. Pro, Italy.” On the other side: “Congratulations, Glenn Robinson, 13 Purdue.”
Ron Heflin, who has coached basketball at Roosevelt for 25 years, knows all about the sign.
“You got people who might rob banks,” he said, “but they won’t throw anything at that fiberglass.”
One day, Heflin was conducting a tryout for sixth- and seventh-graders when he noticed Robinson. For the next 40 minutes, Heflin kept running the players, and one by one they began to stagger toward the sidelines.
All except Robinson.
“Son, you ready to quit?” asked an exasperated Heflin, who couldn’t believe what he was seeing.”
“Nuh, uh,” Robinson said.
That night, Heflin went home and told his wife about the kid who wouldn’t stop running. “I couldn’t break him,” Heflin told her.
Heflin knew Robinson’s father. He never coached him, but he taught him at school. Then came the breakup with Bridgeman and later, the stories.
“He has some problems,” Heflin said of Robinson Sr., “but we don’t need to be writing about that.”
Bridgeman still makes her home in a gray, single-story house across the street from Roosevelt. There is no visible number above the door, and visitors knock at their own risk. Last year an ambitious agent informed Heflin that he was going to visit Bridgeman and Jesse Mack, Robinson’s stepdad of sorts (Bridgeman and Mack aren’t married). Heflin told him it was a good way to get shot.
Contacted at his appliance repair store in Gary, Mack declined an interview request. “We’re not into that,” he said. “I’m real busy.”
It is a private family and a disciplined one, too. Bridgeman sees to that.
When Robinson struggled with his grades as a Roosevelt sophomore, Bridgeman stormed into Heflin’s office, son in tow, and vowed to pull him off the team if his marks didn’t improve. The fiery woman, no taller than 5-6 or so, pointed a finger in her son’s face.
“Do you understand that?” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” Robinson said meekly.
The grades improved.
When Purdue’s Kendrick came to visit, the bond between mother and son was obvious.
“The way you can tell a good kid is the relationship with his mother,” Kendrick said. “Glenn would never raise his voice to his mother. They’re best friends.”
Mama’s boy off the court. Terror on it.
Heflin called Robinson, “The Horse.” The reason? “Because he took you to places you haven’t been before,” he said.
Robinson took Roosevelt to the 1990-91 state playoffs and made the game-winning shot in the regionals, made the game-winning shot in the semifinals and thoroughly outplayed Alan Henderson, now a star at Indiana, in the state championship game. Now on one wall of Roosevelt’s Bo Mallard Gymnasium are life-size photos of every player from that title team. It cost donors $10,000 for the display, but no one complained.
“The next Michael J.,” said a Roosevelt student, glancing at the towering photo of Robinson. Then the kid stood under the gym basket and started shooting a penny through the net.
Robinson could have gone anywhere, but he narrowed his choices to Purdue, Indiana, maybe Minnesota or Tennessee. Minnesota and Tennessee were eliminated because of distance. Indiana’s exclusion is a little less clear.
During Robinson’s visit to the Bloomington campus, then-assistant coach Joby Wright took the star forward to Coach Bob Knight’s office. As Wright and Robinson watched film of the Hoosiers, Knight entered the room, saw Robinson’s feet propped up and yelled, “Hey, get your feet off the desk!”
Knight was joking, but Robinson didn’t know it. To this day, Heflin said, Knight believes the prank cost Indiana a chance at the sensitive and shy Robinson.
Maybe, maybe not. Kendrick said Robinson promised to sign with Purdue years ago, when Robinson attended one of Keady’s basketball camps.
“I learned that if Glenn tells you something, you can take it to the bank,” Kendrick said.
The same goes for Robinson’s future at Purdue. Last year, he told Keady he wasn’t leaving early for the NBA, and he didn’t. This year, he said he will call a news conference if he changes his mind.
“It’s very important for me to get my degree,” Robinson said.
Robinson sits near courtside on a folding chair. He is talking about the hard side of Gary, the side of town that seemingly has dragged his father down.
“It’s just just like anywhere else,” he said. “If you mind your business and don’t get caught up in a lot of b.s. on the streets, then you’ll be fine.
“There are two sides of the street. You can choose to be on one street, where the good people are, or you can go on the other side, where people there are no good. It’s like that everywhere.”
Was he ever tempted to switch sides?
“No, I get along with everybody,” he said. “I get along with people on both sides of the street.”
That might explain why he has never quit thinking about his father. On occasion, mainly during the summer, sometimes during the school year, Robinson drives back to Gary and searches out his namesake. According to one family friend, Robinson recently saw his father on the streets, but had to turn away.
Maybe it was a coincidence, but shortly thereafter, the son went into a brief shooting slump. Even later, when told by Keady a reporter planned to do a story involving his real father, Robinson said he didn’t want Glenn Sr. mentioned.
“He loves him and he respects him,” Kendrick said. “He would love to have him around. He respects him as a father, and I know that he cares for his father. He has no grudges. I’d say he’d love to see him straighten out his life.”
Heflin said: “He cares for his real dad. But he also cares for his mom, his stepdad, his teammates, his coaches. Glenn is a very sensitive kid.”
Somewhere he’s out there--the old man, that is. If he’s smart, one day Robinson Sr. will follow the lead of Robinson Jr.: He’ll join his son on the right side of the street. Where people are good.