- Thomas Robinson's mother died in January 2011, just weeks after her parents passed
- Robinson found support in his Kansas Jayhawks teammates
- His young half-sister lives with her father, but he'd like to gain custody
- Robinson should be a top pick in the NBA Draft
The coach asked his player whose mother had just died was there anyone back home he wanted the university to contact. Any adult who could help make arrangements.
"Coach, they're all gone," the player said.
Thomas Robinson, a star player who had turned down the chance to go to the NBA, lost his mother and two grandparents in the space of just a month in January 2011. Now it was just him and his little sister.
He was told his mother, Lisa, had died of a heart attack at 43. Weeks before it was the grandparents who helped his single mother raise him. Robinson and his 8-year-old half-sister, Jayla, felt so alone. They had grown up together, 12 years apart, in Washington, Thomas the doting big brother.
Robinson's teammates followed him home for the funeral and the school started an education fund for his sister.
"My teammates, you know, immediately became my brothers and strongest supporting cast I had," Robinson told CNN recently.
But even as the fans who filled the seats at legendary Phog Allen Fieldhouse donated to a cause more worthy than another national championship Robinson realized his daily responsibilities had grown immensely.
Being a collegiate basketball player isn't easy, even at the big schools where hoops players are the big men on campus, literally and figuratively. Their sport spans two semesters, starting with October practices and culminating in March and April tournaments. They might work out in the morning, go to class, then practice in the afternoon, tend to injuries minor and major and attend study hall at night.
It gets a whole lot harder when you have to worry about your kid sister. She lives back home in Washington with her father.
"For me to feel comfortable the best way to do that was to be able to reach my lifetime dream and doing that will be able to take care of her," he said.
Robinson, a 6-foot-10-inch forward, has had a marvelous junior season, averaging nearly 18 points per game and 12 rebounds. He won ESPN.com's player of the year award. He's on many All-America teams. He'll likely be drafted among the top 5 players in April's draft and sign a contract worth nearly $4 million a year.
"He certainly has had a remarkable year in large part because I think he's been able to take a terrible situation, tragic, multiple situations and somehow use basketball as his outlet to somehow spin something positive out of it," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "Everybody admires him that comes in touch with him around our camp because I don't know how many guys could do what he's done."
Robinson, who had 11 points and 13 rebounds in the Jayhawks' third-round win over Purdue in the NCAA tournament, leads Kansas against N.C. State and its star forward C.J. Leslie tonight on TBS at about 10:15 p.m. ET. If the Jayhawks beat the Wolfpack, the 11th seed in the Midwest Regional, they will face the winner of the North Carolina-Ohio game.
His teammates have been inspired by Robinson's play.
"Some people would kind of, you know, go the opposite way and feel like they don't have anything to work for now. He kind of had a different approach, like, you know I got to go even harder now," said guard Tyshawn Taylor.
Robinson said he went to Self after his mom died and told the coach to treat him the same, to not let any "excuses" get in the way.
Self remarked that Robinson's been able deal with the constant attention well. People are always coming up to the star player, cheering him on, saying how great he's doing given the circumstances.
"He's done a remarkably great job of balancing a situation that's really unbalanced," Self said.
Robinson remembers his mother in many ways, one of which is a picture he wears around at the end of a chain around his neck, just above his heart.
There is also a tree planted outside the athletic complex on the Kansas campus. At the base of it, Robinson planted a letter to his mom, telling her that her little girl would be taken care of.
He talks to Jayla every day by phone. He told ESPN's Tom Friend, that soon, after he signs an NBA contract, he's going to petition for custody.
Then, they will be a family again.