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.<<