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Loud When it Counts: The Quiet Emergence of Glenn Robinson III

By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 14, 2013

For all of his life, Glenn Robinson III listened.

He listened. And he thought.

So while he listened, while he thought, others spoke. Even in his house, he was the quietest one there, “boring,” even, according to his mom.

For his entire life, he’s listened to people tell him he should talk more. Especially on the court.

Not even the massive Cowboys Stadium video board — the one that read: Kansas 70, Michigan 60 with 3:47 to play — could illustrate the Wolverines’ doomed fate like the faces inside the team’s huddle.

“A lot of people were looking down, and a lot of people didn’t think that we would be able to do it on our team — even the coaching staff,” Robinson remembers. “I saw it.”

So in what was the biggest game of his life, he listened to the banter of his teammates — “people were talking about plays or this or that or what we should do” — and then, finally, he listened to something else. A voice in his head. An impulse.

And for the first time as a member of the Michigan basketball team, it was time for his teammates to listen to the thinker.

“Shut up.”

He rose to his feet, silencing Trey and Tim, Josh Bartelstein and Corey Person. His AAU coach, his most-trusted mentor, had always told him that sometimes people misconstrue talkers with leaders; that “even if garbage came out (your) mouth,” your teammates would listen. Listen, because you’re the listener.

So that’s how Robinson recalls beginning: “ ‘Listen, let’s focus on defense, and let’s get the job done.

“ ‘We can win this game. I don’t know if you’re all ready to go home, but I’m not. Let’s go. Let’s step this up, let’s get a couple steals and get right back in it.’ ”

Michigan did, of course, and now Robinson has a ring and a new title, captain, to show for it. But to understand how he got there, how he got here, you must understand the things the listener has heard.

****

You’re not big enough.

The son of two-time NBA All-Star Glenn Robinson Jr. was born prematurely — so underdeveloped that he fit comfortably in his father’s palm. But before he could be held, he was placed into an incubator that, for days, housed two things: baby Glenn and an equally miniature Purdue basketball.

But for all of his athletic prowess now, he admits that surprisingly, he couldn’t dunk until his sophomore year of high school — but not for a lack of effort.

As a freshman in high school, he bought shoes from a magazine that promised to increase his vertical and wouldn’t take them off.

“I don’t know what my obsession with dunking was,” he says, unable to hold back his laughter. “I used to sleep in the shoes, sleep with ankle weights on, just so I could dunk.”

Four years later, his 360 dunk at Minnesota was No. 1 on SportsCenter’s top-10 plays. Robinson isn’t satisfied, giving it a ‘5’ on a 10-point scale — nothing compared to the dunk over his Jeep that he has been working on.

But at age 15, with his dad living hundreds of miles away in Atlanta, Robinson’s stature hardly resembled ‘Big Dog.’ Without a day-to-day father figure, the two biggest basketball mentors entered his life not long after the completion of his freshman season on the Lake Central High (Ind.) JV team.

The first was Lake Central varsity coach Dave Milausnic, who realized that Robinson would likely be his best player the next season. Milausnic saw raw talent, so he prompted Robinson to come into school with him at 5:30 a.m. to shoot. When Robinson needed a ride, Milausnic was there.

“There were times when he would be sitting out in the truck in my driveway, and I was still in bed — I didn’t want to get up,” Robinson said. “I thank him for that.”

As summer approached, Robinson — playing on a younger team in one the Midwest’s best AAU programs, SYF Players — caught the eye of famed coach Wayne Brumm. Brumm, the under-17 coach, has turned the organization into an Indiana basketball factory that has pumped out, among others, Michigan’s Mitch McGary, Spike Albrecht and Max Bielfeldt, Michigan State’s Branden Dawson and Travis Trice, and recent NBA Draft picks Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore and Luke Harangody.

“He knew he maybe wanted to be along the lines of his dad, but I don’t think he really knew how to get there,” Brumm said of his earliest memories of Robinson. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, he has good genes obviously, but he was lanky, skinny and soft, which is a bad combination.”

The first thing that Brumm told Robinson and his mother was to call trainer Andrew Wallen. For Brumm, it was as much of a test as it was the first step to getting Robinson in shape.

In his first visit to Wallen, Robinson weighed in at 167 pounds. In six weeks, his vertical increased six inches. Wallen would give Robinson weekly weight goals — he still weighs in at every session.

By his junior year, Robinson was up to 184 pounds. A year later, he reached 210.

“I’ve never trained anyone that would out-work him,” Wallen said.

