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Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson

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Robinson going for a layup.  Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

Robinson going for a layup. Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

Robinson going for a layup. Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

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Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson

Jeremy Tepper | Senior Staff Writer

A pint-sized, 3-year-old James Robinson plops himself in front of the television. His parents, Rayna and James Jr., sit on the sofa.

With the remote in Dad’s hand, perhaps the toddler has a suggestion — maybe cartoons? Nope, the kid knows exactly what he wants to watch, and it’s not Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel.

“The basketball game is on, the basketball game is on,” Robinson excitedly proclaims.

Neither Robinson nor his parents know why he took to basketball at such an early age. 

James Jr. played quarterback at Norfolk State, but he never knew much about basketball, and the closest Rayna got to playing a sport was cheerleading.

Their son just never cared for cartoons or Legos. All he needed was a basketball and the Washington Wizards.

At 5 years old, his parents took him to the local rec center to play basketball with other kids. A few years later, he started playing AAU basketball, where he showed an advanced understanding of the game, court-wise beyond his years.

More than 15 years later, Robinson’s love for the sport hasn’t faltered.

Soon, he was off to starring for his middle school team at Holy Trinity Episcopal Day School and playing a key role during his first year on the vaunted DeMatha Catholic High School basketball team in Hyattsville, Maryland. By the end of his high school career, he was the winningest player in school history.

James Robinson takes the ball up the court against Boston College

His success there earned him scholarship offers from all around the country, but he chose Pitt, at the time citing academics and style of play.

Robinson, now a senior, is preparing for his final NCAA Tournament campaign. He’s started all four years at point guard, accumulating the highest assist-to-turnover ratio in NCAA history in the process.

When he takes the court Friday for what could be the last time in his Pitt career, it will be a capstone of a 19-year-long adoration for the sport. It’s this zeal that turned Robinson from a young boy with his eyes glued to the television to the cerebral, steady player he is today.

It’s more than trite to say that Robinson has always seemed mature beyond his age.

On March 4, 1994 in Silver Springs, Maryland, Robinson entered the world with a perfectly round head and wide, inquisitive eyes, as Rayna describes.

“He came out looking very mature,” Rayna said. “I thought, ‘Wow, he looks like he’s two months old already.’”

James Jr., a big sports fan, always kept sports balls around the house, which Robinson immediately favored over Hot Wheels and action figures.

And, of course, the basketball games were always on television, which suited James Jr. just fine.

“I’m like ‘Man, this is the coolest kid ever,’” James Jr. said.

Robinson started watching basketball games at around two years old — mostly the Washington Wizards, since they were the local NBA team. James Jr. advised his son to focus on just one player during the game, instead of aimlessly watching the players run up and down the court.

James Robinson decked out in gear of his favorite NBA team, the Washington Wizards.

That way, he could better understand the game and one player’s decisions.

Robinson honed in on Juwan Howard, the star power forward for the Wizards at the time, pointed out the names of other players to his mother and begged her to tape games so he could rewatch them.

“It was like he studied the game from the time he was like 2 or 3 years old,” Rayna said.

But Robinson wasn’t content just to watch basketball. His parents put a Little Tikes basketball hoop in the basement, where he would pound away on the basketball and shoot for hours at a time.

“We would sometimes have to drag him upstairs to tell him, ‘It’s time to do something else,’” Rayna said.

By the time his parents took him to the rec center, he was notably more advanced than his peers, who tended to travel with the basketball and run the wrong way.

For the other children, it was just a fun game. It was fun for Robinson too, but it was also serious. 

Basketball was, and still is, everything.

The boy clearly preferred the court, but James Jr. had to have his son test out the field.

As the coach of his son’s youth football team, James Jr. decided positions. Robinson wanted to play quarterback, and he had the perfect strong arm for the position.

But James Jr. wanted him to learn how to block and tackle first. So he put the 6-year-old on the offensive line. Big for his age, he played up two years with the eight-year-olds.

For three years, Robinson followed the same routine: playing the offensive line with the older kids. By the time he was 9, the boy had enough, and James Jr. let him leave, but not without a lesson.

Robinson learned toughness through football, James Jr. said, which allowed his son to fight through pain during basketball games. In Okinawa, Japan, this past November, Robinson slipped face first on the court, resulting inh a lingering mark under his right eye. The injury, like other tweaks strains, didn’t sideline him for more than a couple minutes.

