Real tragedy hits the Kansas campus


AMERICA AT LARGE:A stunning upset rocks the University of Kansas, who were already in a state of mourning, writes GEORGE KIMBALL

THE ATMOSPHERE of gloom and doom was pervasive as you walked around the University of Kansas campus on Monday morning. A day earlier the lads from our old Alma Mater, with the deck stacked in their favour, had come up with their worst performance of the season at the worst possible moment and were eliminated in their quarter-final game against unheralded Virginia Commonwealth, the Cinderella team of this year’s NCAA basketball championships.

The stunning upset reverberated to the nation’s highest level. Two weeks earlier in Washington, the nation’s Number One fan had made public his forecast as he joined millions of other Americans in filling out his NCAA bracket. Barack Obama’s entry had Kansas winning the whole thing, and as the other contenders fell by the wayside, the presidential pool was looking better and better – right up until Sunday afternoon, when KU ran into those pesky Virginia Commies.

You might be tempted to say that the weekend loss plunged all of Kansas (including the Kansas-born president) into a state of mourning, but that would be somewhat disrespectful to KU forward Thomas Robinson, who spent the past three months of the season in a literal state of mourning.

The NCAA draw is divided into four regions, with the teams in each seeded from 1-16. Kansas was the top seed in its region (the Southwest, although in today’s era the geographic nomenclature has been blurred to the point of irrelevance), and their path to this coming weekend’s Final Four in Houston appeared to be a cakewalk when a series of upsets eliminated the Southwest’s second (Notre Dame), third (Purdue), fourth (Louisville), fifth, sixth, and seventh-seeded teams even before the Jayhawks might have had to cross paths with them.

Though nominally a back-up, Robinson, a large (6ft 9in, 237lb.) 19-year-old sophomore from Washington, DC, is often the first man off the bench, usually to give one or the other of the Morris twins, who comprise KU’s front line and are the team’s best players, a break.

Just after Christmas Robinson received the heartbreaking news that his maternal grandmother, with whom he had been quite close, had passed away. He was granted permission to skip KU’s January 5th game against Missouri-Kansas City to attend the funeral.

Less than two weeks later the heartbreak was exacerbated when his mother’s father also died. Then on the night of January 21st, Robinson had a message on his mobile phone from his seven-year-old sister Jayla, who tearfully asked him to phone her back. When he did, Jayla informed him, between sobs, that their mother Lisa was dead. Kansas had waltzed to NCAA wins over Boston University, Illinois, and Richmond, while VCU, who had to beat Southern California in a preliminary play-in game just to reach the final field of 64, had knocked of a succession of allegedly superior opposition to reach the final eight.

Lisa Robinson was 43 and had succumbed to a heart attack. Growing up in a fatherless household, Thomas had been unusually close to his mother. One can only imagine his unspeakable anguish in the face of this tragedy, which was compounded by the realisation that Jayla had no one left but him. He not only had to console his seven-year-old sister, he now might have to raise her as well.

If President Obama was at this point licking his chops as he surveyed what lay in front of KU, it would be hard to blame him; the Jayhawk players were undoubtedly thinking pretty much the same thing. After all, the first and second-seeded teams in each of the other regions had already been eliminated. Only 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth stood in the way of what appeared to be an uncluttered road to the championship.

Markieff Morris stands 6ft 9in, his brother Marcus 6ft 8in. Apart from that inch in height and their uniform numbers, the identical twins are virtually indistinguishable. They wear the same clothes, and attend the same classes; they even sport identical tattoos. Both are considered sure-fire pro prospects, likely lottery picks should they opt to turn pro, as they probably will. The only thing that might prevent the twins from entering this summer’s NBA draft, says KU coach Bill Self, is that somewhere in their minds lingers the hope that they might somehow engineer things to wind up on the same professional team.

The Morris twins were the first to reach Thomas Robinson’s Lawrence apartment that night, but within an hour they had been joined there by their team-mates, black and white, and virtually the entire KU roster crammed into Robinson’s room to console him in his time of grief. Almost forgotten was the fact that Kansas faced an important conference game against Texas the next afternoon. On national television, the sleepless Jayhawks stumbled and suffered their first loss of the season, ending a streak of 69 consecutive wins at home in Allen Fieldhouse.

Robinson played in that game, and under the circumstances acquitted himself well. He missed the next one, though.

Accompanied by Angel Morris, the twins’ mother, and KU director of basketball operations Barry Hinson, Robinson flew to Washington, where the adults helped Robinson do what no teenage boy should ever have to do: plan his mother’s funeral.

After basketball coach Bill Self petitioned the NCAA for special permission, the university was allowed to pick up the tab and flew the entire team to Washington for the funeral. Lisa was buried with Thomas’ Kansas game jersey neatly folded beside her in the coffin.

A trust fund was established in Jayla’s name, and Angel Morris became a surrogate parent for both Thomas and his sister. For the rest of the season the Kansas players each wore a circular badge surrounding the letters “LR” on their uniform jerseys.

The experience was, said Kansas guard Brady Morningstar, a bonding experience.

“We were close before, but when something like that happens to one of your team-mates you realise that there are even more important things than basketball.”

In the wake of Mrs Robinson’s tragic and premature demise, the Jayhawks won 16 of their next 17 games. Self had offered Robinson unlimited leave while he grieved, but the youngster insisted on sticking with the only family he had left – his team-mates. Playing in a relief role, he averaged nearly eight points and seven rebounds a game, including double-doubles in the regular season finale against Missouri (15 points, 13 rebounds) and in what proved to be Kansas’ penultimate game of the year, a 77-57 thumping of Richmond in the NCAA round of 16, in which he scored 12 while hauling in 14 rebounds.

“The common view is that the kids learn from the coaches,” said Self last week. “But this is a prime example of what a coach can learn from a kid. I thought Thomas was a terrific young man before we recruited him. I didn’t give him enough credit. This kid is off the charts.”

All of which set the scene for what should by rights have been a storybook ending, but Virginia Commonwealth had other plans. They jumped on the Jayhawks from the outset and on a Sunday afternoon when KU could do nothing right, cruised to a wire-to-wire, 71-61 victory and a spot alongside Kentucky, Connecticut and Butler in the Final Four that commences in Houston on Saturday. It was probably of little comfort to the Kansas players that they managed to take the White House down with them.

It was a disappointing loss, and under the circumstances a distressing one, but please don’t refer to it as a tragedy, at least not in Thomas Robinson’s presence. He knows far too much about those already.