When Robinson committed to Michigan before his junior year, he was a three star. By the end of his senior year, he was a consensus five star and Rivals.com’s No. 11 player.

“Once kids like Glenn become a star, people think they’ve always been a star, and that’s not the case,” Brumm said. “I don’t think Glenn gets enough credit. I think even sometimes the (Michigan) coaching staff maybe thinks Glenn was always this way. They think, ‘Oh, he’s the son of Glenn Robinson, so of course.’ No, he wasn’t. He wasn’t really good as a sophomore to be quite honest.”

****

You’ll never be like your dad.

If there was one ‘Big Dog’ growing up in Shantelle Clay-Irving’s house, it certainly wasn’t her son Glenn.

“Everyone wants Glenn to have this Big Dog, this urgh — ” Clary-Irving paused to growl, clenching her teeth and fists, “in him. I just don’t think Glenn has it. His dad came from the hood — he had to have it. Not (Glenn III), and I don’t think he’ll ever have it.

“He doesn’t want be his dad, he doesn’t want to have that. And I don’t want him to have it.”

Robinson’s brother Gelen, the football and wrestling star who will play linebacker at Purdue next year, was born with that mean streak and, according to Clay-Irving, always wanted to be the big brother.

Glenn’s lack of emotion, his ability to remain calm and composed through the highest highs and the lowest lows, has become his trademark personality.

“I could say, ‘Uncle so-and-so died,’ and he’d go, ‘Oh really?’ ” his mom said, shrugging her shoulders and dropping her voice to a monotone in mockery of her son. “There’s just no emotion. When I say boring, that’s him.”

Glenn was always taller, but even from a young age, Gelen was bigger, stronger, and according to Wallen, an “I’m-gonna-rip-your-head-off type of guy,” which made for an interesting dynamic in the brothers’ competitive relationship.

“Nothing much can get him riled up,” Gelen said. “That would sometimes irritate me that it’s hard to get under his skin. For me, being the complete opposite, it gets frustrating.”

In hindsight, Glenn appreciates his brother’s “annoying” antics because it constantly tested his ability to remain stoic.

But for as good as Glenn is at keeping his emotions under wraps, he’s even better at internalizing things in order to fuel his passions.

He’s aware of his insecurities, Brumm says, and they’re what make him “get up in the morning.”

In the middle of high-school workouts, Wallen repeatedly reminded Glenn that he was passed up by the in-state schools, and by the McDonald’s All-American game, or that he finished fifth in Indiana’s Mr. Basketball vote. But nothing has persisted more than his strive to reach his dad’s level.

In his first year playing for Purdue, Glenn Jr. averaged better than 25 points and nine rebounds per game. The following season, he was named National Player of the Year.

And no one ever confused ‘Big Dog’ for lacking assertiveness, or being passive about anything — critiques that have followed the younger Glenn from high school to Ann Arbor.

Everyone quoted in this story agreed that the reputation is at least partially a misconception — that his calm demeanor is mistaken for apathy.

But still, those closest to him have wanted to see more from him.

Said Bartelstein: “He’s not a guy who’s ever going to show a ton of emotion, but there were times last year when he needed to kind of take a stand and show some more toughness.”

Added his mom: “Last year, I think he thought that was maybe more so (Burke and Hardaway’s) year. I just don’t think he wanted to step on anyone’s shoes.”

Brumm, who still talks to Glenn multiple times a week, was particularly blunt. Dating back to his early years in Brumm’s program, Robinson has had the tendency to defer on open shots in favor of passes, and especially early on, failed to take over a game, even when the opportunity was there for him as the most talented, hardest-working player on the floor.

It’s a problem that teammates and coaches at Michigan have been getting on Robinson about since his earliest scrimmages in Ann Arbor.

This year, Michigan lacks a proven go-to scorer that can replace not only Burke and Hardaway’s combined 25 shots, but also their ability to create for themselves and teammates with the game on the line and the shot clock running down. Today, Brumm says, that’s where Robinson has the most area for improvement.

“That’s his battle,” Brumm said. “I think he perceives, ‘I’m going to play my role,’ and really, maybe his role is supposed to be to take that shot, or go in there and dunk that on somebody, you know? Don’t defer.”

****

You’re not a leader.

For someone who thrives on proving doubters wrong, Robinson said the announcement that he had been named a team captain was “definitely” vindicating.

He becomes just the program’s fourth sophomore to receive the honor but said it’s something he knew the team needed him to do.

