Isiah Thomas and Will Robinson share a moment after Mr. Robinson was honored by the Pistons in December of ’05
At first sight, you’d never know Will Robinson endured such a difficult early life. The former Detroit Pistons scout who discovered Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman always had a kind word, a smile and pleasant disposition.
When I first observed him, when it seemed like he was the only person in the Pistons organization who had love for Isiah Thomas, I didn’t know what to make of him. As a young guy, I didn’t know his history, our history.
He was more than a pioneer of basketball; he was a pioneer for African-Americans. He was the first black college basketball coach in Division 1, when he took over Illinois State from 1970-75, and Doug Collins played for him. As Detroit Pershing coach, he helped champion Spencer Haywood’s cause to get into the NBA Draft straight out of high school.
Mizzo spoke to Spencer Monday and offered some words to describe the effect Mr. Robin son had on his life:
“He was the only father I ever knew. My father died before I was born. He adopted me and helped me become the man I am today. I was from a small town on the Delta in MI, so I knew nothing about a big city like Detroit and he made sure I found my way. Before he and I got to Pershing and won the state championship, they had a 35 year title drought. He was there every step of the way in my Supreme Court case. I don’t know if I would have beat the case with out his support. He was also a Detroit Lions scout. He lived a long life and I’ll miss him dearly.”
Robinson excelled at several sports, including basketball, football and golf. He wasn’t allowed to play on the course with his white counterparts, seeing as he was viewed as less than a man. He never complained, but never accepted society’s definition of what he should be.
By the time I met him at the Palace a few years back, his handshake and sincere eye-contact reminded me of a quality long-lost in today’s world. It was grandfatherly, respectful and most of all, touching.
At first sight, you’d never know what he’d been through, what obstacles he overcame, most times with little fanfare or what doors he opened. His name should be mentioned with the likes of Jackie, Muhammad and Bill Russell. Sadly, outside of Detroit, and maybe even some places around, Robinson’s name isn’t synonymous with excellence, kindness or sincerity.
Before Jack McCloskey hired Chuck Daly in 1983, he offered the job to Robinson, who turned it down. Robinson later regretted the decision, thinking maybe he would’ve been the coach of the Bad Boys. Then his name would be mentioned with those aforementioned greats, but Robinson couldn’t be as unassuming a personality as he would’ve preferred.
There’s a generation of kids, sports fans or not, that don’t have a connection to Robinson. His name doesn’t resonate with regularity. Hopefully, one day soon, lost generations will look back to the trials and tribulations of men like Robinson. Maybe then, we’ll all find our way.
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