ESPN The Magazine’s College Hoops Tip-Off issue hits mailboxes Wednesday and then newsstands on Friday.
ESPN’s Tom Friend has profiled Thomas Robinson, a Kansas junior forward who played last season burdened by the recent deaths of his mother Lisa and his grandparents. Robinson is considered a Top 10 NBA draft prospect by ESPN Insider Chad Ford.
Friend tells Front Row how he approached profiling Robinson both for this issue of ESPN The Magazine and for a television feature to be unveiled on College GameDay
on Feb. 4 Jan. 21, 2012.
Said Friend: “It was no secret what Thomas Robinson went through last January. Everyone heard how he lost his grandparents and his mother in the span of four weeks, and, because Kansas is on television a lot, his story was spread far and wide. His first game after his mother’s funeral, against Kansas State, was the night everyone fell for him.
“Not that long before, he’d buried his mother, and then he returned to Allen Fieldhouse and lit up K-State. He did a post-game interview with Erin Andrews, and the whole college basketball world fell in love with the kid. It was a no-brainer to pursue it for TV and print; you just had to be patient. Whenever Thomas was ready, I was going to be ready.”
FR: What obstacles did you face in telling his story?
Friend: The only obstacle was time. Time to let Thomas heal a bit; time to let his life get back to normal a little bit. I wasn’t in a rush. I reached out to Chris Theisen of the Kansas sports information department back in February to let him know we wanted to tell Thomas’ story. Chris mentioned that it was probably too soon for Thomas to share his inner-most feelings, and that perhaps we should wait for the following summer or fall. I agreed. This wasn’t about some scoop. I wanted Thomas to feel comfortable, so he’d let me into his world.
FR: How open was Robinson to telling such a personal, heart-wrenching story?
Friend: I wasn’t sure what to expect. I hadn’t met Thomas until the day I interviewed him. I was told he was a quiet kid, but the minute I met him, we seemed to connect. We’re both Washington, D.C. natives. We talked hoops at first. And then, when we sat down for the interview, I could tell how he lit up when I mentioned his mom. He loves her, and it was clear he wanted to celebrate her. The same thing with his little sister, Jayla. Any time I mentioned her name, he would thaw a little bit more. He cares so much for his sister, and he just opened up more and more. There were some difficult moments for him, like when he discussed hearing the news that his mom had passed away. It still made him shake his head in absolute dismay, all this time later. He’ll never get over it. That’s obvious. Nor should he.
FR: Every story has an angle that can’t be explored fully because of time and sometimes space. Is there an angle in Robinson’s story you wish you had a few more pages to explore?
Friend: There’s always something that’s left on the cutting room floor, but, in this case, I never could get into the special relationship that Thomas has with Kansas director of basketball operations, Barry Hinson. At the time Thomas’ mom died, Thomas was probably closest to assistant coach Joe Dooley, who had recruited him out of D.C. But Dooley couldn’t go back to D.C. right away with Thomas after Lisa Robinson passed, and Barry Hinson volunteered to travel back with him to take care of the funeral arrangements, etc. Even though Hinson and Thomas weren’t tremendously close at the time, head Coach Bill Self knew it was a great fit. Hinson is a people person, the warmest of men. And he has a wit that Thomas and Thomas’ family needed at that time. Not that it was easy for Barry. After watching Thomas pick out his mother’s casket and pick out the outfit his mother would be buried in, Barry would go back to his room in tears, just out of pure heartache for Thomas. But he never showed that to Thomas. He was a rock for the kid. And now they are as close as any player and coach could be.
FR: Besides writing the story for the magazine, you’re putting together a television version. What are the challenges you face working in both media while telling essentially the same story?
Friend: I originally pitched the Thomas Robinson story as a TV piece, way back last February, and the coordinating producer of the ESPNU Features Unit, Victor Vitarelli, was on board from the get-go. So when Thomas and Kansas green-lit the piece, I knew it would be a TV story for College GameDay, and that I would eventually be crafting something for print. That’s always an interesting dance. I’m not always sure what’s better creatively: to write the TV script first or the print story first. In this case, because ESPN The Magazine wanted the piece for its College Basketball issue, I had no choice but to start out writing the long-form print story. The reporting is different in some ways because you’re looking for anecdotes and detail and nuance in print pieces, and, although you want the same things for TV, the on-camera interviews become your make-or-break — as well as the emotions of the interview subject. I can never replicate someone’s honest, heartfelt words in a print story. No writer can. When you see someone open up their soul, which Thomas did in our TV interview, that’s too powerful for words. So although the pieces may be similar in content, the TV story can go the extra mile visually, whereas the print story can go further with detail. That’s why it’s a pretty good marriage between the two.
FR: Who does Robinson remind you of as a player? As a profile subject?
Friend: As a player — and this was [Kansas University teammates] Marcus and Markieff Morris who put this in my head — he’s potentially an Amare Stoudemire. He is long, athletic and merciless around the basket. He’s built like a Greek God, to quote Barry Hinson. He has long arms, broad shoulders and will dunk at all cost. He’s working on his shot, but it’s coming. His upside is so huge; that’s why the NBA scouts are salivating. He out-played Sullinger over the summer, and, of course, the other thing he has in his favor is that he’s motivated – to take care of his little sister. As a profile subject, in some ways, he reminds me of Juan Dixon, who I wrote about years ago when he was at Maryland. Juan lost both his parents to AIDS and was supported by a big brother who was a policeman. But, either way, there was a lot of loss involved in their lives, and it spurred them on to greatness.