Thanks so much to Kevin Capie of the Peoria Journal Star for taking time to remember the kid who once hoped (and, well, still does!) to someday embody the old Vaudeville line: If it can play in Peoria, it can play anywhere. Kevin was kind enough to recently catch up to me and publish excerpts from our conversation in the Monday, March 26 edition of the Journal-Star.
It’s wonderful not to be forgotten. But what’s far more enjoyable is reliving memories of the many great people I met during my first experience as a full-time play-by-play broadcaster for baseball’s Peoria Chiefs of the mid-199os. A handful are mentioned in Kevin’s piece. Unfortunately, too many are not, including Scott Krusinski, the general manager who hired me in the winter of 1993;Grandma, the devoted Chiefs fan who often dropped off batches of cookies in the booth; Peter and Marian Korn, the native New Yorkers who showed me the real Heart of Illinois; and Reid and Kathy Ottesen, who demonstrated true Midwestern Hospitality.
I witnessed a lot in those three seasons, from Alex Rodriguez as an Appleton Fox to striking major leaguer Jim Thome striking batting practice balls into neighboring area codes. And I was lucky enough to share time on the air with legends like Jack Brickhouse, Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall (yes, that Jimmy Piersall). Mostly, though, I was blessed with an opportunity to grow in ways I’m only now beginning to realize.
Originally published in 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship program.
Several years ago, as a guest of an Annapolis, Md. radio show, former Navy basketball coach Paul Evans cracked a smile and recalled the night he paid a recruiting visit to the Northern Virginia home of Ambrose and Freda Robinson.
The Robinsons’ oldest child, David, was a teenager with an ear for Beethoven and an insatiable intellectual curiosity. His talents in math and science far exceeded any of the athletic skills yet to emerge during his brief high school career. He was mainly interested in becoming an engineer.
“What David was most excited about,” Evans chuckled at the memory of their meeting, “was showing me the television set he built.”
“I was a bit of an egghead as a kid,” Robinson joked, laughing as Evans’s line was recently repeated to him. “It was a big project. My dad and I were supposed to do it together, but he was away in the service. I felt pretty good that the thing actually worked.”
Robinson manufactured the large projection unit with parts of a kit mail-ordered from the Heath Company, whose customers included a young visionary named Steve Jobs. It showed that Robinson looked at life and saw a much bigger picture than the small world framed inside a basketball court.
That Evans was building a successful program at a service academy, one of the nation’s best engineering schools, didn’t escape Robinson’s view. Nor did the fact that Ambrose had what his son calls “a great experience” as a career Navy man.
But far more serendipitous than anything leading Robinson to Annapolis is what took place once he got there. He entered at 6-foot-6 and immediately underwent a growth spurt of seemingly mythological proportions.
The self-described ‘egghead’ became a legend known as ‘The Admiral,’ outstretching his 7-foot-1 frame to project a larger-than-life image. He led the Naval Academy on one of the most improbable and captivating journeys in NCAA Tournament history, before developing into one of the greatest pros of any generation with the San Antonio Spurs.
Along the way, Robinson, who was gifted with such good fortune, began to give back. Basketball may have ultimately made a career choice for him, but it didn’t stop Robinson from becoming an engineer.
He eventually went from assembling electronics to envisioning ways of educating children and connecting the components to lives lived more fully. The kid who once built a television decided to help others avoid the vast wasteland of missed opportunities.
Vernon Butler initially encountered Robinson during the winter of 1982-83. As a Naval Academy freshman, Butler was a linchpin of Evans’s efforts to make the Midshipmen consistent winners. Robinson was a skinny high school senior, playing his lone basketball season at Osbourn Park in Manassas, Va.
By the time they saw one another again, a year later, a remarkable transformation was underway.
“I first met David at a hospitality room we had set up for recruits after a game,” Butler remembers. “He was pushing 6-6 or 6-7. At one point, I looked him in the eye. The next time I saw him, I was looking up to him.”
Tall as he was, Robinson remained a long way from reaching his athletic ceiling, which was raised exponentially with every inch added to his height. He didn’t start a single game in 1983-84, but offered occasional glimpses of what he’d become. One occurred during a loose-ball flurry under the basket at Richmond.
“(David) grabbed the ball off the floor and rose for a vicious dunk,” Butler recently said from his office, as a vice president of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamlton. “I was standing next to him, and realized he was something special.”
Robinson’s skills continued catching up to genetics.
“He would work on a different move four or five times and have it down,” Butler explained. “His coordination and ability to adapt quickly were unparalleled. Another thing he had was impeccable timing.”
