all photos: jamd.com
From the early ’90s through the middle of the new millenium, his bark and bite were equally loud and vicious. For those whose memories reside in recent history, they might only remember Glenn Allen Robinson as a role player from San Antonio’s 2005 NBA championship team.
But for those of us who saw him as a youngster on the come up, he’ll always be fondly remembered as the “Big Dog”, one of the greatest and most dominant players the college game has ever seen. A tenacious rebounder and deadly shooter, he singlehandedly altered the hoops and financial landscape as one of the most complete and unstoppable forces in the illustrious history of the NCAA.
Big Dog was born and raised in Gary, Indiana, a grim urban landscape in the northwest corner of the Hoosier state. The city, founded by the U.S. Steel Corporation in 1906, was once a thriving manufacturing base where blue collar jobs were plentiful. But in the 1960’s, the steel industry went through a downward spiral that took Gary, and its residents, along for the ride. With the onset of massive layoffs, illegality, poverty and the narcotics trade began to flourish.
Sitting 25 miles outside of downtown Chicago, Gary is now a half-abandoned urban wasteland burdened with depressing crime and unemployment rates that are nearly twice the national average. The city routinely has one of the country’s highest per capita homicide rates.
Trust me, (with all due respect to the fine folks that are trying to make it there), I’ve been there. Gary, Indiana makes Milli Vanilli look like Wu Tang – in other words, it makes the worst ghetto you’ve ever been to look like Beverly Hills!
Robinson grew up near the city’s central thoroughfare, 25th Avenue, which is known in local parlance as the “Two-Five”. His mother, Christine Bridgeman, was a single teenager who raised her young son in the eye of the raging storm that was Gary, Indiana in the ’70s and ’80s. And though his mother was young and poor, she was determined to steer her son along the right path.
He was a shy child who – in no way, shape or form – gave any hint to his future stardom during his first forays on the basketball court.
“I had two little fat managers, a pair of twins, who used to outplay him when he was in the fourth or fifthe grade,” his high school coach Ron Heflin once told Sports Illustrated’s Bruce Newman. “He wasn’t very good. People don’t understand how hard that kid worked. He hasn’t always been a polished player.”
Glenn’s hoops confidence was so low that he refused to go out for the 7th grade team. But the small house he shared with his mother was only a long jumper away from the asphalt courts outside of Roosevelt High School, and he spent many hours there working on his game.
The first player he admired from afar was Duke’s incredible guard Johnny Dawkins.
Glenn played JV ball as a freshman at Roosevelt High School and although he made the varsity as a sophomore, he was still, very much, a work in progress. What stood out initially during those varsity tryouts was his desire, more than anything else.
“One day we were going through workout drills at practice,” Heflin said in the book Hoosiers:The Fabulous Basketball Life of Indiana by Phillip House. “We call ‘em suicides. I ran them for about forty minutes straight. The rest of the kids were grabbing their stomachs and complaining but he didn’t bend over and he didn’t say nuthin’. I got interested. I said to myself ‘I’m gonna see what it takes to break this guy.’ I couldn’t do it. He always came right back to the starting line. That night I went home and told my wife, ‘I got a special kid here.’”
To earn money, Glenn carried tools and did clean-up work at an air-conditioning/refrigeration shop after-school and on the weekends. When his grades slipped midway through that sophomore season, his mother marched him into the coach’s office.
“She said, ‘Coach Heflin, if his grades drop any more’ – she put her finger up in Glenn’s face – ‘you won’t be playing basketball any more. Do you understand me Glenn Allen?‘ Here’s this guy towering over his mom and he just says ‘yeah.’ Total control. You don’t want to cross Christine. I still tease him about it,” Heflin said in Hoosiers.
peep robinson give greg ostertag and kansas some big dog business
Around this time, he was taken by the overall skill set of a certain Chicago Bull.
“Well, growing up in Gary, we get all the Chicago games, so I used to want to play like Scottie Pippen, becuase we were about the same size,” Robinson told insidehoops.com. “I played center in high school, so I said, ‘I can’t play center in the NBA, I have to be able to dribble the ball and do some more stuff and kinda be an all around player,’ so that’s why I looked at Scottie Pippen’s game.”
Robinson had a decent sophomore year, but it was over the summer where all of the playground hours and instruction from mentors like Heflin that everything began to coalesce. At a summer camp at Purdue, he struck up a close relationship with Gene Keady’s assistant coach Frank Kendrick. The two would play one-on-one in the morning before formal camp activities got underway. Kendrick, who played pro ball overseas, was a former All-American for Purdue.
“We’d play and I’d beat him and the counselors would be whistling that it was time to move on to another station and he’d say, ‘No, no wait, we gotta play again,” said Kendrick in Hoosiers.
By his junior year, Robinson became a hot commodity on the recruiting trail. He blossomed into an explosive scorer who could rebound, with an incredible discipline and versatility to his game. He would lull opponenets to sleep one minute, while jogging down court, his face expressionless. Then, in an instant, he’d explode, doing things that folks around the state had never seen. And we’re talking about the state of Indiana here folks, where basketball rules!
In a game against Chicago’s East Roosevelt High School, one of Robinson’s teammates threw an alley-oop pass that was so high, everyone in the gym assumed it was a turnover. His own guards sprinted back to get on defense.
“Glenn leaped and caught the ball at the top of the square above the rim and jammed it down over East Roosevelt’s Judah Parks,” said teammate Rickie Wedlow in Hoosiers. “We were just shocked.”
