The man in the middle

Robin Lopez may not make SportsCenter every night, but he's been a big part of the Bulls early success

By Sam Smith

There are not many seven footers with hair that is a cross between Doc Brown from the Back to the Future movies and Sideshow Bob of the Simpsons, who has gone MMA with NBA mascots and who has been linked romantically to a Kardashian, and yet who is said to be overlooked.

Well, there’s actually one: Robin Lopez, the Bulls center who does his best perhaps among all the players in the NBA these days to hide in plain sight.

“Things happen in the NBA,” Lopez says with a shrug about the Bulls being his fifth team in nine NBA seasons. “Teams are on different guidelines. I’m very thankful for all the experiences I’ve had where obviously it’s molded me into the player I am today.”

As the Bulls begin the next phase of their NBA season Wednesday against the Los Angeles Lakers back home after a 4-2 road trip, Robin Lopez has emerged—if he ever truly can around the NBA—as a crucial player on one of the big surprise teams of the NBA, the 10-6 Bulls.

“He doesn’t get mentioned and he should with all the little things he does for this team,” says Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “He’s got (four double/doubles in the last seven) games; he goes out and sets the tone for us with the physicality. The physicality we play with, that’s our front line guys. I know Jimmy (Butler) tells him all the time how much he appreciates the little things he does for him and the team. He’s not real flashy. You are not going to see a guy get on SportsCenter by setting a screen. That’s what Robin does; he guards, he’ll protect the rim, he rebounds. It’s so many little things, but it doesn’t go unappreciated by his coaches and teammates.”

Lopez goes mostly unnoticed in this NBA for a lot of reasons.

He’s got a twin brother who’s been an All-Star, the Nets’ Brook. His basic averages are fairly mundane, 8.5 points and 5.5 rebounds for his career. He is averaging 9.8 points and 7.8 rebounds for the Bulls this season. The latest craze is for big men to shoot threes, and Robin attempted his first three of his career on the recent road trip. He missed.

“I don’t know if teams don’t value centers as much as they used to, a dying position if you will,” said Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone. “If you have a guy to defend his position, get you extra possessions on the glass, set great screens for teammates and be able to finish and score around the basket…I don’t know a head coach who wouldn’t want that. I know he and his brother are high character guys you’d be fortunate to have in your locker room and in your community. So I’m not sure what the reason is he’s moved around like he has, but he’s a heck of a talent. We talked about the Bulls a lot that it’s not just Butler and (Dwyane) Wade; there are a number of guys who impact the game in a big manner. And he is one.

“Other guys are more athletic, the pick and roll for the lob dunk, the ability to switch pick and roll and guard guys on the perimeter,” noted Malone. “Maybe he’s not a sexy player, if you want to say that.”

But you would be wrong there, also, because Robin was all over the tabloids a few years back, rumored to be dating Khloe Kardashian, the former wife of NBA player Lamar Odom and linked with NBA players like James Harden and Tristan Thompson.

Robin, who is single, addressed the rumors quickly that he understood the temptation of media to pine for another so called power couple.

“Obviously they were looking for two people with a lot of influence on popular culture, on the youth, and they were looking for two movers and shakers. Frankly, I'm not surprised they came up with my name,” Robin told reporters.

"I think the four men of the Beatles are an apt comparison for one Robin Lopez,” Robin added.

He has an understated way about not only his game.

“That was an interesting 24 hours,” he offered the other day.

Robin Lopez’ life is filled with many interesting 24 hours, and hardly those just spent on the basketball court, if not in the barber chair.

“We’ve been busy with basketball, but we have interests outside the court,” Robin said about he and his brother.

They have been working on writing and drawing a comic book--reading and collecting them are hobbies—a graphic novel, basically action and adventure stuff, and a TV show pilot. Robin has dressed in super hero costume to attend the national comic con convention and the twins vacation offseason at Disneyworld and have taken a turn in the Simpsons studio to learn that art.

“I don’t think I am unique, but today with social media opening a window into so many players you are starting to see a lot of facets you didn’t see 10-15 years ago,” says Robin. “It’s fun to connect with people.”

