Welcome to Mr. Robinson's neighborhood
By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star
LAWRENCE | Russell Robinson opens the door to his cozy, off-campus apartment. Classes are canceled on this snowy Wednesday morning, so it's a day for Robinson to kick his feet up, a day to lounge around in his slippers.
Robinson is one of two Kansas players - along with fellow senior Jeremy Case - who has chosen to live by himself this year, apart from all of the action at Jayhawker Towers. Robinson loves his teammates, but truthfully, he doesn't miss having to be around them 24/7.
"I do spend a lot of time by myself," Robinson says. "It's fun. Just to chill and relax and not have the stress of having to entertain anybody."
Robinson came to Kansas four years ago to be independent. Growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., where Robinson's life moved as fast as the No. 4 train to Yankee Stadium, the urge was inherent. His teammates laugh because still, to this day, he keeps his hat brim low and stays to himself when they're out in public. But Robinson's coach says his independent nature is what makes him so valuable to this 22-1 Jayhawk team.
"One of the great qualities of a leader is he can run with the pack, but also separate himself," KU coach Bill Self says. "Your voice is better heard. When you're just hanging, hanging, hanging all the time, doing all the fun things together, when you say, 'OK, come on guys, let's get serious,' it may not register quite as well. Russell is one of those guys with a great blend."
If you want to understand the blend that helps Robinson stir KU's drink, take a step inside his world. After all, you can tell a lot about a man by the way he keeps his house.
Robinson is most proud of his black leather couch, so that's where the tour begins. When he first moved into his new place, he took a trip down Massachusetts Street to shop for furniture. This piece caught his eye with its simple, Asian-inspired design.
"The couch was the most important part of the living room," Robinson says. "I went with the Chinese theme."
Oh, he stuck with the theme, too. Robinson bought bamboo blinds for his living-room windows, and Chinese letters for wisdom, knowledge, beauty and kindness line the walls. His mom, Theresa, picked those out for him.
"I like to get him things that give him inspiration," Theresa says.
Robinson was taught to embrace all cultures. He spends a lot of time on his Chinese couch watching the History Channel and the Discovery Channel on his mounted, flat-screen TV. And really, that's about it. Robinson says he rarely has people over to hang out.
"Normally when I'm here, I'm sleeping or eating," Robinson says.
Or paying bills.
"Rent, cable, light, energy, water, all those things kind of pile up a little bit," Robinson says. "Gotta be responsible and manage your money right. I've been late a few times, but nothing delinquent at all."
Robinson just turned 22. In a few months, he'll graduate and enter a new phase. He believes he's preparing for that moment every day by living alone.
"I just try to grow as a person any way I can," Robinson says.
Robinson's parents, who are divorced, have both visited him a few times in his new apartment. Since Robinson just about refuses to come home, they don't have any choice but to make the trek out west.
Robinson estimates that he's spent about a month total in the Bronx in the last four years. This past Christmas, Robinson stayed in Lawrence by himself.
"I don't really get back that often," he says. "But just because I'm not there doesn't mean I don't miss my family."
Robinson's No. 23 jersey from his days as a prep star at Harlem's Brother Rice High School hangs on the wall, a reminder of the days when Russell was the man. In high school, they don't give out the No. 23 to a guy who passes the ball.
Next to the jersey is a picture of Robinson flying through the air, knees bent like Jordan.
"I had some hops back then," Robinson jokes. "I don't know what happened."
Only, he does know. All he has to do is walk across the room to the pictures of the South Carolina game his freshman year at Kansas. That was when things were good, when Robinson still thought he could be a scorer here. He started hot that first year, but things would sour quickly in conference season. His playing time dwindled to the point where he didn't even play in KU's upset loss to Bucknell in the NCAA Tournament.
Robinson's friends back home were telling him to transfer. Self was going to make Robinson, the guy who once scored 39 points in the title game of a prestigious AAU tournament, into a point guard? Did Dean Smith try to make Jordan into a point?
Russell Robinson Sr. wouldn't let his son even think about transferring. Robinson stayed in Lawrence that summer and worked on his game, trying to adjust, to stop being stubborn about his role. At some point during his sophomore year, it clicked.
"I realized that this team is a better team when I'm getting everybody involved," Robinson says.
Now, Robinson averages 6.9 points and 4.4 assists per game for the No. 4 team in the country. The transition to the point is still ongoing. Sometimes, Russell wants to gun it. He just doesn't know how anymore.
"A lot of times I miss open shots, shots that I should make, because I'm thinking about how I should be passing," he says. "It's tough. That's why I score a lot better when my teammates hit me for open shots."
Watching his son play against Missouri, Russell Sr. got reflective. Two of Russell's former roommates, Alex Galindo and Micah Downs, both transferred and left Kansas when things weren't going their way. Not his boy.
