Tulsa, Okla. — The first of the many tattoos to decorate Thomas Robinson’s right arm was drawn when he was about 16. It reads: “R.I.P. Ali 1991-2007.”
“He was one of my closest cousins,” Robinson said from his chair in the Kansas University locker room inside the BOK Center. “He got shot in the chest.”
We’ll never know if he could have become another Washington, D.C., basketball player to work his way into the NCAA Tournament.
“At the time, he was better than me,” Robinson said. “He could shoot the lights out of the gym.”
Robinson pulled up his shirt sleeve to expose his favorite tattoo, located on his massive right biceps: “Success is Nothing Without Failure.”
Still smarting from an earlier-than-anticipated exit from last season’s NCAA Tournament, when another Ali who could shoot the lights out of the gym shot the Jayhawks out of the tourney in Oklahoma City, Robinson had his arm inked with that message last summer.
“You got to know what it feels like to lose before you can win,” he said.
And what does it feel like to lose in mid-March?
“You don’t get another chance at it, and it hurts, especially when you know you’re supposed to be there,” Robinson said. “We worked hard for it all year. We played hard for it. To get here and lose would be a crushing feeling.”
A familiar feeling.
“We’re thinking about how we felt way back then, how we felt the last minute when we knew the game was over,” he said. “We’re going back and reading the articles saying how we were projected to win it. We’ve been using it as motivation all year. Now we’re here, so it’s still there.”
The freshness of that feeling for every returning player increases the chances that Kansas won’t experience another early exit, but it’s not the only thing that gives this team as upset-proof a feeling as any in the tournament.
As KU coach Bill Self told the team as he pointed to one player after another, saying, “We’ve won without you,” in the locker room before the Big 12 title game, this is not a team that leaves any one player feeling as if he needs to be the guy who leads the rescue every time.
Last season, Sherron Collins played as if he felt he needed to do that, and he did it so well Kansas took a 32-2 record into the tournament, the same record it brings into tonight’s first game, against Boston University.
On a night Baylor invaded Allen Fieldhouse playing out of its mind, Collins didn’t let his team lose. On the road in Manhattan, Collins led his team to an overtime victory. Baylor and Kansas State advanced to the Elite Eight.
For all the right reasons, Collins put too much on his big Chicago shoulders. On a rare off night, he made just five of 16 shots and committed five turnovers against Northern Iowa.
“I never could guess what he was thinking inside his head, but, I mean, Sherron bailed us out so many times,” Robinson said. “He was like Superman. It got to the point where we started to think we never had to worry because we had Sherron. I don’t know if he took too heavy a responsibility with that, but I know ourselves, in our minds, we felt like we never could lose with him, and we barely did. He was a great player.”
Marcus and Markieff Morris are great college basketball players as well, but there are two of them. They never have to feel as if they’re on their own. That alone makes Kansas twice as upset-proof as a year ago.
“I felt like nobody could beat us last year, even when we played bad,” Robinson said. “I just felt like nobody could beat us. That’s the attitude we had coming into the tournament. Coming into this year’s tournament, that whole thought that we can’t be beat is out the window. We know that anybody’s capable of being beat.”
Looking back, what does he think of the “nobody could beat us,” attitude of a year ago?
“From my experience, I think it’s a horrible attitude to bring this time of year,” he said. “I mean, you want to go out with confidence, but not when you overlook anybody and think you can’t be beat.”
Still, there is more to it than that in terms of KU having what it takes to avoid an early upset, and some of it has to do with how well Robinson and his best friends have dealt with his multiple personal tragedies. In less than a month, he lost his grandmother, grandfather and mother.
Robinson revealed that indirectly when asked to name the biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s.
“We’re missing X (Xavier Henry), Sherron, Cole (Aldrich). Players stepped up to a tremendous level, starters and bench players,” Robinson said. “I would say the biggest difference is we’re a lot closer.”
He stopped himself, realizing that might be construed as him saying last year’s team wasn’t close. He didn’t mean that. Adversity brings close people closer together, as any family that’s experienced tragedy can attest.
“Not a lot closer,” he corrected himself. “But it goes beyond where we were with how close we are, especially with all we dealt with this year. It’s definitely helped us.”
Robinson is close with all his teammates, particularly Marcus and Markieff Morris. They all have felt his pain and contributed to soothing it.
“They were the main reason I got through it,” Robinson said of teammates.
He added, “she’s always with me,” of his mother. And his sister, Jayla, 7 and living in Washington, D.C., is always just a phone call away.
“I talk to her pretty much every day,” he said. “She just tells me what she did during the day and how school’s going.”
He said they don’t talk much hoops.
“She doesn’t understand too much about it,” Robinson said, smiling. “She knows I have games and stuff like that. It means the world to have the support from her, even though she’s 7.”
Robinson’s the best rebounder Self has coached in eight seasons at Kansas, the school’s best since Nick Collison and Drew Gooden. To see how happy Robinson is, how much lust he has for life, is to realize he’s an even better rebounder in his personal life than on the basketball court.