LAWRENCE — On Monday morning, Thomas Robinson waited upstairs in the Kansas athletics offices next to Allen Fieldhouse. He had been up all night, trying to scratch a few thoughts on paper or figure out the right words to say.
His little sister Jayla was in town. It was her ninth birthday. And now, Robinson had to walk downstairs with Jayla and face a room filled with reporters, friends and coaches. The right words had never come.
“I couldn’t get anything,” Robinson said.
For Robinson, most of Monday morning was mere formality. With Jayla and KU coach Bill Self flanking his left and right, Robinson announced the expected: He will forgo his senior season at Kansas and enter the NBA Draft.
In some ways, the decision was straightforward and easy. He was a unanimous All-American during his junior season, averaging 17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds per game while leading Kansas to the NCAA championship game. He was selected Big 12 player of the year, and he’s projected to be a top-10 pick in this summer’s draft, June 28 in Newark, N.J.
But in other ways, Robinson said, so much of this decision was tethered to the birthday girl sitting to his right. It had been nearly 15 months since Jayla had called her brother from Washington D.C. to let him know that their mother, Lisa Robinson, had died suddenly. Finally, Robinson was able to take the next step in what he says has been a personal mission.
“I gotta chance to take care of my family,” he said.
On Monday, Jayla leaned in close and smiled at all the attention on her big brother. When asked if there was anything specific he wanted to buy for Jayla, Robinson paused and stumbled on his words for just a second.
“Whatever it is she wants,” he said.
Robinson also lost both maternal grandparents within weeks during his sophomore season, and his personal story has been well-documented during the last year.
“When you really think about everything that this young man has been through going back about 16 months, 15 months,” Self said. “And think about the sacrifices he’s made, think about the long nights, the sleepless nights, all the things that are going on; to remain focused, to do well in school, and to represent our university in a way that almost brought us a national championship.
“It’s pretty amazing.”
So while family tragedy provided the backdrop for the last year, it was an on-court transformation that will allow Robinson to guarantee himself millions in the NBA. Robinson, a Washington D.C. native, arrived on campus in 2009 as a power forward from Brewster Academy (N.H.), a player that had just one college offer heading into the summer before his senior season.
During his first two years on campus, Robinson showed flashes of his intense drive and dominating physical prowess. But he was mostly buried on the bench behind future NBA first-round picks Cole Aldrich and Marcus and Markieff Morris. Robinson played just 7.2 minutes per game as a freshman before nearly doubling that in his sophomore campaign.
Still, Robinson’s physical gifts piqued the interest of NBA scouts, and some thought of Robinson as a potential first-round pick last season. Robinson says he wasn’t ready — physically or mentally.
“I would’ve got eaten alive,” he said.
One year later, he’s ready. And on Monday, player and coach appeared to be lockstep. Self said that if Robinson had decided to stay another year, he would have strongly advised against it. Robinson talked about feeling the pull of Lawrence — even as he made the financially sound decision.
“Walking around campus,” Robinson said of what he’d miss most about Lawrence. “Things like that. Just walking around and feeling that … it almost feels like everybody loves you. That’s a good feeling to have.”
Robinson will now begin the process of hiring an agent and prepping for the draft; Self said he hoped Robinson would find representation that would provide firm and strict guidance; similar to what he received in Lawrence.
“I think he just thrives on in that type of environment,” Self said.
Finally, after speaking for nearly 15 minutes, Robinson stood up and moved toward the door. He was leaving, and his sister was coming with him. He says he’d like to come back to Kansas eventually and finish his degree. Something his mother would have wanted, he said.
“I think it’s beyond words what this program meant to me,” Robinson said. “And how much support I felt coming from my situation, and even arriving on campus. Somehow, someway, everybody makes everybody feel special here.”
But now the next step includes succeeding in the NBA — “To be in the gym like I’ve never been in there before,” he says — and being there for Jayla. For the last 15 months, he’s been mostly in Lawrence while Jayla lived in the Washington D.C. area with her father, James Paris, whose sentence on a drug conviction ended last year. She was subject of a custody battle between her father and Thomas’ family last May, but both sides reached a voluntary agreement during this basketball season to allow Jayla to live with her dad.
But on Monday, brother and sister were together once again.
“Today is her birthday,” Robinson said. “She’s 9 years old. So she should be able to remember this one good.”