Got Your Back

Teammates and their families, even the NCAA, helped a Kansas forward during an unbelievably tragic stretch
February 07, 2011

By midnight everyone was inside Thomas Robinson's dorm room at the Jayhawk Towers. There was his coach, Bill Self (who later called the gathering "the saddest thing I've ever seen in my life"); his teammates; and even the mothers of four players. An hour before, after phone calls and texts had gone out, the Jayhawks immediately knew where they'd be spending the early hours of Saturday, Jan. 22. The unanimous reaction was disbelief. "Thomas," senior guard Tyrel Reed says, "had been through so much already."

Robinson, a 6'9" sophomore forward who averages 8.5 points and 6.3 rebounds for KU, has suffered three tragedies in the span of four weeks. His maternal grandmother, Shirley Gladys White, passed away in late December. On Jan. 16 Robinson's maternal grandfather, Willatant Austin Sr., died. Then, five days later Robinson received a sobbing voice mail from his seven-year-old sister, Jayla, who was back home in Washington, D.C. Lisa Robinson, only 43 and a single mom of three (Thomas's brother, Jamah, is 27) had died at 11 p.m. that evening of an apparent heart attack. "Our first thought," Kansas associate athletic director Jim Marchiony says, "was, very simply, We need to do whatever we can to help."

While NCAA bylaws prohibit schools from granting preferential benefits and services to athletes, KU's compliance office quickly phoned NCAA membership services. Within days Kansas Athletics, already permitted to bear the cost of Lisa Robinson's funeral under current rules, was granted a special waiver so that it could pay for Thomas and the rest of the Jayhawks roster to fly to D.C. and attend last Thursday's services. Kansas's director of basketball operations, Barry Hinson, helped Robinson plan his mother's funeral, and the school hired the law firm SNR Denton to establish a scholarship fund for Jayla. Meanwhile, custody of Jayla—who is living with her father—remains unresolved. "The NCAA has been terrific in helping us and in understanding the gravity of the situation," Marchiony says.

This atmosphere of cooperation offers a contrast to the difficult relationship that has existed between KU and the NCAA of late. Last season a ticket scandal led to the resignations of seven top athletic department staff members and hastened the retirement of athletic director Lew Perkins. This fall the hottest topic in Lawrence was the eligibility of freshman guard Josh Selby, a star recruit who was suspended for nine games after accepting $4,607.58 in improper benefits from an adviser.

But Robinson's situation has provided a dose of perspective. Last Saturday, Robinson played against Kansas State, impressing with 17 points and nine rebounds. But the 90--66 rout of the Wildcats was far from the Jayhawks' primary concern. "There are things in this world much bigger than basketball," Reed says. "Whatever Thomas needs, we'll be right there behind him."

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PHOTOLAURA JACOBSENHELPING HANDS A gutsy performance against K-State earned Robinson (0) praise from Marcus Morris (below). PHOTOJEFF JACOBSEN[See caption above]

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