Long before I went to work as the voice of the Pistons, I had heard of Will Robinson, the great basketball coach and even better man who spent almost 30 years as a most valued set of eyes for first Jack McCloskey and eventually for Joe Dumars. Will died the other day, as you’ve no doubt heard by now, and it leaves a tremendous hole in not only the Pistons’ organization but in the basketball community and, beyond that, in the world at large.
I had heard of Will Robinson going all the way back to my college days. In my grad school days in the late ’60s, he really put some great teams on the floor at Detroit Pershing. That squad won his first state championship and had Spencer Haywood and Ralph Simpson and was arguably the greatest high school team in history, to this day. I’d like to see that Pershing team, with all that talent and coached by a guy with the razor-sharp mind Will had and the ability to inspire a team that Will had – I believe you could put them up against any team. And before he had that team, he had the great Mel Daniels at Pershing and later on won another title with the Bubbles Hawkins group in 1970 before he finally got the chance to go and coach at the collegiate level.
When I first started following Will’s career, I was able to turn back the pages to when he first came to Detroit and took Miller High School – the only predominantly black school in the city – to the city championship at a time he was the only black coach in the city in the late ’40s and I remember reading about what a remarkable job he had done.
As everybody who followed his career knows, it wasn’t his first choice to come to Detroit. He had a good job in Chicago at DuSable High School, a brand new school on the south side with a pool. Will coached swimming – a lot of people don’t realize that he did that and was also a great golfer, and a boxer, and played every sport imaginable. But with the racial tension in Detroit, Will told me the two school districts decided they needed somebody with a personality like Will’s – a guy who could get along with all kinds of people – and they basically told him if he didn’t go to Detroit he wouldn’t have a job there anymore.
So he came to Detroit grudgingly, I suppose, but it became a perfect marriage – Will Robinson and that school in this city. The teams he had at Miller featured guys like Charlie Primus and Sammy Gee, who were probably NBA-caliber talents but in those days would not even be able to go to a major college. They could have played with any teams, as well, I’m sure. There are those who say Will was among the first in the country to pressure and fast break, and I believe that. That man was absolutely phenomenal professionally.
One of the great thrills about coming to work for the Pistons, beyond suddenly being the voice of a professional basketball team, was meeting Will after his successful run in the early ’70s at Illinois State as the first African-American head coach in Division I college basketball and he’d signed on as a scout with the Pistons. I couldn’t believe I was actually talking to Will Robinson.
And he was just a phenomenal guy. When you first met him, you said, “Wow, now I know why he has had so much success and why everybody he came into contact with was crazy about him.” Any time you spent time with Will was time well spent and you always left with a smile on your face and felt a little bit better about yourself and your outlook on life.
Your memories of Will Robinson, no matter who you are and where you met and I’m sure even the guys who coached against him – everybody had very positive vibes about Will. If you weren’t a member of the Pistons family all those years, you missed out on Will the friend and Will the motivator and Will the humorist. I don’t know if anyone was as funny as that guy – he was absolutely incredible.
I think he brought out the best in people and he really cared about his players. He had the uncanny ability to make a determination in terms of what your role should be. He would tell players, “Your job is never to shoot the ball. Your job is only to rebound and score on put-backs in case one of your star players misses a shot.” But he didn’t do that unless he knew that was really the limit of that player’s talent.
And he had an open mind. He was not a guy who really and truly saw color. Clearly, he knew his skin color – and he knew that because his great-grandmother was a slave and he grew up in segregated times in many ways, even though he was from Steubenville, Ohio. There were certain dos and don’ts back then. It certainly wasn’t like the South and I believe towns like Steubenville which had a great melting pot eventually showed us all the right thing to do. Will, when he put a team together at Pershing, for instance, had a lot of great black athletes, but there were also some great white players, as well, and he made sure they got along and all knew their roles and won as a team and celebrated as a team.
When I’ll look back and think of Will, I’ll remember how lucky I was to have him as a friend. Will Robinson always had time for everyone. And he shared his ability to see life and times as they really were. I remember when my mom was sick and spending the last couple of years of her life in a nursing home in Ohio. He just said to me, “George, visit her often.” I did – and I’ll never forget Will’s words. And then when he had to spend his final months in an extended-care facility, I became a regular at the Belmont facility over in Harper Woods. I wanted to visit Will often, but I knew that Will had already told me what was the right thing to do.
Will Robinson affected too many lives to count. He sent over 400 student-athletes to college on some kind of scholarship. And more on academic scholarships because of his connections. And these were certainly working-class kids who weren’t going to get that kind of opportunity any other way. There are doctors, lawyers, CPAs, pharmacists and schoolteachers sprinkled all over our community – and all over the Midwest and the nation – who got their real opportunity in life because of Will.
His influence on lives and his ability to offer young people great opportunity might be unparalleled among educators in our country. And add to that what he did for a young and talented small-town kid from southern Illinois named Doug Collins. When he took over at Illinois State, he helped Doug become a great player – not just a good player – and helped him get ready for the fact that other teams were really going to test him physically and mentally. Doug was able to pass all those tests and eventually was the first pick in the NBA draft. I think Doug Collins is a classic example of what Will was able to do.
Each player we’ve talked about that made headlines for Will had exceptional talent, but they probably were at least half again as much better for having played under Will. That’s not even to mention keeping them in line in their personal lives, where he was truly a mentor to so many. Will was a father to so many people and to me he was really that and more. To say I loved him as a person would be an understatement. I’m going to miss him terribly for the rest of my life.