Published March 15, 2011
LAWRENCE, Kan. – People close to Kansas forward Thomas Robinson say he's never been the same since that horrible midnight phone call from his 7-year-old sister the night before a big game against Texas.
A weeping Jayla Robinson told him their mother had just died in Washington, D.C.
Within an hour, the entire team and coaching staff had gathered at Robinson's apartment, everyone trying to comfort the grieving sophomore but not sure how to do it.
Coach Bill Self recalls the saddest moment of all.
"I said, 'Thomas, is there anybody you want us to call?'" he said. "He told me, 'Coach, you don't get it. there isn't anybody left.'"
In three weeks, the Robinson children had also lost their maternal grandmother and grandfather. Whether the stress and grief of losing her parents contributed to Lisa Robinson's apparent heart attack at 43, no one could say but now there was only Thomas and Jayla.
She was back in that tough neighborhood in Washington where Thomas was born 20 years ago this Thursday. He was playing basketball and going to college in Kansas, half a continent away.
"My heart just broke," Self said. "Everybody gathered around Thomas, all the players in the room are staring at him, all the families are staring at him. Nobody knew what to say."
Almost two months later, as the top-seeded Jayhawks head into Friday's NCAA tournament opener against Boston University, Robinson has matured and his teammates and coach say he has more purpose in his life. There seems no question he's playing the best basketball of his life.
And the team has a sense of unity, a sense of purpose that may have grown out of those awful days in January.
"When something tragic like that happens, it's hard to explain what happens as a team," said senior guard Brady Morningstar. "You just have to be around everybody and see the unity that everyone has, and the support everyone gives Thomas."
Even though five of his teammates scored more points during the Big 12 tournament game against Texas, the partisan Kansas crowd reserved its loudest cheers for Robinson.
"He deserved that," said Kansas guard Tyrel Reed. "Thomas is the toughest kid I ever knew. For a 19-year-old to go through all that, losing so many family members and still being there for his little sister, is remarkable. What a tough kid Thomas is."
Lisa and Thomas Robinson had a very strong bond. He would call her before every game. She called him Earl, his middle name, and worried about him constantly.
"She would call and say, 'Is Earl OK? I haven't heard from him in three days,'" Self recalled. "Their relationship was something special. There's no question about that."
A few hours after she died, the exhausted Jayhawks lost 74-63 to Texas, breaking their 69-game home winning streak. Robinson asked to play. He was not very effective, but neither was anyone else.
"Our thoughts were elsewhere," said point guard Tyshawn Taylor.
The entire team flew through a blizzard to Lisa Robinson's funeral in Washington, a decision Self was criticized for by fans who thought he was putting his players through unnecessary emotional upheaval. And then, eventually, it was back to basketball.
Robinson, a 6-9 power forward who comes off the bench, is not playing as much as he would like because twins Marcus and Markieff Morris have emerged as dominant players. But he had 10 points and nine rebounds in a recent victory over Texas and is obviously improving.
"He always tried hard. No doubt about that," said Self. "But he has more of a sense of purpose with his life now, and basketball's a part of that. It's unbelievable how this kid has matured.
"He's playing for something more than himself right now. It's very obvious to me and others. His attitude is just unbelievable. You'd be thinking about it every minute of the day. And he is trying so hard for the betterment of his teammates and all those things. He just amazes me."
The Lisa Robinson Scholarship Fund has been established to assure Jayla's college education. While figures are not available, it's safe to say that thousands of dollars have come in front all over the country. A few minutes before Kansas played at Kansas State, Wildcats coach Frank Martin asked Kansas State fans to join him in donating to the fund.
Jayla is currently with her father. An attorney working for Robinson has asked him not to speak with the media about the situation.
Self believes Robinson's tragic loss has brought the Jayhawks together.
"I do think that this, in its own way, has galvanized our team," he said.