As I watched one of my favorite college basketball teams last year, the Michigan Wolverines, march to the Final Four I remember talking to a guy in his mid-20’s about the team’s impressive play and how enamored I was with the backcourt combination of Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., and the freshman shooting sensation Nik Stauskas.
I told the young man, an avid college hoops fan, to pay attention to the offensive rebounding of Jordan Morgan and the two freshmen from Indiana, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III.
Their hunger, desire and willingness to do the dirty work, combined with spectacular guard play was the recipe to an extended run through the NCAA tournament. I told him that despite finishing third in the Big Ten, Michigan had all the ingredients of a team that could legitimately cut down the nets at the Final Four.
When I mentioned that Robinson’s dad was one of my favorite college basketball players ever, he looked at me with a blank stare.
“I’ve never heard of his dad,” he told me.
“If you don’t know about his dad,” I stated, more than merely perturbed, “my man, you have no business talking about college basketball in general and the Big Ten, specifically.”
He attempted to try to talk about the powerhouse team that Tom Crean had at the University of Indiana, with Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller and Yogi Ferrell, but I cut him off. “
Unless you can talk about the Big Dog, you have nothing else to say to me,” I said, utterly disinterested in continuing the conversation.
“Who is The Big Dog?” he asked.
“Who is the Big Dog?” I asked calmly, though I felt like screaming it, like the deranged nurse Annie Wilkes, in the movie Misery, when she shouts, “HE DIDN’T GET OUT OF THE COCKADOODEE CAR!!!”
From the early 1990’s through the middle of the new millennium, Glenn Allen Robinson had a bark and bite that were equally loud and vicious. For those whose memories reside in recent history, they might only remember him as a role player from San Antonio Spurs’2005 NBA championship team.
But for those of us who saw him in high school and from his early days at Purdue, he’ll always be fondly remembered as “The Big Dog”, one of the greatest and most dominant players the college game has ever seen.
A tenacious rebounder and deadly shooter, he singlehandedly altered the landscape of the game, and the rookie salary scale, as one of the most complete and unstoppable forces in the illustrious history of the NCAA.
Robinson was born and raised in Gary, Indiana, a grim urban landscape in the northwest corner of the Hoosier state. The city, founded by the U.S. Steel Corporation in 1906, was once a thriving manufacturing base where blue collar jobs were plentiful.
But in the 1960’s, the steel industry went through a downward spiral that took Gary, and its residents, along for the ride. With the onset of massive layoffs, a toxic cocktail of under-education, poverty and the narcotics trade began to wreak a severe physical and psychological havoc on the once-proud city.
Sitting 25 miles outside of downtown Chicago, Gary is now a half-abandoned urban wasteland, burdened with depressing crime and unemployment rates that are nearly twice the national average. The city routinely has one of the country’s highest per capita homicide rates.
Robinson grew up near the city’s central thoroughfare, 25th Avenue, which is known in local parlance as the “Two-Five.” His mother, Christine Bridgeman, was a single teenager who raised her young son in the eye of the raging storm that was Gary, Indiana in the 1970’s and ’80s. But although his mother was young and poor, she was determined to steer her son along on the right path. Robinson was a shy child who – in no way, shape or form – gave any hint to his future stardom during his first forays on the basketball court.
“I had two little fat managers, a pair of twins, who used to outplay him when he was in the fourth or fifth grade,” his high school coach Ron Heflin once told Sports Illustrated’s Bruce Newman. “He wasn’t very good. People don’t understand how hard that kid worked. He hasn’t always been a polished player.”
Glenn’s confidence in his basketball skills was once so nonexistent that he refused to try out for the 7th grade team. But the small house he shared with his mother was only a long jumper away from the asphalt courts outside of Roosevelt High School, where he spent many hours there working on his game.
The first player he admired from afar was Duke’s incredible point guard, and another of my all-time favorite college players, Johnny Dawkins.
Glenn played on the junior varsity team as a freshman at Roosevelt High School. Although he was selected to play on the varsity squad as a sophomore, he remained, very much, a work-in-progress.
What stood out initially during those varsity tryouts was his desire, more than anything else.
“One day we were going through workout drills at practice,” Heflin said in the book Hoosiers: The Fabulous Basketball Life of Indiana by Phillip House. “We call ‘em suicides. I ran them for about forty minutes straight. The rest of the kids were grabbing their stomachs and complaining but he didn’t bend over and he didn’t say nuthin’. I got interested. I said to myself ‘I’m gonna see what it takes to break this guy.’ I couldn’t do it. He always came right back to the starting line. That night I went home and told my wife, ‘I got a special kid here.’”
To earn money, Glenn carried tools and did clean-up work at an air-conditioning/refrigeration shop after-school and on the weekends. When his grades slipped midway through that sophomore season, his mother marched him into the coach’s office.
“She said, ‘Coach Heflin, if his grades drop any more’ – she put her finger up in Glenn’s face – ‘you won’t be playing basketball anymore. Do you understand me Glenn Allen?‘ Here’s this guy towering over his mom and he just says ‘Yeah.’ Total control. You don’t want to cross Christine. I still tease him about it,” Heflin said in Hoosiers.
“Well, growing up in Gary, we get all the Chicago games, so I used to want to play like Scottie Pippen, because we were about the same size,” Robinson told insidehoops.com. “I played center in high school, so I said, ‘I can’t play center in the NBA, I have to be able to dribble the ball and do some more stuff and kinda be an all around player,’ so that’s why I looked at Scottie Pippen’s game.”
