A Life Well Lived

Monday, April 28, 2008

God’s basketball team got a new coach Monday. A good hire, too. He’ll make them laugh and he’ll make them better players. But what he’ll really make them is better people. You couldn’t help but be around Will Robinson and not feel better, even if you couldn’t figure out exactly why.

Will touched the Pistons for 30 years. Officially, he was a scout – the right-hand man and most trusted adviser of Jack McCloskey as he built the Bad Boys into NBA champions. Unofficially, he was the franchise’s Yoda – a mesmerizing storyteller and a man of boundless charisma and dignity and humanity.

Will was at once an American legend – the first African-American head coach of a Division I basketball program – and a man of the people. It would be fair to say Will was equally at home with kings and commoners, but it would be more accurate to say that commoners and kings were equally put at ease by Will.

“Will Robinson was truly one of the great legends in life,” said Pistons president Joe Dumars, who used Robinson as a mentor when he arrived in Detroit as a rookie in 1985 and later came to lean on his wisdom even after Robinson officially retired in 2003. “Will was one of a kind. Will inspired me and every other person he came in contact with. We will miss him dearly and he will always be in our hearts.”

Mike Abdenour, whose tenure with the Pistons goes back to 1975 – when Robinson joined the Pistons after his five-year run at Illinois State, where he coached Doug Collins, among others – first met Will in November 1967. Robinson was a few months removed from taking what many still consider Michigan’s greatest high school basketball team to the Class A state title – Detroit Pershing was led by Spencer Haywood and Ralph Simpson – and Abdenour was a student manager at Detroit Denby.

“Our head coach at the time said to make sure you wear a little sport coat and a tie because you want to look professional,” Abdenour recalled Monday, only hours after Robinson had died at 96 following a 15-month illness. “We go to Pershing and the gym is rocking. All of a sudden I see this guy on the other side of the floor with a Banlon shirt with a lanyard around his neck. I asked the coach, ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Oh, that’s coach Robinson.

“We’re up like eight points in Pershing’s gym and we’re playing really well. He calls a timeout, takes that lanyard off and starts whipping guys’ legs – ‘Come on, guys, let’s get into the game.’ The game was over at that point.”

Afterward, Denby’s coach had Robinson address his team.

“He was kind enough to come over and say a nice word, ‘Hey, you guys, do good. Coach is a good man.’ That was my first experience with Will Robinson. When you’re introduced to somebody like that, who is legendary and you don’t know he’s legendary, you go home and say, ‘Mom, I met the coach from Pershing – what a nice man he was.’ That’s how I think Will would have wanted it.

“As tremendous as he was as a basketball man, he was a walking encyclopedia for the American civil rights movement, long before there was a formal civil rights movement.”

Scott Perry, who just returned as Pistons vice president after a one-year stint as Seattle’s assistant general manager, first met Robinson when he was still in elementary school. Perry’s father, Lowell, was also a pioneer – the first African-American assistant coach in the NFL, though he would later become a lawyer and corporate executive.

Robinson, wearing the hat of a Detroit Lions scout, followed Lowell Perry’s playing career at Michigan and later became his friend, frequently dropping by the house, sometimes bringing his Pershing players like Bubbles Hawkins, who played for him at Illinois State and went on to an NBA career, to see that young black men from the city could grow up to be success stories like Scott’s father had become.

“He was very knowledgeable about life,” Perry said. “I felt blessed to have the opportunity to work with him. I knew him as a kid, but having the opportunity to work with him my first few years with the Pistons was tremendous for me.

“Not only did he share his knowledge of the NBA, but his life experiences. That’s what I’m going to remember most. They were very real and very beneficial to people like myself. He blazed the trail well before any of us and he was always willing to share those highs and lows. He helped me avoid some pitfalls.”

Will grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, a phenomenal all-around athlete who refused to become despondent or embittered by the discrimination he lived on a daily basis. Abdenour recalled stories of Robinson competing in youth golf tournaments but, as the only black golfer, playing the course alone, accompanied by an observer.

“Only to wait when the other white golfers would finish,” Abdenour said, “to find out he did win the tournament.”

He captained his high school football team that not only went unbeaten, but unscored upon.

“You’re talking about somebody who had a dynamic aspect and pedigree in athletics,” Abdenour said. “But more importantly, he was a gentle man. He was a man who personified the meaning of class. He understood what it meant for someone to struggle. He was always there to encourage, and in his tremendous sense of humor, he never, never spoke a bad word about anybody.

“When you look at Will Robinson and the legacy he leaves, he is what we should all become – fair, patient, love life to the fullest and achieve what you can possibly achieve. He is the persona of what the American dream is. He did everything known to mankind to become a success in this country. That’s exactly how I feel. There will never be another one to experience what he experienced, to live as long as he did, to share every one of those details as he did. He was the best.”

That sense of humor is something everybody who knew Will always mentions. He was one of those rare people who always had a twinkle in his eye – and one of those even rarer people who lends that same twinkle to anyone who recalls his remarkable life.

“He meant a lot to all of us,” Chauncey Billups said. “When I came here, I think he was already 90 or 89, but he was so vibrant. He brought a lot of energy around here. I used to sit and talk with him on his background, his history. It’s so inspirational.”

“He was a straight-up cat,” said Rasheed Wallace, who paused to digest the news of Will’s death before answering. “Just an everyday guy. Down to earth. He wasn’t no glitz and glamour.”

Pistons coach Flip Saunders first crossed paths with Will when Saunders was knocking around as a coach in the CBA, cutting his teeth in the profession.

“Will always had a great basketball mind,” Saunders said. “Unbelievable, as far as being able to evaluate talent. He’s Mr. Piston. You thought about the Pistons, you thought about him. He’s going to be someone who’ll be greatly missed.”

“He knew how to handle people,” Abdenour said. “He understood what it was to be a people person. The genius of Will is that he had a tremendous people skill, a tremendous sense of humor, a tremendous following. When you look at the folks that have come through his stable, it’s incredible – not just in athletics, but life in general.”

In his year away in Seattle, Perry often found Robinson – or some pearl of wisdom he’d imparted – occupying his thoughts.

“It was amazing how many times I would relay stories he had told me or one-liners he had passed along,” Perry said. “His spirit will continue to live on, not only in me but in thousands of other lives he’s touched. That’s a real testament to what he did while he was on this earth – that people will remember him in their daily lives.

“In this time of passing now, I’m sure there will be some mourning. But he outlived what most people live. He was 96 – a fighter, a pioneer, a trailblazer. After the mourning, there will be a lot of celebrating and reflecting on the man’s life.”

And a lot of smiles and twinkling eyes.

Visitation for Will Robinson will take place 3-8 p.m. Friday at O.H. Pye Funeral Home, 17600 Plymouth Road, Detroit. The general public is encouraged to pay respects at the funeral home that day. The funeral will be held 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Fellowship Chapel, 7707 W. Outer Drive in Detroit between Greenfield and Southfield. Cards and condolences can be sent to Will Robinson Jr., 19605 Stratford Road, Detroit, Mich., 48221. E-mail notes can be sent to aa6400@wayne.edu. In lieu of flowers, the family asks donations be sent to one of two funds: The Will Robinson Neurosurgery Fund at HFHS; Henry Ford Hospital; One Ford Place, 5A; Detroit, Mich., 48202-3450; or SSS Fund AF-143-S; University Development; Michigan State University; 300 Spartan Way; East Lansing, Mich., 48824-1005. (The SSS Fund was created by former Detroit Pershing, Michigan State and NBA star Steve Smith and provides academic scholarships to Detroit public school students to Michigan State. For more information, go to www.sssfund.com.)