The University of Connecticut’s basketball season ended Saturday night with an 82-73 Final Four loss to Michigan State. While stars like A.J. Price and Hasheem Thabeet get much of the credit for this team’s success, it may have been small forward Stanley Robinson who played best this postseason.
The fact that Robinson was even on the court Saturday is a story all to itself.
You see, Robinson is a walk-on. He paid his own way this season, while the guys he started over were on free rides.
Just the typical student you’d find walking around UConn’s campus on a typically cold winter morning.
That is, if by “typical student” you mean a wiry 6’9″ athlete with the ability to jump out of the gym and with an unlimited future, one that will likely include cashing NBA paychecks.
The most bizarre thing? “Sticks,” as his teammates call him, didn’t lose the scholarship he once had by flunking off the team, doesn’t appear to have failed a drug test and has no known criminal record.
Regardless, Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun decided last spring to give the enigmatic Robinson a little tough love, telling him he wasn’t welcome to the program until he dealt with some maturity issues that were holding him back both off and on the court.
Because of his unlimited potential and apparently in-tact transcript, Robinson could have left the university and gone somewhere else.
He has two young daughters in his home town of Birmingham, Alabama, and could have transferred somewhere closer to them and his more comfortable past (Robinson suffered from well documented culture shock upon his arrival to Connecticut in the summer of 2006). His list of suitors would have likely been as long as the wingspan that will someday make him millions in the NBA, and no one would have second-guessed him.
Instead Robinson shocked some, and decided to stay at the University of Connecticut, or as he once described it to me, “the 31st team in the NBA.” Despite the suspension, he has a deep bond with Calhoun, one that reared its head when Robinson once interrupted a press conference to give his coach a hand-wrapped gift before heading home for a short Christmas break.
While not taking classes last fall, Robinson worked at a scrap heap company in Willimantic, Conn. from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday (the story was wonderfully documented by ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil here), and lived off-campus. A few days a week he got up early and worked out on his own, often at 5 in the morning, and lifted weights after work.
Not quite the typical day of a Division I athlete.
On December 15 of this past season, Robinson returned to his team and into competitive basketball, scoring seven points and getting five rebounds in 16 minutes of action.
But again to re-iterate, despite sharing the court with no fewer than three other teammates who may someday share NBA riches with him, Robinson played as a walk-on. He spent the spring semester at UConn paying for his own education, books and food, something that maybe just a year before he took for granted.
As the season progressed, Robinson’s rust started to wear off. And not a second too soon.
On February 11, guard Jerome Dyson, and his 13 point a game average, went down and out for the season, tearing cartilage in his knee. Many – myself included- were ready to write the obituary on UConn’s season that night, as the Huskies lost their best perimeter scorer and defender.
And for three weeks, the argument seemed to hold water, as UConn finished the season 4-2 without Dyson.
Then something strange happened. Appearing from out of no where (as much as anyone who is 6’9″ could), the Stanley Robinson everyone in Connecticut had been waiting two-and-a-half years for showed up.
He made his first mark on one of sports biggest stages: in the classic six overtime game against Syracuse in the Big East Tournament. Yes the Huskies lost, but for the first time since Dyson went down, they seemed to have a pep in their step that had been missing.
Robinson finished the evening with 28 points and 14 rebounds, starting the game with some highlight reel dunks, and finishing with some clutch perimeter jump shots. If it wasn’t for Robinson, there would have been no historical significance to the game, no “Instant Classic,” on ESPN and we all would have gotten a better night’s sleep.
Robinson carried the Huskies that night, and as someone who was there, I can say that of the eight players that fouled out, Robinson got by far the loudest ovation of anyone as he found his way to the bench.
As the NCAA Tournament rolled around, Robinson’s game continued to develop. He scored double figures in all five games, after only accomplishing the feat four times in the regular season.
His defense improved, shutting down Purdue’s Robbie Hummel in the second half of their Sweet 16 game, and his four blocks against Missouri in the Elite Eight were the same as the rest of his teammates combined (including Thabeet, who at 7’3 was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year).
And even though the Huskies season ended in the Final Four, there was Robinson getting 15 points and 13 rebounds at Ford Field Saturday, arguably the only Husky that had a game worth remembering.
Most importantly though, Robinson seems to have gotten his act together off the court too. Over Final Four weekend he noted to reporters that he got a 93 on a recent test. And of course Calhoun plans on honoring the player who stuck with his program, by giving Robinson something that he once likely saw as a formality: his scholarship.
Every March we talk about the “Road to the Final Four,” which to me has always been a bit of a misnomer, since, let’s be honest, once you get to the Final Four, don’t you want to win it?
Because for the one team that does hoist the trophy, there are 64 others that end their season with losses.
Everybody wants to be that team, and the player with the smile on their face on the first Monday night in April.
However sometimes, just the journey down that road, is accomplishment enough.
(author’s note: This article was originally published at www.aarontorres-sports.com)