His career has come to be defined by numbers. By the 94-by-50-foot rectangle upon which he has plied his trade for 46 seasons, with a 47th fast approaching. By 930 victories, more than any other Division III men’s basketball coach has ever accumulated.
In June, while flying to Spain with the collegiate traveling team he was coaching, he was left to contemplate something far more sobering — the frightful calculus involving terrorist activity. How likely was it that this flight – their flight — might be victimized? Can some number, some degree of probability, be placed on that?
“You’re on a big plane over a lot of water,” Franklin & Marshall’s coach said recently. “That’s how they’ve struck in the past.”
It’s probably not unlike how many of us think about such things in this day and age – how, indeed, we were forced to think about them beginning 16 years ago today. How that day brought about a new (and at times, unsettling) normal.
Any dread Robinson might have felt that June day disappeared upon a blessedly routine touchdown. There were, after all, more numbers to contemplate – 10 players to coach in four games (each in a different city) over 10 days, for an organization called Beyond Sports. And a mandate to play all 10 guys an equal amount of time, since they had paid good money to be there.
He had never worked with any of them before, as they were from different schools – four from Susquehanna, two from Holy Family, etc.
“The one thing they all really shared is that they loved basketball,” Robinson said.
He only had time to put in the most rudimentary system, and to solve the playing-time issue deployed two five-man platoons in equal measure. Besides becoming really competitive with each other, they proved to be a worthy match for the teams they faced, going 3-1 – more numbers – with the only loss coming in overtime.
And then, last month, grim news: a terrorist attack in Barcelona, one of the cities in which Robinson’s team had played, and another 90 minutes away, in the town of Cambrils. Fifteen dead. Hundreds wounded.
Again, the calculus, the probability.
“It was right on the street I was walking on,” Robinson said. “You go, ‘Wow, the odds were with me.’ ”
In both attacks vehicles were driven into pedestrians as they walked along crowded streets – in Barcelona’s case, a popular thoroughfare known as Las Ramblas.
Robinson remembers well the beauty of the city, situated on the Mediterranean coast. He remembers it as a vibrant place. And he remembers the crowds.
“So many people want to live and visit there,” he said, “everything is crammed in.”
Which, sadly, makes it an inviting target for terrorists. Spain, however, had been spared a major attack in recent years; European countries like France, Germany, England and Denmark have not been quite so fortunate.
Not this time, though.
Robinson’s approach while overseas was probably not unlike that of many people.
“I don’t want to call myself reckless,” he said, “but I tried not to let things like that (threat) change what I was trying to do. I tried to keep doing what I was going to do – be a little aware, but try not to let it change the way I live.”
He has since turned his attention to an F&M team of considerable promise. One featuring veterans like senior guard Brandon Federici, an Academic All-American last year and three-time All-Centennial Conference first-teamer, and one that includes no fewer than eight promising freshmen.
There is 6-9 Jerry Ben, an inside presence from Nigeria via Connecticut. There are 6-8 Matt Groll and 6-7 Zach Ravitz, two guys who according to Robinson can handle the ball and shoot it from deep. There are two wings, 6-4 Les Thomas (“a tremendous athlete,” the coach said) and 6-3 Bo Williams (“a tremendous shooter”) from Oklahoma City and Flower Mound, Texas, respectively.
There is 6-5 Matt Redhead, a Connecticut native who can swing between both forward spots, and two point-guard prospects, 6-2 Justin Kupa and 6-1 Keith Rado.
“These freshmen are definitely going to play,” Robinson said. “They’re too good to sit.”
He will take his team on another trip in early October, a four-game, five-day excursion to Toronto. As with all junkets of this type, it will serve as an opportunity to build chemistry, steal some extra practice time and learn how to deal with different circumstances. With a different game, different competition and different officials.
“What it teaches you is stop whining, just play and figure it out,” Robinson said. “In every case it’s helpful. In every case the visitor’s not getting anybody’s sympathy.”
It’s helpful from a coaching perspective, too.
“It definitely stretches you,” he said. “You can’t do things the way you’re used to doing them when you’re in control. There’s no control. What little you have, you have to make the most of.”
He learned this summer about control in a larger sense, too. About how fleeting it can be. About how the frightful calculus must always be kept in mind.