Even the very best basketball players can be highly predictable, tirelessly flogging their pet moves, unable to go to their left, or in the case of someone like, say, Shaquille O'Neal, incapable of playing the game at all if it means moving more than five feet from the rim. But Purdue's Glenn Robinson, the 6'8" junior forward who is first in the nation in scoring (29.7 points per game at week's end), first in the Big Ten in rebounding (10.2 per game) and first in the next NBA draft if he chooses to make himself available, is nothing if not versatile.
"There are two sides of the street," Robinson once told an interviewer, speaking of the perilous avenues of his hometown, Gary, Ind. "You can choose to be on one side of the street—or you can go to the other side. I get along with people on both sides of the street."
On the court Robinson is equally adept at scoring in heavy traffic or hoisting one up from the corner. He can dribble from baseline to baseline, or he can reel in an alley-oop pass for a dunk. His 34-inch vertical leap would not be extraordinary except for his height, a point noted by Ohio State center Gerald Eaker, who watched Robinson torch the Buckeyes for 40 points on Feb. 23. "I didn't expect him to elevate that high," says Eaker. "He got the ball in the lane and he kept going up and up. There's really no way to guard him. All you do is try to contain him. I've never played against anybody like that."
At Indiana on Feb. 19, Robinson scored 39 points in an emotional 82-80 loss to Purdue's hated downstate rival. The Hoosiers had so little success guarding him that Indiana coach Bob Knight resorted to a matchup zone against Robinson in the second half, the highest and most painful compliment that Knight, the man-to-man man, can pay. Robinson's play so obviously rattled Knight that when Robinson was called for traveling with about four minutes to go, Knight clapped his hands over his head sort of like a seal and then began urging the crowd to do the same.
Knight had been given a foretaste of the damage Robinson can do a year ago, when Robinson unloaded 24 points on the Hoosiers in Bloomington. "He single-handedly ruined everything Indiana was trying to do in that game," recalls Boston Celtic scout Jon Jennings. "He destroyed them inside, and then he took them outside and shot threes. Versatility is the key to his game."
So much so, in fact, that Robinson may well be the most complete NCAA Player of the Year (a title he will not win officially until later this month) since 1979, when another Indiana phenom named Larry Bird won the award. Like Bird, Robinson has taken a nondescript bunch of teammates and elevated them beyond their wildest dreams, except that Robinson has done it playing in what may be the toughest conference in the country. As of Monday, Purdue was in first place in the Big Ten with a 25-4 record and was ranked No. 6 in the AP poll.
In the past decade the only players of the year who came close to matching Robinson's stats were LSU's O'Neal (27.6 points, 14.7 rebounds in 1990-91) and Navy's David Robinson (28.2 points, 11.8 rebounds in '86-87). But neither Shaq nor the Admiral possessed Glenn Robinson's arsenal. David Robinson had only one three-pointer in his award-winning season, and O'Neal had none, but Glenn Robinson had already made 61 through Sunday's games. Even Duke's Christian Laettner, that supposed paradigm of versatility, converted only 54 threes as a senior in 1991-92, and Laettner didn't have the boards (7.9) or the scoring (21.5) Robinson has. "Robinson plays a very simple game," Los Angeles Laker general manager Jerry West told the Los Angeles Times. "He just plays basketball the old-fashioned way."
Before Robinson ever played a game at Purdue, one of the school's custodians unleashed the nickname Big Dog on him. Robinson liked the name so much, he even had himself tattooed on the chest with the head of a snarling bulldog wearing a spiked collar. But Robinson might just as easily have left the tattoo parlor that day last year with a big red heart and the word MOTHER engraved on his breast, for in her formidable presence Big Dog is reduced to kibbles and bits.
Christine Bridgeman was an unmarried teenager when Glenn was born, but she was determined that her son would grow up straight and true. She had attended Roosevelt High in Gary, and she wanted her son to go there too. The school is a block away from the small house where Christine moved with her family when Glenn was old enough to enroll at Roosevelt High.
It was far from certain, however, that Robinson would play basketball at Roosevelt, for as recently as eight years ago his game was so shaky he refused even to go out for his seventh-grade team. "I had two fat little managers, a pair of twins, who used to outplay him when he was in the fourth or fifth grade," says Roosevelt coach Ron Heflin. "He wasn't very good. People don't understand how hard that kid worked. He hasn't always been a polished ballplayer."
Glenn improved enough to make the junior varsity as a freshman and the varsity as a sophomore, but when he came home with low grades during that second season, Christine marched him into Heflin's office and announced that her son would not be playing again until he improved his grades. She looked as if she would have been holding him by the ear if she could have reached that high. "She looked straight up and said, 'Glenn, do you understand me?' " recalls Heflin. "You couldn't help laughing at how this little woman had control of him."
