Originally published in SLAM 163

by Tzvi Twersky | @ttwersky

On a bright and crisp day, Thomas Robinson is painting a bleak and dreary picture.

“If it wasn’t for basketball,” Robinson, whom the Sacramento Kings selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, shares matter-of-factly, “I got two doors: I’m hustling, or I’m dead or in jail. You don’t mean to fall into it, but there’s nothing else.”

It’s the middle of the last month of his first summer A.D. (After Draft), and for Robinson there now is an everything else. There is a six-bedroom house in Sacramento that would fit his old, one-bedroom DC apartment, in its foyer. There is more money—clean, legal, hard-earned—clipped in his pocket than he thought he’d ever count. And on this day in NYC, in the sneaker store Flight Club, there are enough pairs of shoes to make his head swim. “When I was little, I’d go in the Eastbay book and circle shoes like I was gonna get ’em, even though I knew I was never going to,” says Robinson, clad in a form-flattering black Polo t-shirt, cargo shorts held up by a YSL belt and a pair of Fire Red Jordan IVs. “Now I’ve been buying sneakers like drugs.”

It’s fairly difficult, apparently, to find a lot of variety in sizes 14 and 15, but over the course of a two-hour shopping spree, Robinson sweet talks employees into helping him scare up some serious sneaker heat. Sticking mostly to throwback Jordans, his personal faves, Robinson tries on OG Is, True Blue IIIs, Olive Vs and a handful of other pricey pieces.

A full head taller than the mostly teen crowd in the store, Robinson finds himself signing a fair amount of autographs while he shops, especially for someone who has yet to play a professional game. No one asks for more than the 21-year-old’s John Hancock, though, except for…

“This is my son,” says a middle-aged woman who looks like she emerged from the set of Real Housewives of New Jersey. She juggles an oversized designer purse and is weighed down by ornate jewelry and oversized sunglasses. “He wants to be your height. How tall are you?”

“I’m 6-9,” Robinson laughs, shaking the woman’s and her son’s hands.

“Did your mom, like, hang you upside down?” she asks.

Robinson pauses momentarily. Lisa, his mother, as has been made all too public for his liking, passed away in 2011. “Yeah,” he laughs. Despite all the hardships he’s faced, jovial is Robinson’s general genial state of being, “Do that to him.”

“That’s what I thought,” she says, and then, raising her voice enough to draw attention, “AND SO HANDSOME!”

“Thanks,” Robinson, again, laughs.

“Oh, Lord. God Bless you,” she says, inching forward, presumably shaming her son further. “What are you wearing?”

“A Jesus piece,” Robinson says, looking down at the chain dangling loosely from his neck. Without warning, the woman leans into Robinson and plants a wet kiss on the golden Jesus.

“That’s it,” she says.” “YOU. ARE. IN.”

***

Thomas Robinson has gone, in what feels like the span it takes a dribble to go from his hand to the floor and back, from being chased by bullets to being chased by autograph seekers.

“I had a story before THE story,” says Robinson, who often feels like people only know him for his athleticism, and the passing of his mother and grandmother and grandfather—who all had a hand in raising him without the help of a father, and all departed in the span of a month less than two years ago. “I was just a regular kid in DC, into dumb stuff. Doing everything that was gonna get me killed or locked down.”

As he sits in the backseat of a black Mercedes-Benz S550, on his way to the Beats by Dre store in SoHo, where he was treated like the VIP that he has trouble believing he is, Robinson recounts a tale from a different time that almost sounds like it had to have happened to a different kid.

He was 14 or so, hanging with some friends on his home block in the Trinidad section of DC when they saw a car get pulled over at the top of the street. Robinson and crew didn’t know why the cops were arresting the man, but they could tell from his pimped-out ride that he was definitely into something. So, as soon as the cops whisked the man away, the kids jimmied the trunk open and alleviated the man of the jar of $5s and $10s that they unsurprisingly found stowed there.

That would have been the end of it. A hustler would have been out of some illicit money, and a few misguided kids would have had some spare pocket change. Except that…

“He came back later that night,” Robinson says, embarrassed by his misdeeds but willing to share in hopes that kids can learn from him. “We were outside, and we could hear him snapping. ‘I’m gonna kill somebody.’ He walked back to his car, pulled out his gun and I was gone.”

BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.

Robinson and his friends ran from the gunfire, splitting up and diving into different alleys in an area dotted with them. Robinson and his friends hid for close to half an hour while the man circled the block, looking for them. Robinson and his friends prayed—for themselves, and for one another. Finally, Robinson and his friends retreated to someone’s house where they stayed, in relative safety, for the rest of the night.

