Will Robinson never liked the barriers that were placed around him during his life. Living the last months of his life in a nursing home, he would give the staff fits by constantly leaving his room alone in his wheelchair. Robinson also didn’t like the ba
A true pioneer in the game of basketball, Robinson died last week at the age of 96. Funeral services and a memorial service were held for him Saturday in Detroit. A native of Wadsboro, N.C., Robinson grew up in Steubenville, Ohio.
It was in that Ohio town where he broke his first barrier. Playing on the Steubenville high school golf team, he led the team to the Ohio state high school championship, despite not being able to play on the course at the same time as the white golfers.
A 1937 graduate of West Virginia State University, Robinson moved to Detroit and, after coaching several YMCA teams, became the first African American coach in the history of the Motown public school system. Robinson’s teams dominated the prep scene in Detroit during his term as a basketball coach. He led Miller high school to four city titles in 10 years, and after three years at Cass Tech high school, built a national powerhouse at Pershing High School.
His Pershing teams featured future professional basketball stars Ralph Simpson and Spencer Haywood along with future NFL standout Glen Doughty. “He taught me to be a man, not just a basketball player,” Haywood said. After serving 26 years in the Detroit school system, Robinson was named head coach at Illinois State in 1970. His first recruit to the Redbirds was a skinny white kid named Doug Collins, who went on to become the greatest basketball player in the school’s history.
Collins was also the first pick in the 1973 NBA Draft and went on to coach several NBA teams, including the Bulls. After five years at ISU, where his teams never had a losing season, Robinson joined the Detroit Pistons as director of player personnel. He is credited with helping to build the Piston NBA championship teams of 1989 and 1990 by finding Dennis Rodman and Joe Dumars. Basketball wasn’t Robinson’s only game.
He had a knowledge of football and became the first Black scout in NFLL history with the Detroit Lions. He is credited with discovering NFL Hall of Famer Lem Barney from Jackson State University. “Will Robinson was truly one of the great legends in life,” Dumars, who is now the Pistons director of basketball operations, said.” Will was one of a kind. He inspired me and every other person he came in contact with.” “He was a civil rights pioneer,” said long time Pistons trainer Mike Abdenour.
“He didn’t let the color of his skin deter him from his dreams.” Robinson is survived by is wife of 41 years, Helen; a son, William Jr.; three grandchildren; and a greatgrandchild.
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