“I wanted this,” he said. “It’s my job to step up and be a leader. I expected to be the captain.”

While the decision surprised many outside the program, who pointed to his quieter demeanor, it wasn’t shocking to his previous coaches.

Robinson didn’t just lead Lake Central in scoring for three consecutive years, he out-worked each and every one of his teammates. Today, that leadership is still reverberating in the school’s gym each morning, when six to seven players get up at 5:30 a.m. compared to the one or two that would sometimes join Robinson in earlier sessions.

Nothing got Brumm more fired up than when Robinson’s leadership was brought into question.

“He leads by example. To me, that’s more important,” Brumm said. “I’m not into this rah-rah leadership, because it can sometimes be mistaken for real leadership.”

It perturbs Brumm that some close to Robinson fail to see past his visible emotions.

“Glenn is a thinker. Don’t mistake Glenn’s facial expressions for not caring,” he said. “I think some people — I’m biting my tongue because I’m not going to say who — there’s a lot of people that really don’t understand Glenn Robinson.

“It bothers some people when Glenn doesn’t tell you what he’s thinking, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care.”

Brumm spoke of Robinson’s leadership for nearly 10 consecutive minutes, wrapping it up by saying that, “If people don’t understand who Glenn is, that’s their weakness.”

In Ann Arbor, it seems folks are finally understanding, even beginning to embrace, the Glenn that people in Indiana know and love.

Bartelstein, along with Hardaway, were two of the veterans that took Robinson under their wings the most.

“He’s become a celebrity in Ann Arbor. At first, I think all of attention kind of got to him — didn’t get to him in a bad way — he just didn’t know what to do,” Bartelsein said. “But he accepts that and is comfortable with it now.”

****

You’re soft.

Throughout last season, Robinson was left in the corner to operate in only a residual fashion. Early in the season, as teams attempted to limit Burke, Robinson’s defender helped on the pick-and-roll, and Robinson was left with open jump shots and dunks. Big Ten coaches adjusted their defenses to stymie Robinson.

“And that’s when all the negative things started to happen,” he recalls.

Michigan finished 3-4 in February, as Big Ten teams repeatedly exploited the Wolverines and what some perceived to be a lack of toughness. At just 6-foot-6, Robinson was overmatched and bullied in the paint.

“Guess what happened?” Brumm asked rhetorically. “Glenn didn’t get as many touches. His production went down, and people say he’s soft.”

Fans turned on Robinson, and while he said all the right things publicly, those close to him noticed some frustration.

“He sort of played out of his position, and I don’t think he was satisfied with that,” said his grandmother, Carolyn Crawford.

Added Bartelstein: “I think it got under his skin a little bit. I think he was frustrated. He wanted to get more shots in the offense and didn’t know where his next shot was coming from.”

Michigan finished the year 22-2 when Robinson scored in double figures, and heading into the NCAA Tournament as the nation’s favorite upset pick, he quickly asserted himself.

After a scare in the first half against South Dakota State, Robinson’s back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers to open the second half lifted Michigan.

“You’ve got to get that little killer in him that when someone’s trying to push him under the basket, you’ve got to push back a little bit, and I think he got that at the end of the year,” Bartelstein said

His production in the NCAA Tournament pointed to a positive outlook for this season, said Crawford.

“I think he laid back a little bit last year, but I think he’ll be tougher this year.”

****

You’re nothing more than an athlete.

Though Kansas’s biggest lead, 14, came three minutes before the timeout speech, it seemed any multi-possession deficit would be too much for Michigan to overcome. The Wolverines were finding ways to score but couldn’t put together a string of defensive stops.

With the two teams trading baskets, McGary was fouled to initiate the game’s final media timeout. The coaches huddled together, diagramming plays, while the players bickered a few feet away.

With established veterans like Hardaway and Burke joining five seniors on the team, members of Robinson’s inner circle admitted that he’d perhaps been wary of stepping on any toes. But, as Crawford put bluntly, “He had had enough. He wanted to win.”

McGary called the speech “courageous.”

“He just finally said, ‘You know, screw it,’ and said what he had to say after maybe holding things in the whole season,” Albrecht said. “The thing is, when Glenn steps up and speaks like that, guys listen because you know it’s important.”

“It was an ‘aha!’ moment. Everyone in the huddle looked around and was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Bartelstein said.

In the final 3:47 of regulation, Robinson’s words paid dividends; Kansas was held to just one field goal and committed three turnovers. Less than a week later, he was on a flight to Atlanta.

