Photo: Justin Robinson (50) has been at the center of his team longer than his play in late-season games.
DURHAM – Picture this scene as Duke’s basketball team warms up. The players routinely take shots prior to the national anthem, player introductions and finally the tip-off with that night’s opponent.
Freshman center Vernon Carey is rehearsing his post moves under the basket. Sophomore point guard Tre Jones is taking shots inside and out. Most fans’ eyes are drawn to them as the two on their way to sweeping ACC honors – Jones as ACC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year and Carey as Freshman of the Year.
Others players are largely on the perimeter. The astute fan is watching to notice who has the hot hand from three-point range.
The overlooked player on Duke’s roster that is not taking many shots is Justin Robinson, a walk-on and fifth-year graduate student. The 6-foot-9, 202-pounder from San Antonio is most often noted as the son of Basketball Hall of Famer David Robinson, who won two NBA titles with the San Antonio Spurs.
J-Rob, as his teammates call the 11th man off the bench, otherwise is known for contributing on the scout team during practice and the 11th player off the bench in games – well, at least until recently. Robinson, instead of shooting, has a routine of traversing the court, talking with each player with his voice and hands. He has the countenance of an assistant coach.
This particular game day is Feb. 22 against Virginia Tech at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke's youthful roster has some uneasiness after a 22-point loss to N.C. State four days earlier.
Each player has been humbled by the loss and is attentive to Robinson’s words. And a couple of hours later Duke has pocketed an emphatic bounce-back win at the expense of the Hokies, 88-64.
Most scout team players are tolerated. Robinson is revered – the respect he commands before the Virginia Tech game is an example. He has earned a place on the team far beyond the son of an basketball all-time great.
“He means everything to the team,” said freshman Wendell Moore. “He’s a captain for us. He has personal relationship with each player and has something different to say with every player. It helps, especially for a freshman, to have someone that has been here for awhile. He knows the game and gives me tips. I like it. He helps a lot.”
As in past games, Robinson didn’t play until the result was in hand, but as usual he quickly makes a play in his limited opportunity. He scores five points on two baskets, one a three-pointer, in three minutes.
“That energy you see in games he brings that energy to every practice,” Moore said. “When he gets in a game, he has an impact. He either scores, gets a rebound, has an assist or a block – every time.”
But back to the pre-game warm-up and Robinson’s interacting with his teammates. He started at the left corner where the three-point arc meets the baseline. That’s where sophomore forward Joey Baker was popping three-pointers.
First there is a casual hug and slapping of hands. Then they talk. Robinson goes over the game plan. His swiftly moving hands pepper his points.
“It’s something I started doing last year,” Robinson said. “I like to think about the game a lot and think about each guy’s role and what they have to do. I like to emphasize the main points the coaches having been saying and to make sure they’re thinking about that going into the game. It’s also encouragement type thing. I like to give them a hug. It's an 'I gotcha' type of thing."
Then Robinson moves along the left side of the painted arc's curve. He speaks with freshman Matthew Hurt, junior Jordan Goldwire and senior Jack White. His hands are again in sync with his words. Messages appear to be repeated, but that’s not necessarily the case.
“It depends on that person,” Robinson said. “They might be struggling and have a tough match-up. Of if they’ve been playing well, I encourage them to keep being aggressive. It’s something I do with every guy, but it’s also different with every guy.”
As Robinson reaches the arc near the top of the key, he greets freshman Cassius Stanley as well as Moore. Robinson's captain recognition Moore referred to is especially significant for this walk-on. His father was known as David “The Admiral” Robinson, a nickname worthy of his stature as a Naval Academy All-American prior to his NBA career.
Justin “The Captain” Robinson has been an title worthy of his final college season. It's far beyond a trite sobriquet playing off a nod to his famous father.
They players also respect Robinson for how he took Carey, a freshman, under his wing and helped the 6-10 center develop a post game that he lacked from too much perimeter play in high school. Robinson helped him trim his weight from 270 pounds to 255.
“J.R. has helped me a lot,” said Carey, who earned first-team All-ACC honors in addition to his Freshman award. “I’ve been learning how to play physical. When I first came here, I had to learn how to play in the post. I’ve learned how to talk on defense. Since the start of summer, we’ve been going at it. I think we’ve made each other better, and it’s showing on the court.”
Robinson next moves along to right side of the arc, encountering the only players deeper on the bench than him -- little-used junior Mike Brockmire and freshmen walk-ons serving a redshirt year, Michael Savarino and Keenan Worthington.
Robinson steps toward them for a hug and talk, but at the same time Savarino lightly pushes him on down the arc toward junior Alex O’Connell. Savarino is grinning widely, seemingly telling Robinson to get on to more important business than two guys in a redshirt season.
Robinson talks with O'Connell and completes the circuit at the bottom of the right baseline and three-point arc when he encounters Baker, who has flipped sides with three-point practice.
Robinson’s pregame preparation is done.
“J-Rob has done that for everybody,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s the ultimate team guy. He’s in graduate school and he’s finishing up. He’s a young man that I’d like to see stay around here in coaching in some way.
