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Tuesday, April 29th, 2008 at 11:33 am  |  16 responses

Will Robinson, R.I.P.

A Detroit legend passes on.

By Alan Paul

I just heard the news about Will Robinson passing on from this mortal coil. Sad day in Detroit and in Beijing and anywhere else people love basketball and know all that Will did. He certainly got his money’s worth out of life — he was 96 and was in great health and sound mind until the last year or so. He reportedly often tried to bustout of the nursing him where he spent most of the last 15 months, wheeling his wheelchair to the door.

I had the pleasure of meeting him many times, seeing him at countless Pistons games and always making sure to say hi and try to squeeze a tale or two out of him, which was never a challenge. Even as he passed 90, Mr. Robinson had twinkly young yes that made me feel like I was talking to a leprachaun. I was talking to greatness.

Will discovered Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman for the Pistons, but his legacy goes a lot deeper than that. Below is a story I wrote on Will for SLAM in 1999. It began as a sidebar to a Spencr Haywood old school feaute—Will Robinson was Spencer’s high school coach and aopted father—and ended up running on its own. I forget the issue number and it was a slightly different version, but the facts remain relevant. R.I.P., Mr. Robinson.

>>Just 30 years ago there had never been a black coach of a major college program. Will Robinson broke the invisible barrier when he was hired at Illinois State in 1970. He had five winning seasons and developed All American forward Doug Collins before stepping down to become a Pistons scout.

“I left because the strain of the whole experience was getting to me,” says Robinson. “We endured a lot of little insults, like having no fouls called for us, having three-seconds whistled on breakaway layups, me getting a technical if I even stood up. I just kept my head down and did my job, which is what I taught my players to do, too. I didn’t want to continue until I lost my equilibrium.”

Robinson should have broken the barrier two years earlier, when he had a verbal agreement to become head coach of the University of Detroit, where he would have been reunited with his adopted son Spencer Haywood, whom he had coached at Pershing High. “What really infuriated me is they just hired someone else, without so much as calling me,” Robinson recalls.

Robinson had a .850 winning percentage as a high school coach at Pershing and Miller High School for over 20 years, won several state and city championships and claims to have invented the full-court press in ‘46. “They had just changed the rule from having a jump ball after every basket and everyone just let the other team walk it up to half court,” Robinson says. “I had a short but very athletic team so I thought this would be the best way to utilize their talents. Everyone said I would kill my players, but it worked.”

In addition to Haywood, Robinson also coached football standout Big Daddy Lipscomb, a hulking 300-pounder whom he says was “a hell of a basketball player.” As a scout, Robinson was responsible for the Pistons obtaining Dennis Rodman and Joe Dumars, among others. And today, at age 87, he continues to work as a special assistant to General Manager Rick Sund. “I still do it because I still love the game,” he says.<<

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  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown

    Respect.

  • http://shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    Will Robinson was a Detroit legend. He was also a basketball legend. I got to meet him once when I was really young, I think 7 years old at the time. I didn’t really understand or grasp that greatness was in front of me at that young age, but I always remembered it because he had given me a Pistons medallion that I still have somewhere. R.I.P. Will Robinson.

  • http://slamonline.com Khalid Salaam

    Thanks AP

  • MackSoFLy

    R.I.P

  • Solito

    A life well lived… RIP.

  • Tuomas

    Rest in peace. Thanks Alan, lots of stuff I had no idea about.

  • detroit

    So glad the pistons renamed the locker room to the “Will Robinson locker room of champions” a while ago so he was able to see it. Besides discovering the greatest back court in piston history Will also discovered Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince so every piston fan has reasons to be grateful to him. I really hope the pistons do a lot to honor him tonight and not a brief moment of silence cut even shorted by commercials.

  • http://slamonline.com apaul

    Thanks all. I really do feel honored to have a bunch of opportunities to chat with Mr. Robinson. He was an impressive guy. I always wanted to do a little more research into his claim that e invented the full-court press. I believe him and I think it’s really interesting and brilliant and had a huge impact on the sport.

  • http://shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    AP: I believe you have said you are also from the Detroit area, if I remember correctly. If so, the stories are Will Robinson are plentiful. The man helped so many Detroit inner-city youth over many years thru coaching, teaching, scholarships, community service, etc. There were numerous lives and families touched by this man. He will be missed.

  • http://shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    *the stories OF Will Robinson

  • http://slamonline.com Ben Osborne

    I love hearing Alan talk Detroit hoops. He told me about Will Robinson for many years.

  • detroit

    ESPN could at least mention it since he was the first black division one coach but i guess the world wide leaders in sports have more important things to cover.

  • maio

    Too bad his last discovery was Darko. Great man though, personifying all that’s good about life of basketball. RIP Mr. Robinson.

  • http://www.nba.com Hursty

    maio, i dont think he was ‘discovering’ darko. he was 90 or so at that stage. RIP Mr. Robinson and thankyou for being a great human being-not just a basketball legend.

  • maio

    Well they did pick Darko following his advice. He even compared Darko favorably to Wilt Chamberlain.
    Thankfully that is not gonna be written on his tombstone.

  • A Paul

    I am not from Detroit but I went to U M and then lived in the area again for a few years. And my wife is from Bay City and all her people are in Michigan so I’m there a few times a year. And I just love Detroit hops. Got hooked years ago when I did a feature on st. Cecilia’s for slam (one of the first few pieces I did for the mag, actually).

    Will did not suggest drafting Darko but he definitely did sign off on it. He walked out of a workout and raved –as reported by Darko’s number on cheerleader Chad. But as humiliating as the whole Dark escapade remains, 99 percent of GMs would have done the same thing.

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