Robinson had a decent sophomore year, but it was over the summer where all of the hard work and instruction from his coaches and mentors began to coalesce. At a summer camp at Purdue, he struck up a close relationship with Gene Keady’s assistant coach Frank Kendrick. The two would play one-on-one in the morning before formal camp activities got underway. Kendrick, who played pro ball overseas, was a once an All-American at Purdue.
“We’d play and I’d beat him and the counselors would be whistling that it was time to move on to another station and he’d say, ‘No, no wait, we gotta play again,” said Kendrick in Hoosiers.
By his junior year, Robinson became a hot commodity on the recruiting trail. He blossomed into an explosive scorer who could rebound, displaying a game that was pregnant with versatility and incredible discipline.
He would lull opponents to sleep one minute, jogging down court, his face expressionless. Then, in an instant, he’d explode, doing things that folks around the state had never seen. And we’re talking about the state of Indiana here, where basketball is on par with religion.
In a game against Chicago’s East Roosevelt High School, one of Robinson’s teammates threw an alley-oop pass that was so high, everyone in the gym assumed it was a turnover. His own guards sprinted back to get on defense.
“Glenn leaped and caught the ball at the top of the square, above the rim, and jammed it down over East Roosevelt’s Judah Parks,” said teammate Rickie Wedlow in Hoosiers. “We were just shocked.”
At this point, all of the elite college basketball programs were salivating. Throughout his junior year, the coaches from every major program were courting him. But right before the tip-off of every game, Kendrick would walk into the gym and wink at Robinson, who would wink right back.
While Glenn viewed all of the other coaches as salesman, he looked at Kendrick as a friend who he still hadn’t beaten in a game of one-on-one yet. And just like that, Purdue signed its biggest and greatest recruit ever.
By his senior year of high school, he was an unstoppable man-child in the hoops promised land. In the revered Indiana State High School Tournament, with every opponent’s defense geared to slow him up, he laid waste to mere mortals and proceeded to knock down the game-winning shots in both the Regional and Semi-Finals.
“Everybody in the gym knew where the ball was going both times,” Heflin said in Hoosiers. “It didn’t matter. Nobody had a chance.”
En route to being named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball and leading his team to the 1991 State Championship, The Big Dog averaged 26 points, 15 rebounds and four blocked shots per game.
While everyone today may remember the 1991 recruiting class because of Michigan’s superfluous Fab Five, Robinson was seen by many as the nation’s top recruit.
Before his first game at Purdue, a school custodian nicknamed him the “Big Dog” when he observed him manhandling his teammates during pick-up games at Mackey Arena.
In his first college season, Robinson led the Big Ten in scoring with 26 points per game, while also averaging nine rebounds. Against Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, his complete repertoire had pro scouts scribbling voraciously in their notepads.
“He singlehandedly ruined everything Indiana was trying to do in that game,” Celtics scout Jon Jennings told SI’s Bruce Newman. “He destroyed them inside, and then took them outside and shot threes. Versatility is the key to his game.”
As a senior, in March of 1994, Newman wrote that the Big Dog “…May well be the most complete NCAA Player of the Year since 1979, when another Indiana phenom named Larry Bird won the award. Like Bird, Robinson has taken a nondescript bunch of teammates and elevated them beyond their wildest dreams, except that Robinson has done it playing in what may be the toughest conference in the country.”
The Big Dog scored 40 points against Ohio State, 39 against Indiana, and 49 against Illinois, en route to leading the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding while averaging 30 points and 11 boards on a nightly basis. He led the Boilermakers to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and scorched the Kansas Jayhawks with 44 points in the Sweet 16.
He was the Big Ten Player of the Year, a consensus All-American and he became the first Purdue player to win the John Wooden Award since the great Wooden himself was named national player of the year in 1932.
“Robinson plays a very simple game,” the great Jerry West told the Los Angeles Times. “He just plays basketball the old fashioned way.”
In 1994, the Big Dog was the #1 pick in the NBA draft and sent shockwaves through the league’s rookie salary structure and financial landscape when he asked for a $100 million dollar contract. He eventually settled for an unprecedented 10 year, $68 million deal – still the richest rookie contract ever. The next year, a salary scale was introduced for the league’s incoming players.
And unfortunately, the dollar amount seemed to take away from what he did on the court. For some reason, I don’t think he ever received his proper recognition.
He averaged 22 points per game as a rookie and – teaming with Vin Baker, who had serious game back then – immediately made the Milwaukee Bucks legitimate. In 2001, playing with current Miami Heat gunslinger “Sugar” Ray Allen and Wizards assistant coach Sam “I Am” Cassell, The Big Dog led the Bucks to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Robinson sits behind only the inimitable Kareem Abdul Jabbar as the second-leading scorer in Bucks history. For some reason, the Big Dog was unappreciated. But not here, NO SIR!
When Carmelo Anthony went off in the 2003 NCAA Tournament, I told anyone who would listen, “That’s the second coming of the Big Dog right there!”
The great Magic Johnson once called him one of the finest young players he’d ever seen!
Whether he was hitting that scrumptious turn-around jump shoot, coming off screens, executing the beautiful booty-bump and crafty low-post game, snatching rebounds, running the baseline, showcasing the mid-range scoring arsenal, splashing the nets from beyond the three-point stripe, filling the lane on the fast break or dismantling a half-court defense with his one or two-dribble drives to the iron, the Big Dog was a conundrum for any defense.
So to that young fella who asked me last year,”Who is the Big Dog,” I should have responded like Gyp Rosetti in HBO’s incredible mini- series, Boardwalk Empire, when after taking over the town of Tabor Heights, he dismissively said, “Bible Camp’s cancelled. And I’m not really doin’ questions and answers right now either.”