“I’m lucky,” says Robinson, emotion bleeding into his words all these years later. “If he would have hit me…If you think about it…”

“We always think about, if it wasn’t for basketball what would we be doing?” Christopher (Rome) Thompson, one of Robinson’s close childhood friends, says a few days later. “We always ask ourselves that, and we can never come up with an answer for that one.”

For Robinson, really, basketball is the story after the story before THE story. He played hoops as a young boy, was pretty good at shooting from distance, but it was just a hobby. Thomas knew little of DC’s rich basketball history, and nothing about all the current area guys making their mark in the game. To him basketball was just something to keep him occupied between heading to school for the day and pulling his mattress off the wall and moving the living room table so he could go to sleep in his mom’s tiny place every night. He was convinced he was going to spend his life in the neighborhood like everyone he saw around him.

In 10th grade, though, he met Dwight Redd—a local man with an AAU team, Squash All Beef—and basketball became a calling. Became a way out of DC, the way out of a life he thought he was destined to lead.

“It just woke me up,” says Robinson, of his AAU experience in the summer before junior year. “I had never been out of DC before that. Once I started getting excited over places like North Carolina, Florida, I started seeing there’s a lot more out here. My mind kind of expanded a little bit more. Once I seen that, I wanted to get out.”

Getting out is easier said than done—just ask a couple of guys who grew up in Robinson’s neighborhood and had the right skill but all the wrong breaks—and Robinson was already way behind the game. But he made ball his sole focus, withdrawing from the block and stoops where most of his friends still lingered. The door that would prove to be his savior cracked open for him—actually, it was more like he took an axe to it—when Robinson participated in the Reebok Breakout Challenge before 12th grade. It was there that he went from an unknown kid who had to earn his spot via a local headliner tournament in DC to a recruit who had 40 messages on his phone by the end of camp.

Says Robinson: “Two days later they did the rankings over. I went from unranked to like 18th, and I didn’t even know there was rankings. I’m like, Now I’m making progress.”

Progress took him to a year of prep school at Brewster Academy, a school in New Hampshire that took a lot of getting used to. From there, progress took him on multiple high-DI college visits, before it ultimately guided him to Kansas.

“He was a manchild,” Markieff Morris, Robinson’s best friend at Kansas and current member of the Phoenix Suns, says of the first impression Robinson left on him.

Marcus Morris, Kieff’s twin brother, a member of the Houston Rockets and Robinson’s other best friend from Kansas, learned about the manchild’s game first-hand. “I used to go at him and kill him when he first came but he’d never stop,” he says on the phone, while his twin listens in. “Every single day, I used to go at him, kill him. And every day he used to want to guard me. Normally if you’re killing somebody they’re like, ‘Nah, I’m cool off that.’ But he continued to keep coming.”

After a three-year period when he experienced more twists than a sailor’s knot—in reaction to sitting behind Cole Aldrich and the Twins, he considered transferring as a freshman; sophomore year, tragedy took three loved ones and he considered entering the Draft; junior year was all highlights, including an NCAA Championship game run—Robinson entered the Draft this past June, where the Kings took him fifth overall.

When he got up from his table at the Draft in the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, to shake David Stern’s hand, while the Twins texted him and looked on from the crowd, Robinson started crying as his life flashed before his eyes. Childhood, cookouts, his family—he couldn’t control the images, as ESPN broadcast his tears to the world.

“I don’t know who I was more excited for,” says Tyshawn Taylor, a teammate and friend of Robinson’s at Kansas who went 41st in the same Draft. “I understand what we both have been through to get to this point, and to finally be there is just crazy.”

***

It’s a little after 3 p.m., and after leaving Beats with a bag in hand, Thomas Robinson says with disgust that a so-so showing at summer league in Las Vegas left him with hunger pains. “I feel like nobody respects me,” says Robinson, nonetheless maintaining his brilliant smile. “So I got to go take my respect. And then it gets to the point where I do that sometimes and I overplay myself. That’s what happened.”

Despite being drafted fifth, despite inking an endorsement deal with Nike, despite no longer having to worry about what would have happened if it wasn’t for basketball, Robinson is still damn-near ravenous…for respect and all its trappings.

So, he’s been in the lab again lately—working. Working to ensure that he can take care of his family for generations to come. Working to be someone who kids back home in DC can look up to. Working to have a career in Sacramento that’s worth remembering.

“You know what it is?” Robinson offers, before getting back into the Benz, headed for the airport, for a week of workouts in Kansas, for a bright future. “It sucks to struggle, it sucks. I’m not going back. I refuse to go back and give this dream up.”