Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the marvelous dominance of Glenn Robinson.
The Big Dog was shy. You wouldn’t believe someone with a nickname like that would be quiet, reserved and sensitive. But then again you wouldn’t believe a lot of things about Glenn Robinson, Jr.
To believe just how dominant — how beautiful to watch — the man known as Big Dog was in his two seasons in West Lafayette, Indiana, you first have to understand it takes more than talent to make a great basketball player. Every year, millions of kids start high school hoops with dreams of being the next big thing. Many have more innate talent than all but a small fraction of their peers. But whether it’s lack of focus or work ethic, lousy coaching or just lacking the will, the vast majority of those talented kids will never be better than average at basketball.
But those select few whose ability to do whatever they want on a basketball court – the capability to dominate every game — these are your superstars. And to be one of those, a player has to possess more than just athleticism, talent and more than just focus. These players must have something deep in their psyche that compels them, that propels them, beyond the abilities of normal athletes. And this brings us back to the Big Dog.
In the early 1990s, college basketball was changing. Gone were the behemoths that had dominated the college ranks for a decade. With the exodus to the NBA of Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning in 1992, and the new prevalence of coaches running full-court, trapping defenses, a new need for versatility and ball-handling skills at nearly all five positions emerged. Suddenly, the demand for plodding centers was replaced by a demand for frontcourt players with backcourt skills.
This new breed of inside-outside forwards was led by a cadre of beefy but agile college big men, guys like Kentucky’s Jamal Mashburn, Wake Forest’s Rodney Rogers and Vin Baker of Hartford. Each of these players was an All-American, a top draft pick and an electrifying blend of power and finesse. But the best of that era’s “swing-bigs” was without question Purdue’s Glenn Robinson.
But what made Robinson so good was actually not even basketball-related. Raised on the rough streets of Gary, Indiana, the reserved Robinson was instilled early with an inner and outer toughness that took his already otherworldly hoops talents to a different level. Combining his immense physical gifts with a hunger for success and perseverance that can be borne only of struggle, Robinson reached that rare transcendence in sports that cannot be created solely by training and talent alone. Isiah Thomas had it. So did Larry Bird. And Glenn Robinson certainly did. His came from a natural place – his mother.
Robinson’s father was in and out of jail throughout his life. The elder Robinson left Christine Bridgeman when both were teenagers, and like too many inner city girls in similar situations, Bridgeman was left to fend for herself with a newborn. But Robinson Jr.’s mother had that steely resolve – the same resolve that would later show up so many nights in her son on the court – that wouldn’t allow failure. Like the time Glenn was struggling with his high school grades, and Christine marched into the coach’s office with her boy and informed the coach his star wouldn’t be on the team unless his grades improved. And guess what? They did.