At a tender age, before he earned the footnote as the first player recruited by Mark Fox at Georgia, Gerald Robinson already had proven himself willing to meet any challenge, on any court.
Following a sophomore basketball season at Tennessee State so robust it convinced him he needed to transfer to a bigger stage, Robinson was ambushed by an odd proposition. Before you leave, Gerald, how about grabbing a pair of low-cut sneakers and a racket and playing a sport where the net hangs low?
That unexpected offer came three years ago from Tennessee State’s tennis coach, whose team had been decimated by injuries and suspensions. The Tigers’ tennis coach was, and still is, Gerald Robinson Sr. Junior knew better than to say no to dad.
So, the younger Robinson played college tennis for one season before transferring to Georgia and took his beatings for the good of his father and the team. Except for that one time.
“He was so competitive,” said his father. “He told me, ‘I finally found one I can beat, daddy. I’m going to beat this one.’”
The winning strategy, as recounted by its author, was, “Just lob the ball over the net and hope they get frustrated. It’s more about them just making their own mistakes. Drop shot, get every ball and hope they get mad and hit a lot of balls into the net. I didn’t hit a lot of winners.” The one time it actually worked, Robinson won in straight sets.
Speaking of long-shot campaigns, the Bulldogs are off to New Orleans and the SEC tournament this week.
They need to do something heroic there, along the lines of 2008’s tornado-interrupted conference tourney championship, to make their season meaningful. The Bulldogs, 13-15, 4-10 in the conference , certainly don’t have the regular-season resume for a return to the NCAA tournament.
The premature loss of players who led the Bulldogs to March Madness last season — Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, both to the Los Angeles Clippers — deeply affected Robinson and the rest of the team.
Suddenly the Tennessee State transfer was the leading returning scorer. He and fellow guard Dustin Ware would be the obvious foremen on a reconstruction project.
The son of a former Division III sprint All-American, Robinson comes by his most distinctive characteristic naturally. He plays at 100 mph, moving the ball up the court at a varnish-scorching pace.
“This God-given speed that I have is kind of a gift and a curse. I can move faster than I can think sometimes,” Robinson said.
Early in the season, as his team was adapting to its new configuration, Fox assumed the role of a human restrictor plate. He had Robinson come off the bench for a handful of early games until his guard was able to use his speed for good.
“I think Gerald felt the pressure: ‘OK, we’ve just lost all this scoring so I’ve got to create it all, whether for myself or other people,’” Fox said. “I thought he started the year putting way too much pressure on himself, sometimes playing too fast. We had to kind of harness him, tell him he has to pick and choose his spots when to use that speed. Like the roadrunner, you got to pick and choose your spots.”
Last, best option
His guy got the message. Highlights are few this Bulldogs season, but where they did appear, Robinson often was in the middle of them.
Georgia beat two ranked teams in February. Against then-No. 20 Mississippi State, Robinson hit the tying basket with 27 seconds left and reserved 10 of his 13 points for the last six minutes of an overtime victory. Against No. 12 Florida, he had nearly as many assists (seven) as the entire Gator roster (eight).
The Bulldogs beat Tennessee in overtime after Robinson’s drive tied the game with 11 seconds left in regulation. His penchant for controlling the ball at the close of tight games hasn’t always ended well — South Carolina blocked his last-gasp shot to preserve a one-point victory — but that is an acceptable risk when you are the last, best option.
“Take the big shot. You’ve got to be confident enough to think you can succeed coming down the stretch when everyone else’s heart might be ticking a little bit differently.” That, said Robinson Sr., was a fundamental lesson taught Gerald by both his father and his uncle, Allen, a onetime minor league baseball player.
It is unclear who Fox will miss more at the end of this season — Gerald, the driven player who already had a speech communication degree in his pocket before his senior season, or Gerald Sr., “maybe the best dad of all time,” according to the Bulldogs coach.
On the day three years ago the young Robinson moved from his hometown of Nashville to Athens, having taken a large leap of faith in transferring to a school with a new coach and a lukewarm basketball tradition, Fox got a call from his first recruit’s father. Before going back to Tennessee, the elder Robinson wanted to stop by the coach’s office. Oh, oh, Fox thought, something must be wrong. You deal with fussbudget parents, that becomes the reflex response.
But this was going to be just one coach talking to another.
Robinson Sr. distilled their conversation to this: “If he does something wrong, knock him on his butt and call me. I’ll help pick him up.”
Robinson has given neither his father nor his coach much reason to take the butt-kicking tact. The kid obviously respects his elders — he wears the No. 22 because that is the date of his father’s birthday.
And he knows his limits. Like with the tattoos that decorate both his arms, there are guiding rules that must be followed. His father grudgingly caved to the idea of ink on two conditions: The designs had to reflect faith and family (they do) and they could not extend below the elbow where they’d be visible when he wore a sleeved shirt (they don’t).
Robinson’s tenure at Georgia has been a sampler platter of experience. He dutifully sat out his first year as a transfer, then made an immediate impact on the NCAA tournament team of 2010-11 that won 21 games. “People ask how we got from Year One [14-17 in the coach’s first season] to the tournament in Year Two,” Fox said. “Really, all the pieces were the same except one: That’s [Robinson]. He really brought an element to our team that made the difference for us.”
This season has been largely an ordeal, a decided step back from the promise of the year before. What’s left of it amounts to a salvage operation.
On the whole, Robinson judges his time at Georgia worthwhile. “This season has been kind of disappointing sometimes. But there is no promise that you’re going to make the NCAA tournament, and I’m actually grateful I got to make it once,” he said.
His coach is going to remember a player who did everything asked, to the point that left Fox wondering if he wasn’t asking too much. “In effect, we told him, ‘You have to guard the best player. We need you to score more. We need you to run the team with all this inexperience around you, stay out of foul trouble and not show frustration with the inexperience around you.”
The ripple effects of Robinson’s time at Georgia may be felt for seasons to come because of the influence he has had on the Bulldogs’ promising freshman guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. “He taught me to always compete on the floor, just play hard every game,” Caldwell-Pope said.
As for the immediate future, Robinson holds the familiar dream of playing for pay somewhere — “I don’t plan on sitting at a desk anytime soon,” he said.
He has a speedster’s chance. “I think he has NBA quickness, no question about that,” Fox said. “If you don’t measure up physically, you have no chance. He measures up physically.”
There is no chance, however, that he will be asked to pitch in for Georgia’s fourth-ranked tennis team before he departs.
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