“J-Rob is a guy who really understands the game. In addition to understanding the game, he understands people. Every time he talks in practice, individually or collectively, people listen to him. He runs our scout team. We’re putting in a new offense every game, and he knows everything. He’s very, very smart.”
But he's not done for the season.
Despite the bounce-back win over Virginia Tech, Duke dropped two in a row, losing in double-overtime at Wake Forest, 113-101, and at Virginia, 52-50.
Carey’s comment “we’ve made each other better” plays out in the Wake Forest loss. When the freshman big man struggled – Carey scored only 10 points – Coach K got Robinson off the bench early. Robinson played 15 minutes, scoring six points.
“They came out and really outplayed us,” Coach K said. “Justin Robinson saved us or we would have been down by 10, 15 points.”
Although Robinson didn’t play in the Virginia loss, upon returning home to face N.C. State, the coaching staff turned to Robinson. They called on him to talk as if he was one of the assistant coaches talking to the team before taking the court for warm-ups.
Krzyzewski explained he routinely has his assistants alternate speaking so they that the players hear more voices than his. For the N.C. State game, it was Chris Carrawell’s turn, but he deferred to Robinson.
“Chris put words on the board and then he had J-Rob speak on trying to get everyone to have ownership,” Coach K said. “He has owned it the longest. What a good story of persistence.”
Against the Wolfpack, “Captain J-Rob” scored 10 points with six rebounds in the win over N.C. State. Robinson's father and mother have attended many games over the years, but this time in particular they enjoyed celebrates a Duke victory.
"My Dad has always been supportive, and my mom has come to every home game," Robinson said. "I saw them jumping around and that was fun."
At one point in the game, Goldwire hurried a deep pass in transition and over threw his target for a turnover. As the Blue Devils retreated on defense, Robinson counseled Goldwire. Then he turned to Carey and points out some defensive positioning.
"He was telling me not to force plays -- 'we'll get those,' " Goldwire said."He said to stay poised."
Of the instructions to Carey, Goldwire added: That's typical of him."
Robinson, who usually dresses undisturbed after games as reporters flock to Jones, Carey and others that were a star of the night, Robinson found himself engulfed by reporters. They held out their recorders in and cameramen with pointed at him TV cameras that were perched on their shoulders.
Behind this semicircle, O’Connell positioned a chair to stand on an look down upon the reporters. He wanted to be heard:
“This is not a surprise! J-Rob does this in every practice! This is not a surprise! J-Rob does this in every practice!”
Five days later, Coach K gave Robinson his first career start in the final home game against North Carolina. Robinson responded with 13 points, six rebounds, three assists and four blocked shots in the 89-76 win in 25 minutes.
Nights like that have Krzyzewski hoping more people are aware of Robinson's story. He says J-Rob’s story is better than movie “Rudy,” the popular 1993 film on Notre Dame walk-on football player Rudy Ruettiger.
“He’s tough and better than ‘Rudy,’ ” said Krzyzewski after the regular-season finale win over North Carolina. “It’s almost like a movie, for crying out loud. He’s been outstanding, and hopefully he keeps it going, because he’s made us better, there’s no question about it.”
Krzyzewski didn’t state it this way, but he’s right that “J-Rob” is a better story than “Rudy.” There was plenty of fiction written into the keys to the “Rudy” storyline.
Then-Notre Dame coach Dan Devine protested the scene of players turning in their jerseys in support of Ruettiger prior to the 1975 regular-season finale never happened. Notre Dame great Joe Montana, then a freshman quarterback on the roster, backed Devine on that claim.
Montana also mocked how the movie stretched Ruettiger’s image from reality. He said Notre Dame’s fans didn’t chant “Rudy” as was depicted in the movie. He added the players carrying Ruettiger off the field was them “kinda playing around … I won’t say a joke, but playing around.’ ”
There is nothing fictional about Robinson’s contributions the past two weeks while rising from 11th on the bench to being counted on in post-season play. He has demonstrated he can play the 4 as a stretch or power forward and the 5 as a post player.
Robinson, who has long been a fan favorite for his plays in in mop-up duty, heard special cheers from Duke’s Cameron Crazies, the student section. They chanted “J-Rob!” and “MVP!” after the game.
That was real. “Captain J-Rob” is a true story.
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UPDATE: NCAA president Mark Emmert announced late Thursday afternoon the men's and women's basketball tournaments have been canceled. The decision was announced a day after it had decided to play the games without fans.
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Shortly before the first of the ACC Tournament's four quarterfinal round games was to begin early Thursday morning, the league canceled the tournament due to health concerns over the coronavirus.
Later in the day, ACC commissioner John Swwofford announced the conference has suspended all athletic related activities including all competition, formal and organized practice, recruiting and participation in NCAA championships until further notice. The decision was made following consultation with the league’s presidents and athletic directors to mitigate the further spread of COVID-19.”
In addition to regular season spring sports and the post-season for winter sports, that includes spring football.
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Statement from ACC Commissioner John Swofford: “This is uncharted territory and the health and safety of our student-athletes and institutions remains our top priority. This decision is aimed to protect from the further spread of COVID-19."
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in.”
Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and Chargers.com. He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer, MLB.com, Rivals.com and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.
Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications