Mar 26, 2012, 5:35 PM EDT
In a Final Four of powerhouse programs accustomed to making the NCAA tournament’s final weekend it’s not easy for a casual fan to find a rooting interest. Butler or VCU? Easy to cheer for them.
But when Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State have 49 Final Four appearances combined, most college basketball might just cheer against all four or just watch something else. Who wants to cheer for four Goliaths?
Then again, what if one of the Goliaths has a story that’ll tug at anyone’s heartstrings? Would that sway fans?
Thomas Earl Robinson’s broad shoulders have carried Kansas all season. A unanimous choice for the AP All-American team, he’s also headed for a multi-million deal as a future NBA lottery pick. But it hasn’t been an easy road for Robinson, one of the game’s hardest workers and best players. Not even close.
Not after last season.
Robinson’s sophomore season was beset by personal tragedies. His grandmother died in late December of 2010 and his grandfather died a few weeks later. Then his mother, Lisa, a single mom in her early 40s, died of a heart attack in on January 21. The deaths shook Robinson and his teammates, who could hardly believe so much bad news could come at once. Coach Bill Self called it “the saddest thing I’d ever seen in my whole life.”
His eight-year-old sister, Jayla, was the one who called from Washington D.C. and told Robinson the news.
After burying his mother and rejoining Kansas, Robinson declared his intentions to begin caring for Jayla. That would mean skipping the final two years of college to play in the NBA to provide financial support and being around as much as his NBA schedule would allow.
That didn’t happen. A scholarship was provided to Jayla, who’s still living in D.C. where her father, James Paris is. But he’s a good big brother, protective and worried about what her future holds. And the plan is to start securing that future by heading to the NBA after this season.
“I’m still scared for my little sister,” Thomas says. “I cry and I complain about how it’s not fair for me, but she’s going through way more. She’s 8 years old. She ain’t got the memories that I got with my mom. I just feel like I can’t stop. I got to do something to where I make her so happy that she’ll never have to go through any pain in her life ever. No more bad phone calls. None of us can have any more bad phone calls.”
Basketball and Jayla: That’s about all Thomas thinks about. When Self recently suggested planting a tree in memory of Lisa outside Allen Fieldhouse, a place she never lived to see, Thomas thought it was the quintessential idea. He and Self watched the gardeners dig the hole, and Thomas placed his letter in with the roots. It reads:
I guarantee you have no worries about Jayla.
I will make sure everything is okay. I won’t blink.
Lisa called him Earl. She was the only one.
Robinson’s hardly the only guy to place the NBA on hold – Kentucky’s Terrence Jones and Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger both did the same – but I doubt any player has more weighing on his shoulders than Robinson. His Jayhawks aren’t favored to win the tournament.
But I’m guessing he’ll have a few more fans than normal cheering for him this weekend.
You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.
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