T.J. Robinson can vividly remember back to when he was just two years old, a toddler running around in a pair of red Reeboks, refusing to stop shooting baskets on the hoop at his uncle’s home during family cookouts.
“From then on, that was all I wanted to do,” he explained from the seats of an emptied out Walter Pyramid after a recent 79-43 win over BYU-Hawaii.
It would be difficult for anyone familiar with Robinson’s game to picture this scene. First of all, red Reeboks? Second, it’s hard to imagine the 6’8” power forward as a child. Robinson has a strong, chiseled face that emits little emotion on the court and speaks matter-of-factly about his game – “I just do what I do” – off of it. Though his laugh is quick and infectious, and he can hardly speak without bursting into an ear-to-ear smile, you would be forgiven for guessing that Robinson has seen a lot more than his 22 years.
But that just plays into his style on the court. The mantra following Robinson since his high school days is that he has an “Old man game.” What people mean to say is that he works hard, but quietly, not with overwhelming athleticism – though he certainly can throw it down – but with intelligence and positioning.
“My mom and dad were always on me to be the best player you can be and the best person you can be, and don’t show off,” he says.
Because he doesn’t scream, pound his chest or pretend to shoot himself in the leg after a big play, it’s easy to be lulled into thinking that Robinson has had a quiet game – only to look up and see that he grabbed 13 rebounds and scored 18 points on 8-9 shooting, as he did against Boise State earlier this season. It would be easy to think that Robinson has had a nice quiet career as a 49er, only to look into the record books and see that he is the school’s all-time leading rebounder, and ranks in the top ten in scoring, field goals made and free throws made.
“For some reason I can always get in the cracks and crevices and find ways to score,” he says. “It’s a little bit God-given talent and a lot of hard work.”
The senior spent the offseason flipping tires, pulling ropes and undergoing other intense workouts with a trainer back in Connecticut. He has been honored by the Big West in all three seasons and became one of just six players in the country to average a double-double in consecutive years. This season may be his best of all, as Robinson is averaging a career-high 11.6 boards and shooting 59.1% from the field, the best rate since his freshman year.
Coming from his roots in Bridgeport, Connecticut, it has taken Robinson a lot of hard work to make it to this point. He grew up surrounded by basketball players: Robinson’s uncle was a dominant scorer at Sacred Heart – “He used to school me” – and his younger sister won two high school State championships. His mother and father have 11 brothers and sisters, each, so family gatherings quickly turned into hard-fought driveway battles. Today, those tough but loving games have shaped the way he plays, unselfish with a quick release and strong defense.
But those qualities, while virtuous, don’t always attract the scouts’ eye. Robinson attended a prep school – where he teamed with current 49er Larry Anderson – to work on his game after high school and received attention from a few D-1 programs. But things felt different when Long Beach State assistant Rod Palmer approached him. Palmer had come to St. Thomas More Prep to recruit Anderson, but liked what he saw in Robinson as well, and told him that he could be part of a revolution on the West Coast. There were a lot of things that brought Robinson to Long Beach – among them, the Pyramid and the fact that “I wanted to be out in the sunshine with the pretty weather and pretty girls.” – but what most intrigued him was the idea of creating the next big mid-major.
“That was my main goal from the very beginning: to turn this into a big-time program,” Robinson says.
In the four seasons that Robinson has played for Long Beach State, the 49ers have recorded wins over major programs like Temple, UCLA, Iowa and Pittsburgh. They have played one of the toughest schedules in the nation for each of the last three seasons and emerged with a 55.7% winning rate. This year, they will face at least five Top 25 teams and are being touted as Cinderella candidates for a run into the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve just got to gel, we have a lot of chemistry,” he says. “When we put it together we can beat anybody in the country.”
It’s a tight-knit group – the team spends so much time together that they are not allowed to room with one another – with Robinson as the stone pillar on the court and the first to laugh off it. He wants to have the best season of his career, and give the fans the March Madness dance they have all been waiting for.
“[Long Beach] is like a second home to me now,” he says. “It’s a different environment coming to the games now. I love our fans, they’ve been with us from day one. It gets your heart pounding, adrenaline flowing. You just want to play.”
When he says that, smiling like a two-year-old, you can see it in his face.