I’m fairly sure Robin’s not your typical NBA player since he also declined to live with brother Brook when both played in New York because he said their cats didn’t get along. Robin started an Instagram account for his cat because, well, you know, it’s probably just the average thing an NBA player would do.

Being half of a seven-foot twin brother act is not so ordinary, though it was a relatively ordinary childhood for the Lopez brothers.

Their father, Heriberto, was a baseball player in Cuba. Their parents divorced when the twins were five and their father has not been a part of their lives. An uncle from Cuba, Marcelino, pitched for several teams in the major leagues in the 1960s and 1970s. There were four brothers raised by their mom, Deborah Ledford, who was a world ranked swimmer and also attended Stanford. She got the boys involved with art, which has become a passion.

But also an insouciance with Robin that belies his intensity as a basketball player.

Robin became perhaps more well known around the NBA for a series of incidents with team mascots, among them the inflated symbols for the Magic, Raptors, Wizards, Hawks, Spurs, Cavaliers and the Pistons. Robin, saying he was protecting the family honor, followed up a retaliatory attack on the Detroit mascot, Hooper, a week after the mascot attacked Brook. Then Cleveland’s Moondog (yes, I have researched this, unfortunately) taunted Robin that he only feuds with the famous brothers, that it would be like engaging Ed Mikan to challenge Robin. I don’t think mascots can speak, but they appear to have Twitter accounts. Which makes sense given many of the responses I get on Twitter. Hardly insulted, Robin promised retribution in the name of all Ed Mikans with the hashtag. #EdMikan4Ever.” When Robin was traded to the Knicks, Robin posted on his Twitter, “Excited to be part of the #Knicks legacy! It’s going to be like ‘On the Town’ but w/way more box outs & dunks #ModeledMyGameAfterGeneKelly.”

Yes, the guy even knows 40s musicals. And Gene Kelly.

Not that you’d want to see Robin Lopez dance.

Robin has backed away from his mascot fighting days, but the Bulls have loved the way he’s gone head first into basketball.

Though it’s hardly in the statistics, analytics or numbers. It’s in the attitude, the unselfishness, the physical form, a player who makes it easier for teammates to get a simpler shot with ferocious screens and second shots. The only major statistical category Robin is among the top 10 in offensive rebounds, third in the NBA behind Hassan Whiteside and Dwight Howard.

The twins went to high school in Fresco, Calif., and then spent two years at Stanford. Brook was the No. 10 pick in the 2008 draft and Robin No. 15. While Brook sustained multiple foot injuries and missed parts of two seasons, he’s spent his entire career with the Nets and remains one of the NBA’s highest scoring centers.

Robin is the yang, the player who pursues defense first. He was drafted No. 15 by the Phoenix Suns, where former Bulls coach Bill Cartwright was an assistant.

“He looks wild, but he’s a really good guy and a really hard worker,” says Cartwright, now in alumni relations for his alma mater, the U. of San Francisco. “He’s a guy pure of heart. By that I mean he gives you his best effort all the time. He tries to do the right thing, a little emotional, but I like that. It’s much tougher to drive down the emotion than bring it up. He’s aggressive and fearless, willing to accept a challenge and wants to get better, the kind of guy you like on your team. He’s willing to mix it up, and I love that. He understands defense is his game and wants to do it. He’s a winning type of player.”

In Robin’s second season in Phoenix he started for a team that went to the conference finals, but by his fourth season in Phoenix he came off the bench when they acquired Marcin Gortat. The next season he was traded to New Orleans, where he averaged a career high 11.3 points in 82 starts. He was then traded to Portland in another multiteam deal with Tyreke Evans going to the Pelicans. After two solid seasons in Portland, where he freed LaMarcus Aldridge for offense, he was in Phil Jackson’s first free agency haul for the Knicks. Phil knows the value of big men. Lopez signed a four-year deal and believed he was set with the Knicks and across the river from his twin until the Bulls insisted he be in the trade for Derrick Rose. The Knicks then signed free agent Joakim Noah.

