LAWRENCE, Kan. – The third weekend in January will always be shrouded in darkness for Thomas Robinson.
It was this weekend last year that the junior forward for No. 7 Kansas received a phone call from his young sister, her voice trembling, to say that their mother had died of a heart attack, ripping away the last vestiges of close family that they had.
Now, through overwhelming heartache, Robinson has matured into one of the nation’s premier players, and has proven that there are often brighter days ahead.
“I couldn’t have handled the situation he’s been through near as well as he did,” Kansas coach Bill Self said this week, reflecting on a terrible time for the entire program. “He’s a remarkable kid and he deserves the things that have come his way.”
What lies ahead are almost assuredly NBA riches.
The 6-foot-9 forward leads the Jayhawks (16-3, 6-0 Big 12) in scoring and rebounding, and is coming off perhaps the finest performance of his career, when he logged 27 points and 14 rebounds in a rout of then-unbeaten and No. 3 Baylor last Monday night. Robinson could very well go in the first five picks of the June draft, which would mean a minimum rookie salary of more than $2.8 million.
A year ago, he was wondering how to pay for a funeral.
The phone call came about 11 p.m. on a Friday night. Robinson answered and on the other end was his 7-year-old sister, Jayla. The two had been raised by their single mother, Lisa Robinson, and spoke often enough that Robinson had little reason to wonder whether something was amiss.
Jayla told him that Lisa Robinson had died. In a span of three weeks, they had also lost their grandfather and grandmother.
“It was a rough weekend. It was really emotional, definitely,” recalled senior guard Tyshawn Taylor. “I guess that’s the easiest way to describe it, really emotional.”
The team spent most of the night consoling Robinson, who at the time was coming off the bench for the Jayhawks. Hours later, the mentally and physically drained team lost to Texas, ending a 69-game home winning streak that had lasted almost four years.
On Tuesday, the team played at Colorado. Then on Wednesday, nearly everyone involved with the program flew into a snowstorm in Washington, D.C., for a service on Thursday.
“He broke down like anybody else would,” Taylor said. “He handled it a lot better than a lot of people I know have and probably would have.”
Robinson’s father had never really been involved in his life, though he now has custody of Jayla. But at the time, Robinson felt entirely alone, which Self didn’t fully understand until he asked a question the night of his mother’s death.
“I said, ‘Thomas, is there anybody you want us to call?’ ” Self recalled months later. “He told me, ‘Coach, you don’t get it. There isn’t anybody left.’ ”
The program provided something of a surrogate family.
They helped raise money to cover some of the funeral expenses, and to set up a scholarship fund to cover Jayla’s college education. Kansas State coach Frank Martin was among those who donated money, asking fans of the rival Wildcats to do the same.
“I was so proud of our administration, the NCAA, for allowing us to do some things for him,” Self said, “things he might not have had, things you take for granted – buying a casket, the dress she wore, things like that. I was really happy that other people allowed it to be legal, because we would obviously do whatever we could.”
Looking back, Self tried to find a silver lining in the bleak period.
He remembers the outpouring of support from teammates, the way everyone rallied around their buddy, and the emotion that poured out over the span of days, weeks and even months.
Robinson, who was off limits to media this week, has by all accounts handled the anniversary with the grace and dignity. He focused on Saturday’s game at Texas (a 69-66 Kansas win), the same team the Jayhawks played on that fateful weekend a year ago.
“T-Rob is cool,” Taylor said. “He’s handling it well, and as a team, we’re there for him, so if he does break down or anything like that, we’ll be there.”
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