Following the loss — which Robinson says he’ll never watch — Beilein asked his players if anyone would like to speak. Ten days after the huddle, Robinson — overcome with emotion — again raised eyebrows by being the first to volunteer. His speech, a thank you to the seniors and veterans that were prepared to leave, set the table for a promising sophomore season.

But in the ensuing days, reports surfaced that he and McGary were testing the NBA Draft waters — that was, until Robinson called his mother and grandmother.

Clay-Irving told him, “ ‘Boy, you better bring your butt back to school, because — ’ ” overcome with laughter, she had to stop and collect herself. “The one-and-done thing just never — ”

“Crossed our minds. And it shouldn’t have crossed his,” Crawford cut in, finishing her daughter’s sentence.

“I was just like, ‘No way you think you can go and play LeBron (James) and Kevin Durant.’ I know you don’t think that. I think he thought that, but I was thinking, ‘No way,’ ” Clay-Irving said.

Though Robinson was unanimously projected to be a lottery pick, Brumm saw a brighter future ahead. He warned Robinson that NBA teams were “just wanting an athlete … somebody who he really isn’t.”

As soon as he committed to staying at Michigan, the rising sophomore went to work in a way that those close to him had never seen.

Clay-Irving doesn’t recall him even taking a day off.

Each summer morning, his alarm was rarely set any later than 6 a.m., and he’d head straight to gym to get up at least 500 shots. A few hours later, he’d work with Brumm and sometimes a then-healthy McGary. A quick nap preceded workouts and lifts — including making the 45-minute tri-weekly treks to see Wallen — and then he’d return to the court for more practice. In between, he’d find time to watch game film and cook. (Even at school, where team meals are freely available, he cooks almost all of his meals to adhere to Wallen’s dietary restrictions for him.)

“The way he approached everything was all about one mission,” Wallen said. “Usually the saying is, ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,’ but I tell Glenn he’s both.”

It showed. When Robinson arrived back in Ann Arbor for preseason physical tests, his vertical jump was literally off the charts (it exceeded the Vertec vertical-jump measuring machine’s maximum of 12-foot-3). And, after making preseason visits to Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and Kansas, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman said that Robinson was “the most impressive player” he came across.

But the offseason results transcended just the court.

“This preseason, he has been more vocal than ever,” Beilein said. “He’s got the ear of our locker room right now. That doesn’t come natural to people sometimes.

“It says a lot about where his comfort level is.”

Added McGary: “I think, he’s uh — ” the forward paused to collect himself, “slowly becoming a man. I don’t think he’s gonna stop.”

Neither does Brumm.

“I think he’s mastered the physical aspect of the game. He’s still developing, maturing,” he said. “I’m not sure you or I really know how good he is.

“Glenn’s going to keep going until his body starts breaking down. I think he will get bored with basketball before that day comes. … I don’t think he’ll ever get to that phase where someone says, ‘OK, you’re not good enough.’ ”

****

Robinson has heard you.

And so far, he’s answered with at least incremental improvements about each of his doubts while in Ann Arbor. But to put it all together — the leadership, the toughness, the all-around player who will step up instead of passing up — is the key to Michigan’s season, and that’s not something that’ll be judged in the immediate future. It’s a question best answered in March.

And Robinson knows that. He’s heard it — he’s a listener, remember.

You’ll never be the guy.

It’s something he thinks about.

Sitting in a dimly lit room overlooking State Street on a gloomy, rainy, late October afternoon, Robinson is asked if he wants to be the guy with the ball in his hand with the game on the line.

“Oh yeah,” he pauses to take a sip from his Starbucks cup. The regular-season opener was more than a week away, but for a moment, it appeared his thoughts had shifted to the past. To the times he has done it before.

There was the game winner that he hit from half-court in his freshman year of high school. And the game in his junior year when he scored 29 points in his team’s playoff opener. He “wasn’t going to school the next day if we lost,” so he won — it was the first high-school game his father ever saw him play in.

But then there was the game two days later against undefeated No. 1 Munster. With less than seven seconds remaining, Robinson missed a game-tying 3-pointer. He got the rebound, though, and drilled it. “I don’t think anyone realized it was just to tie the game,” so fans stormed the court. But the elation ended minutes later when he missed the back-end of a pair of free throws that would’ve sent the game into double overtime, ending his season.

“Yeah,” he says. He sets his drink down. His answer comes without a smile, or attitude, or even any sense of absolution. Just the same emotionless, quiet Glenn. “I need to be.”