All of which enabled Robinson to glide across the court, combining the finesse of a soft left-handed touch with the power to rebound and reject shots with either hand, from any angle. Each performance was increasingly well-rounded. Much like the person himself.
“I thought he was a really fun-loving guy,” says classmate Doug Wojcik, who remembers Robinson’s engaging personality and easy laugh transcending the daily rigidity of Academy existence. “I describe David as a person with a great sense of humor and a lot of interests.”
“He had an ability to maintain balance with everything going on around him,” adds Butler. “David wasn’t one-dimensional, basketball wasn’t his life. He was a well-rounded person.”
As the country they had all sworn to serve was about to discover.
Robinson and Butler were perfect complements, as an inside scoring tandem on offense and anchors of a ‘2-3’ zone defense. Wojcik, who was promoted from Navy’s junior varsity to be its starting point guard in 1984-85, joined a deeply talented supporting cast.
And together they totaled 26 victories, won the ECAC South and marked Navy’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in a quarter century with a 78-55 rout of fourth-seeded LSU. But the Mids, seeded 13th, couldn’t maintain a late lead and narrowly lost to Maryland in the second round.
That summer, between his sophomore and junior years, Robinson could have left Annapolis without obligation to the Navy. Conventional wisdom suggested he transfer to eschew tours of duty and ensure the NBA riches he was likely to command.
Of course, Robinson didn’t see it the same way. As early as January 1985, he shared his insight with Sports Illustrated’s Jim Kaplan. Robinson spelled out the guarantee of a job upon graduation and the security of a possible military pension.
“I like the saying that’s in our home-game program: ‘Some college students learn what to do from 9 to 5,’” said Robinson, who would wind up as one of the game’s highest-paid players. “‘Midshipmen learn what to do from 22 to 47.’”
When Robinson joined the other four returning starters for 1985-86, Navy captured another conference title and rode a 13-game winning streak into the NCAA tourney.
The seventh-seeded Mids blew past the Golden Hurricane of Tulsa to set up a second-round rematch with Syracuse on the Orangemen’s home floor. In early December, Navy was beaten soundly inside the Carrier Dome, 89-67.
But with a berth in March’s Sweet 16 at stake, the Mids orchestrated a 34-point swing. Robinson thoroughly dominated counterpart Rony Seikaly, producing 35 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks in a 97-85 win.
Fellow upstart Cleveland State awaited in The Meadowlands, where Robinson grabbed 14 rebounds and rejected a startling nine shots. But it took the last two of his 22 points, delivered in the final six seconds, to lift Navy to a 71-70 victory.
One game and one team, Duke, separated the Mids from the Final Four. The tightly-knit group of young gentlemen soon to be officers were adopted as America’s Team.
None attracted more attention than the erudite seven-footer in his service dress blues. And yet no one seemed less affected. Robinson wasn’t thinking about making basketball history. Something more important was on his mind.
“It was another momentous step for me in becoming a man and making my own space in the world,”Robinson says 26 years later from San Antonio, where he and wife Valerie raise their family. “Having three sons, I know my boys want to get out of my shadow and create their own space. I just wanted to live up to what my dad had done.”
He certainly did that; no matter that the Blue Devils, not the Midshipmen, advanced by virtue of a 21-point win. Navy finished 30-5 and Robinson was voted All-America. He averaged 22.7 points and 13.0 rebounds per game, while blocking a Division I-record 207 shots.
Individual acclaim continued the following season, as the Navy team confronted a grueling national schedule. What seemed a farewell tour for Robinson included a visit to No. 1 UNLV and a matchup with Kentucky on Super Bowl Sunday.
As consensus player of the year, Robinson and the Mids secured a No. 8 seed and were paired with Michigan in the NCAA’s first round. It was Robinson’s final collegiate appearance. Memories of his grand exit — highlighted by 50 points and 13 rebounds — easily outlast any other details of a 97-82 decision.
More than 2,600 points, 1,300 rebounds and 500 blocks after after entering Annapolis, he was drafted first overall by the Spurs. But before ever playing a pro game, Ensign David Robinson reported for duty at a submarine base in Kings Bay, Ga.
Two years later, in 1989, he was allowed to join the Spurs. And two decades later, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. An All-Star in 10 of his 14 seasons, Robinson celebrated two NBA championships. He was also a three-time Olympian, helping the U.S. to a 23-1 record, two gold medals and a bronze.
For anyone else, it would truly be an amazing legacy. For Robinson, it’s anything but. Understanding his true legacy requires one to consider the overarching lesson of his time in Annapolis.
