NBA draft could be turning point on rough road for Thomas Robinson
The conversations always end the same way when Thomas Robinson talks on the phone with his little sister.
Big brother tells the 9-year-old that he’ll see her later, or that he’ll call her back.
“Goodbye” is a word that’s never used.
“My mom told me never to say “Bye,’” said Robinson, the former Kansas power forward who could be the No. 2 pick in Thursday’s NBA draft. “That means you’re never going to see somebody again.”
Robinson never imagined he would have to bid farewell to his mother or to his maternal grandparents in one inconceivable 25-day stretch during his sophomore season in college. Hearing that his grandmother had died was tough enough. Three weeks later, his grandfather passed away, also from complications related to old age.
Then came the news that would shake Robinson to his core.
It was delivered over the phone by his sister, Jayla, and the words didn’t seem real: Their single mother, the woman who was pretty much all they had, had suffered a heart attack. She was dead.
“I just remember not believing it at one point,” Robinson said. “Actually, seriously thinking that I was just dreaming or somebody would wake me up and say he was playing. It was crazy. It was real life, it happens, but it’s like seeing a movie.”
The unplanned reality show that has become Robinson’s life should take a much happier turn Thursday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. He could be selected directly after the projected top NBA draft pick, Anthony Davis, meaning Robinson will be able to provide for his sister and possibly allow her to move in with him wherever he makes his new home.
“I want to make sure she has no worries,” Robinson said earlier this month after a workout with Olympic gold-medal sprinter Maurice Greene on the track at Oaks Christian High in Westlake Village. “As long as I can remember, my family has struggled, so I feel like I have a chance to turn things [around] and fix it so I try to fix my whole family.
“We’ll start with my sister and go from there.”
Robinson’s father was never a presence in his life. But his mother . . . well, she was everything.
Lisa Robinson was a caretaker for autistic children in Washington, D.C., who taught her son to always be prepared for whatever hardships life might throw his way. Whenever she meant business, she called him Earl, his middle name.
“Yeah, which was every day,” Robinson said.
Robinson knew his mother wasn’t feeling well when he saw her at his grandmother’s funeral in December 2010. Lisa was experiencing migraine headaches, but she never disclosed to her son that she had undergone an angioplasty for a clogged artery in her heart. She didn’t want him to worry in the middle of a basketball season.
Lisa did confide in Angel Morris, a family friend who lived at the time in Lawrence, Kan., to be close to her twin sons Marcus and Markieff, then forwards for the Jayhawks. Angel had also vowed to keep tabs on Lisa’s son as a favor.
When Angel spoke with Lisa in late January 2011, the women discussed some new medication Lisa was taking for her headaches.
“I just told her, ‘If that medicine doesn’t work, go back [to the doctor] the next day,’” Angel recalled. “She said, ‘I will. I’m just tired.’ I said, ‘OK, get some rest.’”
The next day, Lisa was dead.
Robinson somehow gathered the strength to play against Texas the following day, but he agonized constantly about Jayla. So did a lot of people who offered to adopt her.
She eventually moved in with her father, James Paris, a man who is not Thomas’ father and had served time in prison for distribution of a controlled substance. Their relationship would strengthen over time, by all accounts, ending a bid on behalf of Robinson’s family to gain custody of the girl.
But Robinson still wanted to make sure Jayla was OK.
So it was no surprise that after a breakthrough junior season in which Robinson became a unanimous All-American by averaging 17.9 points and 11.8 rebounds for the national runner-up Jayhawks, he declared for the draft.
Robinson, 6 feet 9 and 244 pounds, is widely considered among the most NBA-ready college players, a tenacious rebounder with boundless energy and an improving offensive arsenal. Several websites project that the Charlotte Bobcats will take Robinson with the second pick in the draft.
Robinson didn’t let those predictions deter him from participating in a slew of workouts in Southern California to improve his skill set and conditioning before the draft.
He spent time on the track and the Manhattan Beach sand dunes with Greene to improve explosiveness and stamina. He also increased the range on his jumper during sessions in the gym with Pooh Richardson, the former UCLA and NBA star.
“He’s working from a different space than most of us could even comprehend,” said Jason Martin, director of player personnel for Rival Sports Group, the Beverly Hills-based sports management firm that represents Robinson.
If Robinson ever needed a reminder of the potential payoff, all he had to do was answer the phone.
Unaware of the time difference, Jayla would often call at 5 a.m. PDT from her home in Washington, D.C. She invariably inquired about what her brother was doing and when they would next see each other. “That’s all she asks,” Robinson said. “She doesn’t care about anything else.”
Getting together may not be much of a hassle from now on. Though the details are still being worked out, Robinson said one scenario would entail Jayla and her father moving to his NBA city so the siblings could always be nearby.
Jayla will be among a handful of family and friends who will accompany Robinson to the draft, on what figures to be a day fraught with memories of those who won’t be there.
“I don’t know what emotions are going to come on,” Robinson said. “I just can’t wait to get there.”
Angel Morris has her own vision of how things will play out after Robinson walks across the stage and puts on the hat of his new team.
“I just think in his mind, he’s going to say, ‘Momma I did it, and I did it for you,’” she said. “And that’s when the tears are going to come.”
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