James Jr. continued to coach his son in basketball, but he was out of his element.

“I didn’t know much about [basketball],” James Jr. said. “We had a lot of practices, but we didn’t shoot the ball much, we just played defense.”

Robinson was a natural point guard even then — a leader around the arc, a leader in his group of friends, James Jr. said, and a mentor to his younger brother, Jamal. Robinson helped Jamal decipher right from wrong.

James Robinson poses for a photo with his brother Jamal.

“It was just mischievous stuff,” Jamal, who’s now 19, said. “I’d want to do something that our mother told us not to do, and he always be the one sitting there saying, ‘you better not do that.’”

His parents drilled unselfishness into both their children from the start. The family’s mantra, James Jr. said, was, “When you leave a room, leave it as a better place than when you entered.”

Robinson learned to be caring, according to Rayna, performing small niceties, such as always making cards for his friends’ birthdays.

“If you know James, he’ll give you the shirt off his back,” James Jr. said.

While he already appeared to have raised a son of good character, James Jr.knew he would have to step back from Robinson for him to develop his basketball skills. When Robinson was 9, James Jr. stopped coaching him and handed him off to a number of rec center coaches and AAU coaches in the Maryland and Washington, D.C., area.

By the time his high school coach, Mike Jones, first saw him play in eighth grade, Robinson and his family’s work had paid off. He chose to play intelligently, foregoing bad shots for smart passes or dribbling, Jones said.

“James, even though he was extremely talented at a young age, he always played the game the right way,” Jones said.

A number of college coaches piled into the DeMatha High School gym for the basketball team’s first open gym during the 2008-2009 season.Every big name college coach was there, including Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon. Even though he was new on the team, Dixon said Robinson was already telling his teammates what to do and what the next drill was.

“He stood out. He was like the leader of the team,” Dixon said.

Jamie Dixon and James Robinson embrace after Robinson’s final appearance at the Petersen Events Center.

At this moment, Robinson knew DeMatha was the right place for him, given the exposure he’d get to college recruiters. The school has a storied basketball history, with such basketball alumni as former and current NBA players Adrian Dantley, Danny Ferry and Victor Oladipo.

Practices and games were competitive and physical, which Robinson now likens to the ACC and Big East contests. But he didn’t want it any other way, as the school’s passion for the sport matched his.

“It was like a business. All my teammates were so serious about it,” Robinson said. “The coaching staff, the entire school, is so serious about athletics.”

One of the assistant coaches on the team, David Adkins — now a coach with the Washington Wizards — would hold workouts at 6 a.m before school. Kameron Taylor, a teammate at DeMatha, recalls that Robinson didn’t miss any of them.

“He was a straight gym rat,” Taylor said. “There was a never a time where he had free time that he wasn’t in the gym.”

On a team full of older and talented future college players, Robinson did not start his freshman year, but was a key contributor off the bench. Come time for the championship game, Robinson played an important role, knocking down three jumpers in the final 2:30 of play to help lead his team to a win.

The shots showed early signs of Robinson’s calm demeanor under pressure, which has suited him well throughout his high school and college careers.

“There’s never any worry or doubt in James’ eyes,” Taylor said. “Whether we were panicked, you could never see panic in his eyes.”

As a junior, Robinson was a starter. As a senior, he was the team’s leader, Taylor said. Always naturally quiet, Robinson led by example and experience, not by yelling, Jones said.

The coach respected Robinson’s basketball acumen so much that he would run plays that the point guard suggested if he saw something that the coach didn’t see.

At the end of his high school career, Robinson had won three conference championships, and his team’s victory in his junior year remains the program’s last title.

“We miss him,” Jones said. “James being that coach on the floor was definitely special.”

In 2012, starting senior guard Tray Woodall was immediately impressed with freshman Robinson, who constantly sought out Woodall with questions about Pitt’s style of play. He even saw a bit of himself in Robinson.

“My initial impression was that this kid wants to learn,” Woodall said. “He’s definitely a guy that wants to soak up everything about the game, like a sponge.”

Robinson did not have any expectations about playing time, but asserted himself early on as a top talent, opting to guard the best players in practice, according to Woodall.

Woodall admits that he initially didn’t think Robinson would start, but his hard work and willingness to learn propelled him to the spot. And Dixon, a defensive-minded coach, already saw Robinson as the team’s best perimeter defender.