“The Academy taught me about service, and what service means,” he says. “The idea of laying your life down for your country, and how great this country can be.”
Robinson made what he calls his “first foray into education” in 1991, at the urging of his mother, Freda.
“My mom pushed me to consider this community, especially giving to children in San Antonio,” Robinson said. “She helped me to focus.”
Inspired by New York philanthropist Eugene M. Lang and his “I Have A Dream” Foundation, Robinson made a pledge to 94 fifth-graders at San Antonio’s Gates Elementary school. Anyone finishing high school would earn a $2,000 college scholarship. On David. In 1998, when 50 of those students received their diplomas, David was on hand.
About the time Robinson delivered his promise to the kids at Gates, he decided to deepen his spirituality with a well-chronicled religious re-birth. Guided by faith, and mindful of helping hands who touched his life, he sought more ways of reaching out.
“People helped me along the way,” says Robinson, who has since entered the ministry. “I just want to fulfill whatever God’s calling is for me on earth. It’s being spelled out step-by-step.”
In 2001 he founded The Carver Academy, an independent elementary school named for George Washington Carver. Originally accommodating a culturally-diverse body of 60 students, enrollment today exceeds 100. Virtually everyone is on scholarship, requiring Robinson to raise more than $44 million since its inception.
“Watching the school grow, and watching children grow is one of the great joys of my life,” he says.
Robinson is more than a benefactor. Many of his own loves — of foreign languages and classical music, for example — are incorporated into the curriculum. A big man with a broad outlook wants students to realize just how small the world is, after all.
“It’s not just being exposed to languages, but other cultures; the world is smaller than you think it is” says Robinson, who’s also a self-taught musician. “It’s been proven that music helps you learn in other areas. I know how it makes me feel when I play.”
He’s trying to instill in the children of Carver what his parents gave him, and his Annapolis experience reinforced.
“I want to produce the next great generation of leaders,” he says. “There’s a foundation of values that isn’t going to change. The world may change around you, but you’re always going to be able to come back to (those values)…They keep you grounded.
“It’s great to see what it’s meant to the kids. Not just the education part, but the relationship part. Kids represent our deepest hope. There’s so much there; the whole world awaits.”
Coinciding with Carver’s success, Robinson co-founded The Admiral Capital Group and The Admiral Center. The former is intended to create social impact via private investment. The latter partners with large corporations and celebrities, ranging from actors to athletes, to do what Robinson has done with Carver: sustain a project to benefit a community.
It’s no surprise for those who knew the Admiral when he considered himself an egghead to see Robinson involving so much of himself to help so many others.
“Every time someone mentions David’s name, they say what a great person and what a great role model he is,” Butler said. “He’s still seen as a gentleman’s gentleman.”
“David didn’t expect to be a superstar,” says Wojcik, the former head basketball coach at Tulsa. “It doesn’t surprise me that he turned (fame) around to help others, especially children. He’s somebody I’m proud to consider a friend.”
He’s also somebody who’s just getting started.
“(The future) is unlimited,” Robinson says in a rich baritone. “I’ve been given ridiculous favor. When you’re in a position of influence, with access, you can be a voice. I like to say, ‘If you have a strong voice, don’t whisper.’”
As longtime radio voice of Navy football, Bob recently called the Patriot League men’s and women’s basketball championships for CBS Sports Network. For samples of his broadcasting work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.
Inside the final half minute of Wednesday’s Patriot League basketball championship, a pair of missed free throws by Lehigh’s Mackey McKnight accorded Bucknell a 12th opportunity to take its first lead of the evening. And perhaps, the only lead it would need to return to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.
But the Bison were out of timeouts, after spending their final two in the minuscule span of four seconds; during which guard Bryson Johnson bracketed a Mountain Hawk foul with his back-to-back three-pointers. His remarkable sequence reduced a 78-71 differential to the narrowest of margins.
Twice in a matchup of the conference’s top two seeds, who entered the evening with a combined 49 wins, the game had been tied. First, at 15-all. Next, after Lehigh led by as many as 11 late in the first half, when the score was 50-50.
With a predominantly orange-clad crowd of 4,267 crammed inside the Sojka Pavilion poised to spill onto Bucknell’s home court, possession and the latest chance to forge in front belonged to Bison sophomore Cameron Ayers. As a Second-Team All-Patriot League guard, Ayers was part of the talented supporting casts surrounding the conference’s two premier players.
Bucknell’s Mike Muscala had doubled as the league’s Player of the Year and its tournament MVP in 2011. Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum, who in 2010 became the first freshman to win the Patriot’s Player-of-the-Year award, had earned the honor again in 2012. Between them, Muscala and McCollum were bound for a 59-point night.
