The Bucks' Glenn Robinson is older, wiser, better with a bite that is much more dangerous than the bark
Attention American Express. This is for your next campaign:
"Hi, do you know me? They call me 'Big Dog.' I was the top pick in the 1994 NBA Draft, chosen ahead of guys such as Jason Kidd and Grant Hill. During the first four years of my NBA career, I was and remain to this day a picture of consistency, averaging more than 21 points. Yet, you never saw me in the playoffs until two seasons ago and I didn't make it to an NBA All-Star Game until 2000. I'm Glenn Robinson of the Milwaukee Bucks."
It is true that when a list of the NBA's Who's Who is discussed, Glenn Robinson is not mentioned. While Shaq
and the Answer
are Who's Who, Robinson is more like a Who's He.
But that's changing. In a quest that started last season, Robinson has finally received the recognition and notoriety deserving of one of the league's most consistent and clutch players. Not coincidentally, the Bucks, who never reached .500 in each of Robinson's first four seasons, have also become one of the NBA's hottest teams in the 2000-01 campaign.
"Glenn has definitely been one of the most overlooked players over the years in this league," Bucks coach George Karl said. "He's been a guy who's been somewhat misunderstood. His contract holdout during the rookie season caused a little bit of a negative perception, and he's been fighting that perception ever since. Plus, I think losing of course, brings another perception.
"But the nearly three years I've had him, I've enjoyed him. I think he's a guy who always wants to be a better basketball player; he's very coachable. I'm very happy for him that we're winning and he's getting more and more attention."
Bucks assistant coach Don Newman, who has made Robinson his special student, said Robinson's coming-of-age was evident the first day of training camp this season.
Glenn Robinson has quietly become one of the top power forwards in the game.
"Glenn came into the year wanting to prove he's a winner, that he can better his game and he can add different things to this team," Newman said. "He feels stronger, his moves are stronger and his ballhandling ability and passing abilities have improved. He's become more of a team guy, taken more of a leadership role in terms of encompassing everybody in the play, and those are signs of not only improvement but maturity."
Those signs of development are evident throughout Robinson's game. While his offense is still the same, he's become more well-rounded, stepping up his defensive play, crashing the boards for rebounds, becoming an effective shotblocker, dishing off assists and passing up shots for himself to teammates who may have a better or closer shot.
In a sense, after years of near-anonymity, Glenn Robinson has been rediscovered by the league, its fans and the media. But it's not as if Robinson ever went away. Rather, he's been around, day in and day out, for nearly seven seasons. It's just that during the first four of those seasons, Robinson shined on the court, but the Bucks struggled.
Make no mistake about it: This was and continues to be Robinson's team. But despite the talent and potential he has, early in his career it was futile to expect that he could turn around the Bucks' fortune on his 6-7, 230-pound frame.
That all began to change when Karl became coach of the Bucks before the 1998-99 season. After spending the previous seven seasons at the helm in Seattle -- the SuperSonics won 357 games during that span, more than any team but the Chicago Bulls -- Karl left the Sonics in 1998 after failing to win a championship.
Seattle's loss quickly became Milwaukee's gain. But the biggest question mark was whether Karl and his tenacious demeanor would mesh with a team that was used to the more easygoing ways of predecessors Mike Dunleavy and Chris Ford. Karl is a demanding disciplinarian and tactician. He has historically been tough on his players, but he also draws out all the talent within each of his charges. It was no different with Robinson. Karl saw a player who, while possessing obvious talent, didn't have other elements of the game to make him a total player.
"The biggest change is Glenn's commitment to some of the other areas of the game like rebounding," Karl said. "He's had a career rebounding year. He's also won some games with some blocks, and his assists are up. At one time this year he was second on the team in assists. I just think he's committed to some of the other areas of the game other than scoring points. And because of that, everybody else is getting a little better and improving."
