At one point this summer, Michigan”s sophomore Bernard Robinson didn”t think he”d play basketball ever again.
Mononucleosis humbled Michigan”s high-flying swingman and the Big Ten”s best dunker as he couldn”t even grab the rim. The energy-draining virus worsened because Robinson couldn”t take Aspirin due to an allergy.
To make matters worse, his morale plummeted below his vertical leap.
“I know when I first started, I couldn”t even walk down steps,” Robinson said. “I couldn”t even touch the rim. It felt like I was never going to play again.”
While in Los Angeles visiting DeMarr Johnson of the Atlanta Hawks, a hometown friend, Robinson felt sharp pains in his left side, with nagging headaches and a frustrating inability to become active turning his vacation into a nightmare.
“I had to fly back home to Washington, D.C. and called my mother and asked her to take care of me,” a humbled Robinson said. “It was a very low time.”
Michigan”s co-MVP from the year before, an outstanding slasher with a knack for scoring was bed-stricken and depleted. The player that new coach Tommy Amaker labeled “vital to the team”s success” could only play one pickup game all summer. He dropped nearly 30 pounds and then gained it all back the wrong way due to his prolonged inactivity and his mother”s cooking.
Robinson took the time to do some soul searching. He re-evaluated in his mind a roller-coaster freshman season, Michigan”s 10-19 finish, its worse in 19 years. What started off as impressive accomplishments on the court led to “stupid” offcourt antics and his realization that he didn”t take the time to know his teammates. Brian Ellerbe, the coach who recruited him, was fired, but his successor made an impression on an ailing Robinson that he”d never forget.
Amaker took a break from his summer recruiting to fly down to Washington D.C. and visit his fallen star whether Robinson wanted him to or not.
“I flew all the way there and he didn”t want me to see him like that,” Amaker said. “In the fact that he was sick and lost weight, and the things he was going through and I said “I don”t give a damn I”m coming anyways.” ”
Amaker”s thoughtful and sincere act of concern delightfully surprised Robinson, who connected with his new coach right away.
“With me having mono, I think the average coach would try to rush me back,” Robinson said. “But he was understanding and was just taking care of me and that”s what I liked.
“He showed me love, and I was very appreciative.”
Robinson not only realized that he had a coach he could trust, but also how much he had taken the game of basketball for granted. He wasn”t going to let it happen again.
While the illness allowed him to participate in just 25 percent of Michigan”s drills in September, Robinson has come along and gained most of his strength and wind back, along with a new outlook on what is expected to be a breakout season.
“Bernard”s role is huge,” said senior co-captain Chris Young. “He has to come out every night and play well for us to be successful. I mean, he doesn”t have to average 30 points, but he has to have a solid night at all times.”
A revitalized Robinson with a new attitude accepts the larger role, and knows he”ll be a marked man this year as no one will be surprised by his high-wire acts and improved jumper. He will also have to face the new demands on his versatility by playing both guard and forward to counter Michigan”s lack of depth on the frontline while also proving to be one of Amaker”s defensive stoppers.
But an even tougher obstacle than mono or opponents for Robinson will be putting his freshman troubles, on and off the court, behind him.
A “marked man” is about as worrisome as a gnat if he”s sitting on the bench, and avoiding that predicament would be Robinson”s defining achievement and an important key to Michigan”s success.
From standout to fallout
Before he became the go-to-guy, Robinson nearly tarnished his freshman season before it even began.
On Labor Day weekend, after traveling with fellow freshman Josh Moore”s car on their way back from a fraternity party, Robinson, Avery Queen and former Wolverine Kevin Gaines were spotted by police wrestling in the middle of Telegraph Road in Taylor. All three minors had been drinking that night, and their antics not only put their lives in danger from oncoming cars, but also their careers. Robinson and Queen were arrested for misdemeanor charges on suspicion of disorderly intoxication and Ellerbe kicked Gaines off the team shortly thereafter.
Ellerbe also suspended Robinson and Queen during midseason for violating unspecified team rules.
“It was just us being stupid,” Robinson said. “It was nothing to do with being a freshman.
“It just taught me a lot of things quickly here what to do and what not to do.”
It doesn”t look like he”s learned his lesson, and it didn”t take him very long to show it. This past Sunday, in Michigan”s first exhibition game of the season, Robinson was suspended for a “violation of team rules.” Whether it was a minor indiscretion or not, Robinson knows he must rid himself of these off-the-court antics if he expects to make the impact he wants this season.
But teammates have noticed a big difference in Robinson this year that gives them reason to be optimistic.
“He”s now definitely 100 percent invested in the team,” said Young, who is also Robinson”s assigned “Big Brother.” “There”s no doubt about it. If you”re out on the wing you”ll hear Bernard talking to you saying that he”s got your help, and he”s going to back you up every time.”
Robinson attributed the rocky relationships on the team last season to the Wolverines not taking enough interest in each other. The lack of unity hurt them on the court as they all carried different attitudes instead of a collective one.
“When you don”t know a person, you take body language a totally different way,” Robinson said. “Now it”s more of a love relationship.”
Know your role
Either way, it”s just good to be nearly full-strength for Robinson.
If healthy, Robinson and Preseason Naismith Award Candidate LaVell Blanchard give Michigan a potent inside-outside attack while also being two of Michigan”s top defensive players and rebounders.
If Robinson can top his average of nearly 15 points per game from last season and improve defensively, he could be matching up with His Airness as early as next season by entering the 2002 NBA Draft.
“I”ll probably have thoughts,” Robinson said. “I”m definitely not going to put it out of the picture. That”s definitely a goal I”ve had since I was a little kid.”
Amaker is just worried that there”s a lot of weight on the 19-year-old”s shoulders.
“I think that”s a lot to ask of a young player,” Amaker said. “Sometimes it”s thrusted upon young players. I”m anxious to see what he can do with that, but you never know.”
But no one”s going to put it past Robinson, including his teammates.
“As far as being a marked man which he is he”s got enough talent to carry him over those expectations,” Young said.