At an age when many of his contemporaries are pushing up daisies,
Will Robinson is still beating the bushes. "Indianapolis, Toledo,
East Lansing," the spry 90-year-old says with a chuckle, listing
his next scouting itinerary for the Detroit Pistons. "Looks like
it's going to be a light week."
Hopscotching the country in search of college talent might leave
another nonagenarian lost in space, but not Will Robinson. Every
few days he packs his bags and heads to the airport in search of
the next Joe Dumars or Dennis Rodman, players he helped discover
as the right-hand man of Jack McCloskey, Detroit's general
manager in the 1980s. Usually Robinson coordinates his schedule
with 75-year-old New York Knicks scout Dick McGuire, a longtime
friend who chauffeurs him around and helps look after him on the
road. Fellow bird dogs call them Salt and Pepper.
The gregarious Robinson, whose official title is assistant to
the president of basketball operations, has been a Pistons scout
for 26 years. Before that he was the coach at Illinois State
from 1970 to '75, the first African-American coach at an NCAA
Division I college. "It was hard just to schedule games,"
Robinson says, recalling the racism he encountered as a black
coach at a lesser-known school. "I played anywhere I could. And
the refs would cheat a lot. I remember we had a basket waved off
for a three-second violation--on a fast break!"
Robinson led Illinois State to five straight winning seasons and
helped develop Doug Collins into the school's first All-America
and the NBA's No. 1 draft choice in 1973. Collins, the coach of
the Washington Wizards, still calls Robinson "one of the most
influential people in my life."
Before breaking down color barriers, Robinson was a high school
coaching legend in Detroit. In 33 years at Miller, Cass Tech and
Pershing, his teams won 85% of their games and two state titles.
Five players from the 1967 Pershing state championship team went
on to play pro sports: Spencer Haywood and Ralph Simpson (NBA),
Glenn Doughty and Paul Seal (NFL), and Marvin Lane (major league
Despite such success, Robinson's skin color prevented him from
getting offers to coach big-time college teams. In 1969, he says,
he was promised the University of Detroit job, largely because he
had delivered the Titans' Haywood, whose legal guardian he had
become, but school officials reneged at the last minute. Robinson
calls this his biggest disappointment.
Haywood left Detroit the next season and signed with the ABA's
Denver Rockets. The NBA didn't allow underclassmen to turn pro,
so Robinson and Haywood filed a lawsuit challenging the rule. A
federal court ruled in their favor; the Spencer Haywood decision,
forcing the NBA to accept "hardship" cases, was a milestone in
"Will Robinson was always about more than X's and O's," says
Haywood, who went on to a 12-year NBA career and is now a
successful businessman in the Detroit area. "He taught us about
life. He stressed education, and he made sure we did the right
thing at all times. He was more like a father than a coach." For
Haywood that could be bad (as when Robinson made him take ballet
lessons in high school to improve his footwork) and good (as when
Robinson hopped a plane to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City to
soothe Haywood's nerves before the biggest games of his life).
Robinson also taught his players not to let bitterness over
society's prejudice blind their judgment. At the '68 Games, when
racial tensions erupted on the U.S. team over the display of
black-gloved fists by John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Robinson
counseled black athletes to put aside their anger for another
time. "I told them they were representing a country, not a race,"
he says. "Though I agreed with them on some points, it wasn't the
right time or place."
For Robinson, whose own son, William Jr., is a coordinator of
equal opportunity programs at Wayne State in Detroit, it has
always been about doing the right thing. Though he has sent 16
players to the pro ranks, he says he's most proud of the more
than 300 players who have graduated from college, many of them
now doctors and lawyers.
As for his current work, Robinson says he has no plans to take up
golf full time. (He regularly shoots his age.) He has survived
battles with prostate cancer and a benign brain tumor and says he
still feels up to the task of scouting. "I don't see any reason
to [retire]," he says. "I'm able to do it, and I still love the
game. So why should I stop?"
Besides, what would Salt do without Pepper?
COLOR PHOTO: JON MURESAN
Every few days he packs and heads to the airport in search of the
next Dumars or Rodman.