With numerous trades and free-agent signings over the past two years, a supporting cast was assembled to surround Robinson. The Bucks began winning, qualifying for the playoffs each of the last two seasons, the first time they had made the postseason since the 1990-91 campaign.
"I always knew that we would get better and better," Robinson said. "When I was young, I'd look at the Chicago Bulls. When [Michael] Jordan first came to them, they weren't winning. It took time for them to develop and get better and add some good players. Jordan couldn't do it himself. That's why I felt in due time that our team would get better."
And Robinson is finally getting his due, as well.
"Now that we're winning more, people are starting to see what I can do," he said. "There's no doubt my offense is better than my defense, but you can't win a ballgame just with offense. George is a different kind of coach; he's a defensive coach. We run a lot of traps and double-teams to discourage other teams' offense. He's very good at that. That's something we need because we're not the biggest team in the NBA, so we have to run traps and be active and do things defensively to stay in the ballgame. So if someone thinks I can't play defense, they better start watching our games."
When Robinson improved, the Bucks started winning, and when the Bucks win, Robinson is no longer one of the NBA's forgotten men.
Robinson earned his second straight berth on the All-Star team.
"It's been very frustrating over the last several years because I've put up the same numbers as a lot of those guys," Robinson said. "You can go through the NBA Encyclopedia and see how few guys that, since they came in their rookie year, have averaged 20 points every year and have a 20-point career average. Not many. I can only think of a few, like Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan, Grant Hill, Hakeem Olajuwon
. There's not many guys who've been able to do that. So, I feel special from that aspect, to be a 20-point scorer and to be that consistent."
While other observers around the NBA swear they've seen a change in Robinson this year, the Big Dog claims it's natural progression.
"I don't think I've really changed all that much," Robinson said. "I think my attitude has been the same. Ever since I came into the league, I've never really said anything, I've just been quiet and let my basketball do the talking. Am I trying to be more of a leader this year? I try to lead a little bit more every year because I gain more experience every year and know more about what's going on. But, I really like to lead more by example. If I go out and rebound the ball, hopefully everybody else will try to rebound. Or if I go to the basket some time and pass up a shot and give someone else a shot, it'll get contagious and it'll go around the horn. I'm just trying to do things that way to make our team better and to let everyone see that I want them to be involved too.
"People ask me if this is the best year I've ever had in the NBA. I think every year is my best year. I think I improve every year. The difference this year is we're winning more now, our team is better. That's what's most important. More than anything, I just want everyone to know I'm dedicated to the game. I work hard every day in trying to get better and trying to make this team better."
Last year's first-round playoff loss to Indiana -- losing in the final 16 seconds of the fifth and final game -- proved to the Bucks that they, according to Robinson, had a pretty good chance of doing something special this year.
"We took the Indiana series from last year and went from there, saying 'This is what we can do. We're going to come back next year and pick up from where we left off,'" he continued. "At first under George, that was our goal, just to make the playoffs. Now, two years later, our goal is to win some rounds in the playoffs. Just making it is not cutting it; we want to advance this season."
At the start of the season, it didn't look like the Bucks were going anywhere, let alone advance well into the playoffs. Milwaukee started the year losing nine out of its first 12 games, but then rebounded, winning 26 out of the next 35 game and was comfortably in first place of the Central Division at the All-Star break. Robinson was an NBA Player of the Week in December and he earned his second consecutive berth on the NBA All-Star Game roster.
Ironically, this season marks the 30th anniversary of the only NBA championship in team history and the 15th anniversary of its last division title. If Robinson and the Bucks are to take the next step, there's no better time than the present.
"Without question this is payback season for Glenn to the rest of the league," Bucks center Ervin Johnson
said. "He hasn't really changed; we're just winning and he's finally getting the attention and notoriety and showing how great a player he really is. Now, he can laugh at them. The Big Dog's bite is definitely back."
Chicago-based sportswriter JERRY BONKOWSKI is a frequent contributor to Hoop.