“When you are getting drafted you have an idealized situation, but you really don’t know how things are going to go down,” acknowledges Robin. “Obviously in the NBA, winning is everything; every NBA player will tell you when you are in a winning situation that’s what this league is about. That one year in Phoenix when we went to the Western Conference finals was amazing; Portland when we got to the second round was a great year. I’d say my last few years in Phoenix it was difficult when you are not getting consistent minutes; and when you are a little injured there are a lot of uncertainties that can make it difficult to play and weather through.

“My mindset is to go out there to do anything I can to help out my teammates, be that garbage guy like that. I think I’ve been very crisp from that standpoint,” Robin said. “I’ve played with some great guys and some great teams and some not so good teams, but I think I’ve drawn a lot from those experiences. I was surprised by the trade to the Bulls, but that is the business of the league.”

The Bulls are loving the business decision they made to add Lopez. He’s so called old school to fit with the style of players they have who have been so doubted by league observers. They get in the lane for shots, for free throws, get to the rim for second shots. Robin protects the rim and changes shots, which doesn’t get much notice. And he has a nice little, reliable 15 footer that draws opposing centers away from the basket. All being those little things that add up to big things, the Bulls offensive and defensive efficiency ratings both among the top eight in the NBA and No. 2 overall in rebounding this season.

Robin has scored in double figures the last eight Bulls games and grabbed double figure rebounds in four of those. He averaged 11.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and two blocks on the road trip.

“This is a league about publicity, flashy plays,” says Taj Gibson. “People tend to forget a lot of smart things that help teams win; it’s about selling tickets and getting viewers. But guys on the team appreciate Robin and understand without him a lot of these wins would not be possible. He does so much, sets great screens, can score down low, rebounds tough, shoots the mid range, plays great defense and is physical, a real strong guy and a true seven footer.

“I thought when (the trade was made), ‘That’s a great pickup,’” recalled Gibson. “Especially if you are going to lose Joakim. He’s a true seven footer. There are not many; a lot of those guys 6-10, 6-11, they fool you with their athleticism, but he’s legit.”

No, Robin isn’t going to fool you with his athleticism. His movements seem almost mechanical at times, which is why he says his favorite super hero is Flash, the guy with the super speed, movements and reflexes. Perchance to dream.

Though for opponents, he’s often proved a nightmare.

“He gives them extra possessions, four offensive rebounds per night and he’s able to finish and score around the basket and he can make a 15 foot jump shot,” noted Malone. “He’s the anchor to their defense, smart, physical, gets guys open, works the glass, I think he’s a very good center in the NBA, very underrated.

“You watch what Tristan Thompson did in the Finals last year and people now say, ‘We need a guy like Tristan Thomson who can switch onto Steph Curry and guard him.’ Not a lot of guys can do that,” noted Malone. “If you get caught up in the sexy, sometimes you miss the substance and there’s a lot of substance to Robin Lopez and what he brings to the game. It may not be sexy, but when you look at the stat sheet at the end of the night and he has 12 rebounds, five offensive boards and gets you nine to 11 points and gotten his teammates great looks, well I’m sure those guys love playing with him because he does all the dirty work, he doesn’t need any attention and just goes about doing his job. Those guys are great to have on a team.”

Yes, nice to have him here; no matter the hair.

“…long, straight, curly, fuzzy, snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty
Oily, greasy, fleecy, shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen
Knotted, polka dotted, twisted, beaded, braided
Powered, flowered and confettied
Bangled, tangled, spangled and spahettied

“Oh say, can you see my eyes if you can
Then my hair's too short.”

Like Hair the musical, Robin Lopez also seems right out of the 60s, irreverent, all inclusive and timely.

“I always focus on the defensive end, on going out and helping my teammates as much as I can,” said Robin. “I’m having so much fun. We’ve got a great group of guys and that goes a long way, especially when they’ve got the hard working tendencies. I know there are people, coaches who appreciate what I do. I know there are a lot of things I do on the floor that make me successful, that make the team successful.”

Hear, hear.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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