Feb. 22, 2007
February is Black History Month, and nowhere in major-college athletics is that history richer than at Michigan State University. From Gideon Smith, the first African-American football player at Michigan Agricultural College in 1913, to Steve Smith, an All-American basketball player whose contributions have a major impact today, it would take many months to tell the full story. In a series of profiles, longtime Michigan State beat writer and columnist Jack Ebling will highlight some of the greatest of the great. The sixth of those stories is basketball hero and businessman Mike Robinson.
He stood an inch or two under 6-foot. But his teams were never six feet under.
Mike Robinson made sure of that with a feathery, one-hand jumper and a work ethic that continues to this day.
The best small basketball player in the nation was a giant in many other ways. And if one name is missing from the rafters in Breslin, it belongs to No. 31, a two-time league scoring champ who knew "team" was more than a four-letter word.
Robinson averaged 24.2 points per game, more than any Spartan except one-year sensation Ralph Simpson and 3.0 more than the Big Ten's all-time scoring king, Shawn Respert.
To put it another way, if freshmen had been eligible in 1970-71, his first year on campus, and he'd played as many games as another quiet contributor, Charlie Bell, Robinson would've had roughly 900 points more than any player in conference history.
Not bad for a kid whose high school coach, Robert Smith at Detroit Northeastern, said, "You won't be able to play Big Ten basketball. You're just too little. You might get a few minutes off the bench. But you should look at Ferris or Wayne State."
Robinson looked at it another way. If he was second in the city in points behind the great George Gervin, soon to be a four-time NBA scoring champ and Hall of Famer, shouldn't he be better when he built himself up to more than 140 pounds?
"I said, `There's something wrong with this picture,'" Robinson remembered. "I was playing against all the best guys and eating their lunch. I could've gone to Princeton or Cornell. But Michigan was after me, too. I wanted to see what I'd do in the big time."
For a youth who grew up in the Brewster projects, just down the street from Diana Ross's family, MSU was a better fit.
"I grew up in a tough environment," Robinson said. "A lot of guys had artillery in their gym bags. But the thugs left me alone and even looked out for me. They respected me because I could put the ball in the basket. They liked it that I was one of their own."
Robinson's choice of colleges was based on the campus and the coach. And despite three straight 13-11 seasons, he couldn't have made a better decision.
"Once I knew I wanted to stay in the state, I knew I couldn't live on the basketball court," Robinson said. "Michigan just wasn't my idea of what a campus should look like. Michigan State was what I'd imagined. And when I got to know Gus Ganakas, he was my kind of coach, very warm and gracious."
As a freshman under Matthew Aitch, Robinson averaged nearly 34 points and was called for goaltending twice. After all, he'd grown to almost 5-11 and 145 pounds.
"I was a half-miler in high school, and I kept running till I took the steam out of guys," Robinson said. "I knew when I played my first Green and White game, I'd be fine. And when we played Indiana my sophomore year, Bobby Knight's first year there, I had 36 in a regional TV game. I was fine after that."
Robinson was fine long before that. He scored 25, 29, 20 and 32 in his first four varsity games. He poured home 37 in a 96-92 upset of Michigan. And he led the league with a 24.7 point average. No newcomer would lead the Big Ten again for 21 years.
His junior year was even better statistically. Robinson averaged 25.3 points and 4.2 rebounds, joining pass-first point guard Gary Ganakas in the nation's smallest backcourt.
"I was on campus two months before I saw Mike Robinson miss a shot," teammate Bob Chapman said. "He was one of the most phenomenal shooters in Michigan State history. The ball would walk back to him like it was on a string. His rotation was that good."
As a senior, with Ganakas gone and more Spartans looking for shots, Robinson's average slipped to 22.4 points, just behind Michigan's Campy Russell. If he had sat out a week instead of playing hurt, Robinson could've been a three-time scoring king.
But he had a layup with :08 left in a 67-66 win at Minnesota, a three-point play on a putback with :04 left in a 73-70 win at Northwestern and a 20-footer at the buzzer for a 76-74 win over Purdue.
If Robinson had gotten the ball, as planned, chances are good they also would've beaten No. 3 Notre Dame, instead of losing on a Terry Furlow airball and a Billy Paterno buzzer-beater.
"It was pretty frustrating at the time," Robinson said. "I really think we had more talent than Magic (Johnson) did five years later. But we had a lot of distractions and too many politicians on the team. Some egos were way out of control."
When Robinson left as a seventh-round pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Spartans were scarred by a player walkout and mass suspension that ultimately cost Ganakas his job.
"If I'd been there, I really believe they wouldn't have walked," Robinson said. "Yeah, there were problems brewing back then. But they knew I wasn't into that. I said, `What we need to do is win some ballgames.' Gus could've done that. He'd already recruited Greg Kelser and had Magic in his back pocket. Instead, Jud Heathcote walked into a gold mine."
Despite scoring 40 points in a final scrimmage with the Cavs, Robinson was the team's final cut. It already had Foots Walker under contract and couldn't keep two guards under 6-foot. The Cavs elected to keep 7-foot center Luke Witte of Ohio State.
Robinson wound up playing with Athletes in Action and the Grand Rapids Tackers while working as an ombudsman for the Grand Rapids schools.
He had chances to sign overseas but chose to play on a different level - and to play and play and play. He's still active in a 50-and-over competitive league and has represented his country in the last six World Masters Championships, winning a gold medal in Edmonton.
When Robinson returned to campus to complete one degree and work on another, he was a teaching assistant in physical education and an adviser in Brody Complex. He worked for Meijer in its distribution center, for General Dynamics in tank production, for Coca-Cola as a warehouse supervisor and for Solomon Software as a programmer.
Currently, he owns MARZ Systems, specialists in home healthcare software. But there has never been anything soft about Robinson as a competitor. Just ask his stunned opponents.