There’s this moment I can’t get out of my head. I haven’t been able to for five months — not since mid-March, when COVID-19 shut down college sports.
It’s Duncan Robinson, and he’s standing in the far corner, poised behind the 3-point line. There’s a little over two minutes left and Michigan, in a packed maize and blue Staples Center, is close — so close — to the Final Four. From where I’m sitting, up in the auxiliary press box, up near the ceiling, you can see Robinson’s defender leave him, the ball come to him and then float towards the net. All those fans down there in maize and blue, they lose their collective minds. Robinson turns to the bench and yells. The game is all but over, and that weird, improbable run is going to go for another week on the sport’s biggest stage.
In that singular moment back in March of 2018, it feels like the whole world is coalescing around Michigan basketball and every character on that team, Duncan Robinson chief among them.
That singular moment, it’s why we love sports.
Robinson’s story has been told again and again. You’ve almost certainly heard it before, but as a quick reminder we’ll rehash it here. Robinson started his college career playing Division III ball at Williams College. He transferred to Michigan and, after sitting a year, worked his way into the rotation as a 3-point specialist. In his senior year, he struggled and got replaced by Isaiah Livers, then a freshman, in Michigan’s starting lineup. He came off the bench the rest of the year, found a key role on a team that went to the Final Four, and it seemed likely that the story would end there. Out of college, he signed a two-way contract with the Miami Heat and seemed consigned to basketball purgatory. Then he started hitting threes for them, too and now he’s in the NBA bubble, playing a key role on a playoff team. When his contract is up, he’s going to make a ton of money.
That’s cool as hell.
I’m not telling you this because you didn’t already know — this is probably the 100th time you’ve heard Robinson’s story. I’m talking about this now for the same reason I can’t get that snapshot out of my head:
When I think about why it’s a shame the Big Ten postponed fall sports, I think about Duncan Robinson.
Hold on a minute. Don’t laugh. I know Duncan Robinson plays a winter sport. I understand there’s better reasons to have sports or not, there’s more at play here than one guy’s human interest story. Playing sports right now might not be the smartest thing. Having students back on campus — especially if, like a lot of schools, your coronavirus mitigation plan amounts to a shoulder shrug and an eye roll — might not end well.
The Big Ten’s decision puts moral and public health obligations over financial gains and, all told, it’s the right call. The U.S. has done a terrible job at fighting the coronavirus. We’re reaping what we sowed, but that doesn’t mean we can’t lament it. So let’s get back to Duncan Robinson and all the other stories that make sports worth watching.
Remember when Jordan Poole hit the shot? If you’re this far into this story, you probably remember where you were sitting and who you were with. I’ll never forget talking with Duncan Robinson after Jordan Poole hit the shot.
Robinson had fouled out of the game. He thought it’d be his last college game, thought he’d been partially responsible for a crushing loss. The look on his face, the tone in his voice when he spoke in the locker room. That was something to remember.
“I don’t think I’ve ever cried tears of joy,” Robinson said that night. “But I was damn close.”
Forget, for a minute, about the fact that Robinson is now an NBA player with an NBA career and all the amenities that come with it. Because right then, he was a college kid and the best thing he’d ever been involved in had just gotten improbably extended for another week.
Now think about all the athletes at Michigan (and elsewhere), all with their own stories and hours of work and breakthroughs to get to where they are, and what they all must have been on Tuesday when the announcement came down.
Think about Nick Blankenburg, a junior defenseman on the hockey team who plays every game for his grandfather, and Nick Granowicz, his teammate, who’s playing for his mom. Think about Mohammed Zakyi and Omar Farouk Osman, who started their soccer careers playing with paper bags and folded clothes, and now likely won’t have their senior years. Think about Paige Jones and all the people in New Bremen, Ohio watching her play volleyball for Michigan. Think about Maddie Nolan working her way back from a microfracture to play basketball for Michigan.
Think about what they’re feeling now, after their fall seasons got canceled. Those that play in the winter can’t be feeling good about their chances of having a season either.
The Big Ten made the right decision. But as long as we can acknowledge that, let’s also take a minute to appreciate all the stories, all the players, all the games and everything else we won’t get to have this year, because it’s all improbable, and at any moment it could all be over. Now, more than ever.
Sears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethan_sears.