Robinson's diligence on the court eventually paid off, as he led Roosevelt to a three-year record of 73-7 and a state championship. He also won for himself the Mr. Basketball title that Indiana most often confers on jump-shooting white players from smaller, downstate communities. Bringing the highest basketball honor a Hoosier schoolboy can earn to Gary—a city of smokestacks and refineries in the northwest corner of the state—might have been Robinson's greatest achievement. "When Glenn plays, all the TVs in Gary are on," says family friend Rayfield Fisher, a Gary attorney. "Everybody here owns Glenn; he's our Glenn Robinson."
Robinson represents something to Gary that Michael Jackson, who turned his back on the city the moment he left in 1969, chose not to. "A lot of people are disappointed because the Jacksons didn't do anything for Gary," says Robinson. "I don't care if they don't give any money to the city, but they won't even come back to visit. The impression I get is they're ashamed of it. A person should never forget where he came from."
Statistics paint a grim picture of Gary. The city has an unemployment rate of 13.1%, more than twice the national average, and its crime rate is no less distressing. Last year Gary had the highest per capita murder rate in the nation—102 homicides in a population of 119,000. Still, Robinson stands up for his hometown. "People come to Gary expecting to be shot," he says. "You hear a lot of bad things about Gary, but a lot of people who say those things have never been there."
Robinson's home is just off the central corridor, 25th Avenue, known as the Two-Five to the men who stand along its broad shoulders every day as if opportunity might come riding through on the next bus. There is another Glenn Robinson who is well-known along the Two-Five. That is Glenn Robinson ST., 41, who also goes by the name Red Cap. The elder Robinson has had various scrapes with the law over the years, and the Lake County police currently have an outstanding warrant for his arrest on cocaine and heroin possession charges.
"I didn't get to know him like a son should know a father, because he wasn't really around," says Glenn. "But I'm not ashamed of my father. A lot of people have said that when I see him, I turn away. That's not true. I would never turn away from my own father."
A recent newspaper article detailing the troubled history of Robinson's father suggested that Robinson periodically returns to Gary's streets in search of his dad. "If I want to find my father, I know exactly where he lives," Robinson says. "I don't need to go searching for him."
Similarly, Robinson has been stung by aspersions cast on his academic ability. During the Feb. 19 Indiana game, the Hoosier student hooting section greeted Robinson's brilliant performance by chanting "S-A-T" at him. This was a not terribly subtle reference to the fact that Robinson had to sit out his freshman year as a Proposition 48 student because of his low test scores. Robinson has characterized his year on the sidelines as a welcome opportunity to adjust to college life, but friends say he was embarrassed by the stigmatizing effect of Prop 48. "I think it was harder on him than he'll ever admit," says Purdue guard Matt Waddell.
Feeling depressed, Robinson did little his first month in West Lafayette except eat. "I almost gave up and went home," Robinson says. "I looked in the mirror and I had this big old stomach."
In other words, he was one extremely Big Dog. Strangers approached him after classes and asked him how his grades were. "People would tell me, 'You've got to get eligible so you can play,' " says Robinson. "They never asked me how I was, or how my family was. They weren't concerned about anything like that."
When he finally got to play, speculation began almost immediately that he might turn pro after the season. Some observers believe that he returned to Purdue this season only because he wasn't a consensus first-team All-America. Robinson denies that but does say, "I guarantee you, if the pro scouts selected the All-Americas, I'd have been first team."
What did influence his decision to remain at Purdue was the Boilermakers' first-round dismissal by Rhode Island in the NCAA tournament. "I felt we didn't really accomplish anything," he says. "I felt I would have left my teammates hanging if I had gone out on that note."
He also says, "Naturally, you don't want to leave your friends. That's the main reason I didn't leave last year. Also, I felt last year I wasn't mature yet. I wasn't ready to go off into that big world yet. Out there you have to be able to deal with girls, agents, people trying to give you drugs—all that stuff. One morning I'll wake up and I'll know it's time."
That time is drawing closer. Robinson no longer appears to be unready to venture out into that big world. However much Purdue coach Gene Keady may hope that Robinson won't leave until he has won an NCAA championship for the Boilermakers—something that, Keady says almost imploringly, is still a year away—Robinson no longer considers the team's performance in the tournament a determining factor in his calculations.
He has been somewhat disillusioned by what he considers to be profiteering by Purdue's campus bookstores at his expense. The stores had sold thousands of T-shirts bearing likenesses of Big Dog until he made his displeasure known and put a stop to the practice. "I felt I was exploited," says Robinson. "They played me like I was a dumb kid. They think I'm supposed to see a Big Dog T-shirt and just smile because they put my picture on it. Meanwhile they're smiling and they've got a pocketful of my money."
It sounds as if Robinson is ready to fend for himself in the rough-and-tumble business environment that awaits him after college. He's learning quickly that it's a dog-eat-dog world out there.