“It ended up that we had to have him on the floor,” Dixon said. “We were better with him on the floor.”

Robinson picked up concepts quickly, Dixon said, which gained the respect of his teammates. Though he was primarily a distributor, his teammates trusted him to take big shots.

Robinson squares up for a shot against North Carolina

Robinson hit two key 3-pointers against Villanova in Woodall’s final home game — one in the final minute to send the contest into overtime and another to seal the lead with 30 seconds left.

“If the shot wasn’t there for [me or Woodall], he was the next person we wanted to take it,” Lamar Patterson, a starting junior forward at the time, said. “He was never afraid of the moment. He wanted the moment.”

Robinson has always been that way — calm under pressure, James Jr. said. None of his family members have ever seen him in any state of disarray, on or off the court.

“I can’t think of time where I saw him panic. That’s not him,” Jamal said.

Besides, he has his mother to do the panicking.

“It makes me a nervous wreck,” Rayna said. “He tells me, ‘Mom, relax. It’s going to be all right.’”

Since his freshman year, Robinson has started in all but one of his games for Pitt and maintained an assist-to-turnover ratio that sits near the top of the NCAA leaderboard each year.

As rosters have changed and different players emerged, Robinson has been the constant, the engine running the Pitt team.

With 1:11 left against Syracuse in the 2016 ACC Tournament, Robinson jumped in front of a pass by Franklin Howard, raced to the basket, completed a behind-the-back dribble and converted the layup under duress to give the Panthers a 70-68 lead.

Later, with 23 seconds left, Robinson dribbled to the right side of the court, right outside the paint. Surrounded by Syracuse defenders, he pivoted a few times and hit a step-back jumper to put his team up by four and secure a pivotal Pitt win to make the NCAA Tournament.

The wherewithal to sniff out the Howard pass was a microcosm of Robinson’s entire career: He’s always valued the intellectual aspects of the game.

“James has been working on these scenarios since four years old,” James Jr. said.

Robinson’s late-game heroics, along with his smooth operation of Pitt’s offense, have defined his career. He’s earned a fair share of admirers, even prying out the compliments of several opposing coaches.

Unprompted, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski praised Robinson for being a “superb leader on the court” and in “command of the game” in his opening statement after Pitt’s win over his team on Senior Day.

Woodall calls Robinson his “favorite player,” and the pair remains in regular contact.

They talk after most Pitt games, where Woodall is often in the crowd. After the Duke game, Woodall said he and Robinson hugged for maybe 40 seconds, expressing their happiness that Robinson ended his last game at the Petersen Events Center with a win, just like his on-court mentor.

“He still feels like my teammate,” Robinson said.

Robinson has earned criticism for inconsistent shooting and occasional lack of aggressiveness, the latter being something Woodall has pushed Robinson to improve on it from year to year.

“He’s so team first, like I was,” Woodall said. “You always have to have somebody to let you know that in certain situations, you have to be a little more aggressive.”

Aggressiveness isn’t in Robinson’s nature. He’ll often direct players on the court, but Robinson isn’t a vocal leader.

It’s something Pitt’s staff has worked on during his career, Dixon said, and he has improved. But it still feels weird to him sometimes.

“You might yell or say something and think, ‘That’s not me,’” Robinson said.

As his college career nears its end, Robinson says he has no regrets, except he would’ve liked a few more wins.

James Robinson and his mother, Rayna, prepare for an embrace from Roc.

His efficiency will be the highlight of his legacy, for better or worse.

For the better, his knowledge and feel for the game helped him direct Pitt’s offense smoothly. For the worse, his shooting inconsistencies and a too-quick willingness to defer diminished his effectiveness.

During his trips back home, Robinson still watches basketball games with his parents. Except now, Robinson is no longer learning. Over the years, James Jr. said he’s digested enough basketball that he can make a vocal observation to Robinson, who never sees it as new information.

“He doesn’t shut me up, he just shuts me down,” James Jr. said.

A communication major, Robinson intends to coach or become a sports broadcaster, although he plans on pursuing a career playing basketball for as long as he can. The degree suits him — he speaks to the media with the same knowledge and restriction as a coach does.

Robinson is hesitant to make any steadfast predictions publicly. But Jones knows his former player well enough to guess what he’d say.

“If you ask James, he fully expects to win a national championship,” Jones said. “That’s the way he was raised. No matter what the circumstances, he’s going to go down fighting.”

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Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson