Barry Hinson has a few gifts. He's funny, he's friendly and he's compassionate.
But when Hinson was assigned to accompany Thomas Robinson to Washington, D.C., last week for the funeral of Robinson's 43-year-old mother, Lisa, the Kansas director of basketball operations had no experiences to draw upon and none of those gifts seemed useful.
"I've dealt with the deaths of family members, but never anyone in my immediate family in all my years,'' Hinson said. "And never when a season was going on.''
Hinson, then, couldn't relate to what the 19-year-old Robinson was going through. But he was determined to help the player, who also recently lost a grandmother and a grandfather, get through a heart-wrenching time.
And as they were spending nearly every minute for five days together, a relationship grew. One that goes far deeper than a player-coach relationship. That was already there.
The impressionable big-city college basketball player and the bespectacled coach from a tiny town in Oklahoma now have a bond.
"Our relationship skyrocketed,'' Robinson said. "We were always close, but after that trip we became something unexplainable. It's so much more personal now. On that trip, I forgot Coach Hinson was my coach. He became more of a best friend.''
Imagine finding out your young, full-of-life mother had passed away. Imagine finding out late on the night before a big game against Texas. Imagine trying to make sense of all that and then going out on the court the next afternoon and playing against one of the best teams in the country.
But that's what Robinson tried to do. It didn't go particularly well; he played poorly against the Longhorns and Kansas' 69-game winning streak at Allen Fieldhouse was stopped in its tracks.
Robinson and Hinson left for Washington two days later, on Jan. 24. The funeral was on the 27th. In between, everything had to be planned. Angel Morris, the mother of Kansas juniors Marcus and Markieff Morris, was also on the trip.
She, Hinson and Robinson's older brother, Jamah, made the preparations, along with numerous aunts, uncles and Robinson's paternal grandmother.
But for a while, it appeared the funeral wouldn't happen as planned. A snow and ice storm knocked out electricity at the church and made streets difficult to navigate. But, Hinson said, people banded together and fixed what needed to be fixed.
"The church was packed,'' said Hinson, formerly the coach at Missouri State. "It shows how popular Lisa was and how much Thomas, Jayla (Robinson's seven-year-old sister) and Jamah were loved.''
Hinson's responsibilities on the trip were two-fold: To help do whatever needed to be done with funeral arrangements and loose ends and to help Robinson handle his emotions.
"There isn't a manual for any of this stuff,'' Hinson said.
When he could, he tried to lighten the mood. Hinson's southern drawl and easy-going manner are magnets for people. He loves barbecue and basketball, not necessarily in that order.
"What I knew about Thomas before this was that he was stubborn as a mule,'' Hinson said. "And that's an attribute for him. I don't say that in a negative way at all. Here's a young kid who is able to hold in emotions while we're picking out a casket, finding him an outfit, paying the utility bills and things like this. Bless his heart, there were times he looked at me and I read his body language and it's like, 'Coach, enough is enough.' But he knew it all had to be done.''
Hinson and Robinson stayed in adjoining hotel rooms in Washington, but one would always be sneaking into the other's room.
They were Washington's version of The Odd Couple, a 6-foot-9 black basketball player and a 5-7ish (that's being generous) pale coach.
"Wherever I went, people would walk in and look over and see me and wonder, 'Who is this guy?' " Hinson said. "'What is he doing here?'
"But wherever I was, my goal was to leave them laughing and loving me before I got out of there.''
Robinson's KU teammates and the rest of the Jayhawks coaching staff were at his mother's funeral. He and Hinson stayed in Washington an extra day before returning to Lawrence last Friday, a day before KU played Kansas State at Allen Fieldhouse.
Robinson entered that game to a resounding standing ovation. He was a beast, scoring 17 points and grabbing nine rebounds during a 90-66 KU rout.
At times, Hinson could barely watch. When Robinson waved to the crowd after coming out of the game with just a few minutes remaining, Hinson buried his head as close to his clipboard as he could.
"I'm bawling like a baby,'' he said. "You see what's going on out there and it's just so emotional. I'm like a proud father. I had my chest poked out so far.''
Hinson will probably have to make at least another trip to Washington to help with more of the details in the aftermath of Lisa's death. But what at first seemed like an assignment now feels like a calling.
His devotion isn't lost on Robinson, who has to maintain his focus on KU's basketball season for perhaps another couple of months.
"Coach Hinson always found a way to keep me smiling when I wasn't that happy,'' Robinson said. "He'd just find something that would make me smile.''
That was especially true as Hinson, a self-professed native of a "one-stoplight town," tried to navigate his way around Washington as Robinson was screaming directions.
As Hinson was leaving the funeral, Robinson's grandmother, Doris Boyd, pulled him aside. She had seen how good Hinson had been with her grandson, and wanted to tell him how appreciative she was.
"You'll be a part of our family the rest of your life,'' she whispered into Hinson's ear.
"No matter what happens to me or where I go, Coach Hinson is always going to be in my life,'' he said. "He was there with me every step of the way. He's so special to me. Everything happens for a reason and being with him was definitely a blessing.''