With the shot clock dark and no other options presenting themselves, as time slipped away, Ayers drove along the baseline from right-to-left. Elevating under the basket, he attempted a reverse layup, only to have his shot blocked with eight seconds to go by the Hawks’ Gabe Knutson. Despite playing with four fouls, Knutson made the defensive play to preserve the lead.
Four free throws later, two by McCollum and the final pair by senior Jordan Hamilton, Lehigh celebrated an 82-77 victory (its school-record 26th overall) and a second trip to the NCAA Tournament in three years. McCollum, who finished with 29 points, five assists, three steals and two blocks, was deemed the tourney’s most valuable player.
Meanwhile, Knutson was its most invaluable. A second-team all-conference pick, he started by making his first six shots. Then, following misses on five of his next seven tries, Knutson drilled a three-pointer for a 67-62 lead, just past the five-minute mark. Overall, he scored a season-high 23 points and grabbed a team-leading seven rebounds. Five of those boards were offensive, helping the Hawks outscore the Bison, 10-4, on second-chance points.
As a kid, Knutson lived for three years in Australia, where his father worked on the financial side of John Deere. By the time they returned to the United States, eventually to settle in Iowa, Knutson was a seventh-grader. He also was probably the most well-informed middle-schooler in middle America about the sports of water polo, rugby and Australian Rules Football.
March Madness, on the other hand, was a mystery. On Wednesday morning, shortly before Lehigh’s shoot-around, Knutson recounted the time he found his dad filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket. What was he doing, Gabe wondered? Of course, he’s since found out. Two years ago, Knutson was a freshman when the 16th-seeded Mountain Hawks hung with Kansas, before the Jayhawks pulled away midway through the second half of a 90-74 victory. Next week Knutson gets to rediscover the true meaning of the madness. Admittedly short on his knowledge of basketball history, Knutson sure has been living a lot of it lately.
Bucknell, denied a dozen times in its bid to overtake Lehigh, takes its 24 wins into the NIT, guaranteed a postseason berth by virtue of its regular-season title. In 2005, the last time the Patriot League had two teams play beyond its tournament, the Bison shocked Kansas in the NCAA and Holy Cross eliminated Notre Dame from the NIT. With McCollum and Muscala carrying the Patriot League banner, while leading their respective schools to their respective tourneys, a similar showing is a very real possibility.
But regardless of what they do and where they go from here, theirs was quite a send-off. Even if only one left the Sojka smiling on Wednesday, the performance of both are worth celebrating.
Following is a link to our recap for www.cbssports.com, after Vince Curran and I enjoyed the privilege of calling Lehigh’s 82-77 win for the CBS Sports Network:
In years past, this was always someone else’s game to call. For weeks I rode along with the Patriot League’s basketball season, as it unfolded from mid-January through early March. Until it was time to hop off after the semifinals, vacating my courtside seat for another voice from another network.
Back to being a fan, the only way I could see the conference’s championship was to make it appointment viewing. If time allowed, I typically enjoyed those telecasts, especially if what I was watching was accompanied by the sound of a personal favorite like Dave O’Brien or Jon Sciambi.
At the end — sometimes sooner, if the score was one-sided — of every final, happiness for one team was balanced by the disappointment for the other. In a one-bid league like the Patriot, there’s no at-large consolation from the NCAA Tournament selection committee for those who come up short of a championship. Personally invested in such a conference, trying to tell the stories of the programs and players throughout the season-long pursuit of their 15 shining minutes of fame on college basketball’s grandest stage, it’s impossible to avoid such mixed emotions.
Tonight, when Bucknell hosts Lehigh at the Sojka Pavilion, will be no different. One will celebrate a dream attained; the other will lament a dream denied. The difference, though, for me is where I’ll experience and how I’ll express those feelings for both.
Because the CBS Sports Network is televising the Patriot League Championship for the first time, I’m still along for the ride. Vince Curran, a former Penn player and assistant coach, and I get to enjoy the privilege of crossing the finish line with the Bison and Mountain Hawks.
I’ve long relished the rewards of my association with a conference comprised of impeccable students whose interests extend to other areas of life, yet whose passion for the sport runs as deep as any of their Division I counterparts. At any time, in every Patriot League contest, there are engaging personalities, whose histories are worth telling, on the floor.