"A lot of kids run away from their problems," Russell Sr. says. "He stuck it out. Going to Kansas for him was a life-learning experience."
Russell Robinson color-coordinates his bathroom towels. Yellow, lime green and white, they're neatly hung next to each other, each with a washcloth of the same color.
If you really wanted to freak out the ultracool Robinson, all you'd have to do is put the white washcloth with the yellow towel. Or something like that. In fact, just mentioning the idea sends Robinson into the bathroom to protect his turf.
"I'm not anal about it," he explains. "I just need it to look nice."
Robinson craves order. It defines his daily life to the point that you wonder whether it was he - and not Russell Sr. - who spent years in the military.
"For Russell," Theresa says, "there's a place for everything and everything has its place."
In Robinson's closet, his shirts and hangers all face one direction. In the living room, the pillows on the couch must sit in the same spot on the right and left.
"I just need symmetry," Robinson says. "I need everything to be symmetrical, clean. I need it to look appealing to the eye so that when I walk through the door, I feel good."
Make no mistake, Mr. Robinson's neighborhood is the one with the pristinely cut lawns.
"It reduced a lot of stress on me," Robinson says. "When I go to practice, I'm not stressed out about a lot of things in my life. That stuff is kind of contagious. When I'm feeling good about myself and everything is in order, it carries over to my teammates."
The order extends to game day. When he puts on his uniform, he makes sure that he looks sharp - shirt tucked in, shorts not sagging.
"I'm kind of like the refs," he says. "It just looks better. Parents are looking at you. Young kids are looking at you. Present yourself in a good way."
Even the way Robinson plays - when he's at his best - could be seen as fully in control, structured, organized.
"Everything I do in life carries over to the court," he says.
A white sheet of paper with blue handwriting is tacked to a bulletin board above Robinson's desk in his bedroom. The sheet takes him back to October, to the weekend of "Late Night in the Phog," when Russell was trying to figure out how to best lead this year's team.
Self had always identified Robinson as a potential leader, a guy who could one day be the captain of the Jayhawks. But when it came down to it, Self didn't name a captain this season. Nobody stood out enough.
So when Russell Robinson Sr. came to visit for "Late Night," he talked to Russell Jr. about leadership, drawing back on his days in the Army. Russell liked what his father had to say, so he asked Russell Sr. to write it down for him.
"Leaders lead from the front," Russell Sr. scrawled out on the page, "and adjust to an environment that is always changing."
Russell Jr. says: "That right there is pretty much what I need to work on the most. Adjusting. Coach would tell you I'm a stubborn person."
But Robinson isn't stubborn about his relationship with Self. He believes it's his responsibility to make sure Self gets what he wants every possession, offensively or defensively.
"His job," Self says, "is to be an extension of me."
Robinson must be doing a good job. Self has smiled a lot this winter. And, whether he wears a "C" on his chest or not, Robinson has become KU's unofficial captain.
"The harder Russ practices, the harder we practice," KU senior Darnell Jackson says. "We always follow Russ. He's the head of this team."
Last week, when Russell Sr. was in town, he went into Russell Jr.'s room and saw that sheet of paper. Wow, he thought. That told him something.
"He was actually listening," Russell Sr. says. "He's not being hardheaded anymore."
Last stop, and it might be the most important. In between the living room and the kitchen, there's a shrine to the Kansas career of Russell Robinson.
A massive framed collage of last season's run to the Elite Eight is the centerpiece. Underneath it is a bookshelf packed with memorabilia and overflowing with memories. There are nets that have been cut, shoes that have been worn in some of the Jayhawks' greatest victories, his numerous "Mr. Jayhawk" awards. There's even a poster of Robinson up above, taking a jumper.
"People ask me, 'Oh my God, you're too into yourself. Why do you have your picture up?' " Robinson says. "But this is why I do those things: When I'm down, I constantly see my accomplishments and all the things I've done. It reminds me of all those good times. That's how I kind of deal with my stress and get over things."
Too much is at stake to be stressed for long. Robinson needs to heal quickly was what brought him to this very spot after KU's loss to Kansas State. He had played poorly, making one of eight shots and forcing little defensive pressure against K-State's guards. He looked at the top shelf and saw his three Big 12 championship rings.
"Hey," he acknowledged, "if we have another game like that, we're not going to win a fourth one."
Of course, there are even bigger goals for this KU team. Next to the championship rings is a 1988 national championship cap, signed by Kansas legend and current assistant coach Danny Manning. If the Jayhawks don't make the Final Four this year, there's no doubt Robinson will hold himself personally responsible.
"Anything," Robinson says, "other than a Final Four will be a disappointment."