February 05, 2008

It's a shame Brown University coach Craig Robinson is so busy. With his unique expertise, Robinson could teach a fascinating course in time management. Who is more qualified to talk about the rare balancing act between a college basketball season and a presidential campaign?

The next 24 hours will be unusually hectic. After a morning practice at the Brown gymnasium -- located on Hope Street in Providence, R.I. -- Robinson will fly home to Chicago to await the results of the Super Tuesday primaries with his family, including brother-in-law and Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. Then on Wednesday, he will board a plane back to Providence, returning in time for his team's next practice.

"I have to juggle practice times," he said. "But I don't feel comfortable missing any time."

Robinson, whose sister, Michelle, is married to Obama, is doing everything he can to keep Brown in the thick of the Ivy League race. At the same time, he is deeply committed to the Obama campaign, traveling to fundraisers around New England, speaking in Iowa and South Carolina, and doing anything he can to spread the message of change and hope.

There are restrictions imposed by the university. Robinson conducts non-basketball interviews at a coffee shop off campus, or by cell phone away from his office. But he doesn't mind.

"I'm speaking as Craig Robinson, the citizen, even though I'm the head coach of Brown men's basketball," he says at the start of all interviews.

And when Robinson walks off the basketball court these days, he is more likely to seek out a television set tuned to CNN rather any sports highlight show. Last week he watched closely as other candidates dropped out of the race, essentially narrowing the field to its own Final Four -- Obama and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, and John McCain and Mitt Romney on the Republican side.

Robinson talks to his sister, who is 18 months younger than him, at least twice a week by phone. The buildup to Super Tuesday has been enormous.

"This will be the first time our whole family will be together for one of the returns," said Robinson, 45. "It is big and clearly I'm hoping for a good showing. I don't want to jinx it. I'm the same way I am with our games; I don't want to say anything to mess it up. I'm hoping we play well. And then the outcome will be the outcome."

The basketball analogies come easy for Robinson, a 6-foot-6 forward who was the Ivy League Player of the Year in 1982 and 1983 at Princeton under coach Pete Carril. Now, as the coach at Brown, Robinson is trying to snap 20 years of Ivy domination by Princeton and Penn. A loss to first-place Cornell last Friday night dropped the Bears two games behind, but Robinson still has confidence in his team.

He knows how quickly things can change. Obama's victory in South Carolina was followed by endorsements from Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy, daughter of former President John F. Kennedy. Robinson was especially touched by the op-ed piece Caroline Kennedy wrote for The New York Times.

"When you get an endorsement from the Kennedys, that's sort of like you just dropped a three to put you ahead going into the half," Robinson said. "To hear people compare [Obama] to somebody who, in my mind, is up there with all the great presidents and statesmen, it's kind of surreal. You're talking about a guy I really had the option of nixing or not nixing to my sister."

Robinson laughs at the suggestion that he ever visualized his sister as a future first lady. Craig and Michelle are well-educated and high achievers. But he says they were both very cynical about politics, politicians and "the system" until Obama won them both over.

Before that conversion, Obama was just a skinny attorney who happened to be Michelle's boyfriend. And before he entered into politics, Obama had to prove himself to the Robinsons. Michelle put that in Craig's hands. She had often heard Craig and their father discuss the way a person's character is revealed through pick-up basketball games. When she got serious with Obama, the game was on.

"He actually acquitted himself quite well," Robinson said. "You can tell a guy's personality by how he calls fouls, when he calls fouls, if he gives up fouls that are called against him. Pick-up basketball is a self-regulating environment. There's a lot of integrity and character involved. He didn't cater to me because I was Michelle's brother. He was confident without being cocky. He was a team player with high integrity and he fit in with all different kinds of people."

If Obama is elected president it would not only signal great change in this country, it might also bring pick-up basketball to the White House. So what is Robinson's scouting report on his brother-in-law?

"He's a left-handed, left-handed guy," Robinson said. "A lot of lefties like to go right. He's not one of those of guys. And he has a nice outside shot."

The way momentum has changed in recent weeks, it is obvious Obama has more than an outside shot of becoming the Democratic nominee. Robinson heads home to Chicago on Tuesday feeling very optimistic, but he also knows it's a very important day.

"What's amazing to me is to see how many young, non-African American, non-males there are who absolutely think the world of Barack," he said. "This is a different election. You can't just go out and say stuff, and expect people to say, 'Yeah, whatever you say.' People are going to call you on the things you say.

"There are a lot of young people who are excited about Barack. That's very refreshing to me. So is the number of independents and Republicans who are voting for Barack because of the things he stands for. We finally have a guy who is qualified, who is smart, who is inclusive, and who has new ideas. He is somebody who can bring people together rather than tearing them apart. We've got it. If that's what you've been looking for, this is it."

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