At this point, all of the big time schools were salivating. Throughout his junior year, coaches from Indiana, Louisville, Georgetown and countless others courted him. But right before tip off, Kendrick would walk into the gym and wink at Robinson, who would wink right back. While Glenn viewed all of the other coaches as salesman, he looked at Kendrick as a friend who he still hadn’t beaten in a game of one-on-one yet. And just like that, Purdue signed it’s biggest and greatest recruit ever.
By his senior year, it was a wrap. The man-child could not be stopped. In the state tourney, with every defense geared to slow him up, he still layed waste to mere mortals. He knocked down the winning shot in the regionals and the semi-finals.
“Everybody in the gym knew where the ball was going both times,” Heflin said in Hoosiers. “It didn’t matter. Nobody had a chance.”
Robinson was named the state’s Mr. Basketball after leading Roosevelt to the 1991 State Championship while averaging 26 points, 15 boards and 4 blocks per game. In his three years of high school ball, the school won 73 games. In the recruiting class of ‘91, with guys like Cory Alexander, Travis Best, Alan Henderson, Donyell Marshall and the entire Fab Five, Robinson was easily amongst the biggest fish in the pond.
After sitting out his freshman season at Purdue due to Prop 48 restrictions based on his low S.A.T. scores, he took his game to another level going up against the best of the best in Chicago’s Malcolm X summer league.
“I played with guys like (NBA players) Tim Hardaway and Kevin Duckworth (R.I.P.),” Robinson told Sports Illustrated. “There’s no fooling anybody out there. You find out quickly if you can play.”
And evidently, the young fella had game to hang with the big boys. Before his first game at Purdue, a school custodian nicknamed him the “Big Dog” when he observed him manhandling his teammates in pick-up runs at Mackey Arena.
In his first college season, he exploded out the gates, leading the Big Ten in scoring with 26 points per game. Robinson also added 9 rebounds and 2 steals to his daily take. Against Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, his complete repertoire had pro scouts scribbling voraciously in their notepads.
“He singlehandedly ruined everything Indiana was trying to do in that game,” Celtics scout Jon Jennings told SI’s Bruce Newman. “He destroyed them inside, and then took them outside and shot threes. Versatility is the key to his game.”
peep robinson giving Michigan the big dog business as his 37th point closes out a tough big 10 battle
As a senior in March of ‘94, Newman wrote that the Big Dog “…may well be the most complete NCAA Player of the Year (a title he will not officially win until later this month) since 1979, when another Indiana phenom named Larry Bird won the award. Like Bird, Robinson has taken a nondescript bunch of teammates and elevated them beyond their wildest dreams, except that Robinson has done it playing in what may be the toughest conference in the country.”
And indeed, the Big Ten – with the likes of Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard at Michigan, Shawn Respert at Michigan State, Alan Henderson and Damon Bailey at Indiana – had it going on.
The Big Dog dropped 40 on Ohio State, 39 against Indiana, and 49 against Illinois, en route to leading the Big Ten in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 30 and 11, respectively. He led the Boilermakers to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and scorched the Kansas Jayhawks with 44 points in the Sweet 16.
He was the Big Ten Player of the Year, a consensus All-American and became the first Purdue player to win the John Wooden Award since the great Wooden himself was named national player of the year in 1932.
“Glenn is a man playing among boys out there,” said former Maryland and James Madison coach Lefty Driesell. “”He plays at another level and is totally dominant.”
“Robinson plays a very simple game,” the great Jerry West told the L.A. Times. “He just plays basketball the old fashioned way.”
In ‘94, the Big Dog was the first pick in the NBA draft and sent shockwaves through the league’s rookie salary structure and financial landscape when he asked for a $100 million dollar contract. He eventually settled for an unprecedented 10 year, $68 million deal – still the richest rookie contract ever. The next year, a salary scale was introduced for the league’s incoming players.
And unfortunately, the dollar amount seemed to take away from what he did on the court. For some reason, his effort was never given the full props he deserved. He averaged 22 ppg as a rookie and – teaming with Vin Baker, who had serious game back then – made the Milwaukee Bucks legit. In 2001, he formed like Voltron with Ray Allen and Sam Cassell, leading the Bucks to the Eastern Conference Finals.
peep the full arsenal on display as the big dog goes up against his royal airness
The Big Dog sits behind only the remarkable Kareem Abdul Jabbar as the second leading scorer in Bucks history. Before winning a ring with San Antonio during his last season in 2005, he still put up numbers during his brief, one-year stays in Philadelphia and Atlanta. Over his 11 year pro career, Robinson -an undersized power forward at 6′7″, averaged 21 points and six rebounds. That’s far above decent in my book.
For some reason, the Big Dog was unappreciated. But not here, NO SIR! Don’t sleep. The man was relevant, real deal Holyfield. When Carmelo Anthony went off in the ‘03 NCAA’s, I told anyone who would listen, “That’s the second coming of the Big Dog right there!”
The great Magic Johnson once called him one of the finest young players he’d ever seen!
Turn around jumpers, coming off screens, the beautiful booty game on the low post, boards, running the baseline, the medium range game, three’s, running the floor or one and two dribble drives to the iron, the Big Dog was a conundrum for any defense.
And it was the playgrounds of Gary, Indiana that fed a little puppy, providing the nourishment that would one day fuel the growth of the man that would become the Big Dog.
THE PLAYGROUND IS NOT THE PROBLEM. IT IS THE SOLUTION!