For instance, the first player off the Bucknell bench figures to be junior guard Bryson Johnson, one of the most dangerous three-point shooters in the conference. Growing up on the northern tip of the Canadian Maritime of Nova Scotia, he was first coached by his mother. A year ago, he was voted to the All-Tournament team, after averaging 14.3 points per game during the Bison’s postseason trek to the Patriot title. Johnson, an economics major, also is an Academic All-District selection; practically earning straight A’s to go with his high-arcing threes.
Perhaps no one’s past is more compelling than Lehigh reserve B.J. Bailey. With his father absent from his life, his mother passed away when Bailey was a high school freshman. Four years later and six games into his career at Boston University, he suffered a concussion. The lingering effects, he says, led him on a path toward depression, mourning the loss of his mom and facing extreme homesickness. Hailing from New Jersey, Bailey transferred to Lehigh in January 2010 and was soon diagnosed with Post-concussion Syndrome.
Six months later, in the early evening of June 24, Bailey and his friend Chris Popper got off work and went body surfing off the coast of Margate City, N.J. Bailey and Popper got caught in a rip current. Struggling to swim back to shore, only to be carried farther away, Bailey’s body was fatigued and cramping.
“After about two minutes I looked up and I was maybe 50 yards from the shore,” he told reporter Tom Hinkel of Easton, Pa.’s The Express-Times. “The rip current was pushing my legs back and my head forward. I started to panic. Chris tried to help me but he couldn’t. I told him to go ahead and try to save himself. I basically gave up.”
Bailey lives to tell about it only because of three others, who risked their own lives by diving into the turbulent water to rescue him and Popper. Traumatized, he decided to concentrate solely on studies. Paying his own way to Lehigh, Bailey gave up basketball.
“It was a wake-up call,” he said of the experience, following practice on the eve of the Hawks’ semifinal rout of American. “I wanted to focus on my priorities.”
Still, there was an emotional attachment to the Lehigh program. Would-be teammates remained friends. Shortly after workouts commenced, Coach Brett Reed realized the need for another body, mainly to give him 15 players with whom to conduct practice drills. Reed summoned Bailey to his office and asked him to reconsider his plans for 2011-12. He did.
“I didn’t want to look back in 10 years and realize that I didn’t give basketball a try,” Bailey says.
He has since gone from non-member to practice player to an integral part of Lehigh’s school-record, 25-win success. In the first two rounds of this year’s tournament, he averaged 9.0 points and 3.5 rebounds in 19.5 minutes. And as, if not more important, the kid who once suffered from PCS is a constant source of “energy plays,” liable to spill across the court to corral a loose ball.
How can you not root for someone like that?
These Patriot League finalists don’t just have great individual stories. They’ve got game too, having split the last two titles. Between them, the Bison and Mountain Hawks own 49 victories. Their best players, Mike Muscala and C.J. McCollum, are clearly the conference’s best as well. In fact, they’re among the most talented in the mid-major game, if not all of college basketball.
Both are juniors included among the nominees for the 2012 Lou Henson National Player of the Year award. Each has been a Patriot Player of the Year. McCollum earned the honor as a rookie in 2010 and again in 2012. Muscala won it last season. And both are pro prospects, attracting looks from NBA evaluators. McCollum is a 6-foot-3 guard ranked in the top five nationally in scoring (21.7) and steals (3.5). Muscala stands a legitimate 6-11 and owns a skillset marked by mobility (183 career blocks), versatility (16.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg and 39 percent from three-point range) and dexterity (he’s lethal with left or right hand).
Best of all, McCollum and Muscala rise to the standards of this series. After the latter combined 20 points and 12 rebounds in a 68-61 triumph January at Lehigh, the former rebutted with a three-point dagger, off a killer cross-over dribble, in the final second of a 56-53 victory last month at Bucknell. McCollum’s game-winner gave the Bison their first league loss in 21 games.
A year ago, Bucknell survived at home in the semifinals, edging the Hawks, 66-64, before defeating Lafayette with relative ease, 72-57. The margin no matter, BU’s students, known as the “Sojka Psychos” went on a lunatic fringe, leading to an orange crush at centre court.
Somewhere around 9 p.m. tonight, either that scene will be repeated or the small cluster of brown-clad fans behind Lehigh’s bench will have license to go crazy.
Most exciting for me, the view will be up close and the experience far more personal.
On Wednesday, March 7 at 7 p.m., Vince Curran and I will call the 2012 Patriot League Championship game for CBS Sports Network, featuring a showdown of the top two seeds, host Bucknell and Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks beat the Bison last month, 56-53, on C.J. McCollum’s three-pointer with :00.8 remaining. Lehigh advanced to the final after routing American, 85-66, en route to a school-record 25th victory on Saturday, March 3. Following is a link to our CBS Sports Network recap: