Craig Robinson Talks Being the ‘Coach Next Door’ and Brother of the First Lady

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As President Barack Obama begins his second term, it’s a second term for his family too, with four more years in the political and media spotlight. That’s become par for the course for Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama, who have become objects of public fascination — for their clothes and hair, their shopping habits and vacations. But for the Robinsons, “first grandmother” Marian and Michelle Obama’s older brother Craig, the first term offered a welcome respite from the whirlwind, and a relatively normal life — relatively, given that their daughter and sister, respectively, is the first lady of the United States.

The Robinsons are, in many ways, the quintessential African-American family. Marian, though she lives in the White House, still does her own shopping, and takes the girls to school. Michelle has been known to head to Target to do her shopping, and on Inauguration Day, her outfit included a piece from J. Crew. It’s part of what has made Michelle Obama so popular, in mainstream as well as Black America — the sense that they are both extraordinary and everyday people.

Craig Robinson, who coaches the men’s basketball team at Oregon State University, told theGrio on the day before Inauguration Day that unlike the first inauguration, when he was just coming to grips with the reality of his younger sister being the nation’s First Lady, this year, the family plans to take a moment to savor the historic circumstances they find themselves in.

“The first time around, I didn’t know what to expect,” Robinson said. “I got caught up in the excitement of the inauguration and it went by so fast. I didn’t get a chance to really soak it in.”

“It’s one of these things where you continually pinch yourself, understanding that you are right on the middle of something so historic, something that means so much to these so many people.”

Robinson understands that in many ways, the African-American family living in the White House — with grandma keeping a watchful eye on the presidential daughters, and making sure the girls make their beds — are a living symbol for other black families.

“It’s almost like when you share an experience with someone you don’t know,” he said. “As if your favorite team goes to the Super Bowl or your favorite actor or actress wins an award and you feel like they represent you,” Robinson said. “It’s quite an honor to be in that position.”

If the Robinsons seem more like the family next door than a Super Bowl team or Hollywood stars, it’s because Robinson says that’s what they are

“I do feel that way and I know my sister, my mom — we all feel that way sometimes, and it’s really due to how warm people make us feel when we were just walking around,” he said. “We are the folks next door. We just happen to be in to this magnificent position.”

Robinson, who in addition to coaching is also a successful author, having written A Game of Character, in part about his family’s experience, in 2010, says he doesn’t mind being known as “Michelle’s big brother.”

“I mean you walk around, and people say, ‘you’re Michelle’s brother!'” he said. “And sometimes they get very emotional and 75 percent of the time you’re greeted with a hug and they say, ‘please tell your family they’re doing a great job and that we love them.’ It’s a humbling experience for me as her brother, to grow up with your little sister, being your little sister and then she turns into one of the most popular women, probably in the entire world, people feel so positive about her. It really makes you proud.”

As for brotherly advice, Robinson said that back in 2008, he didn’t have to give Michelle any.

“She’s always been very good at anything she wanted to be good at,” he said. “And the only real advice I gave her was just to be herself and people will love her. Michelle is succeeding just by doing what she does everyday. She’s family oriented. She is so smart. She’s so good at engaging folks. She doesn’t need my advice.”

“The other thing I would applaud is how well she has raised my nieces in what can be a tough situation. They’re so grounded. They’re such wonderful girls, and I know I feel like I’m gushing but I couldn’t be any more proud.”

Robinson said he’s excited to see what the next four years will bring for the first couple in the next four years. He has his hands full with his coaching duties, where he says he has his hands full.

“I’m responsible for 15 or 16 young men, and I’m always putting my time towards that,” he said.

Robinson calls his book a “love letter” to his parents, which gives people ” a feel for how Michelle and I were raised.” But his public profile will largely stop there. “If they ever need my help, I’m happy to help,” he said of his brother-in-law and sister, “but if not, I’m happy to just stand on the background and be supportive.”

In the meantime, Robinson took a moment to reflect on the things that have most stood out for him in his family’s singular journey over the last four years.

“The strangest thing was working on this terrific campaign and being so wrapped in it and then you win, and you go to the inauguration and you’re a part of this whole thing, and the next thing you know your sister and brother-in-law are walking in to the White House. I mean, that doesn’t happen to two kids from the south side of Chicago.”

“I had never been to the White House before until my sister moved in,” he said.

Among the best things: the White House itself. “You know, this place is like a museum and each time I go I see something I didn’t see before. You see a copy of the Gettysburg Address when you stay in the Lincoln Bedroom and you look at the photos of all the past presidents. You meet the people, the staff, who are here for all the different presidents’ terms.”

There have also been moments that were not so nice — the sometimes cruel things said about the president and First Lady, on cable television, and on the Internet, and even attacks on his nieces.

Robinson said his family has known since his days as a basketball player and coach not to take it personally when people said bad things about one of their own.

“I used to tell them, listen: I know what I’m doing. I’m doing what’s best for these kids that I’m coaching. I love my job. I got this. Don’t worry about what people say,” he said. But once the Obamas got into office in 2008, “I had to use my own advice and kind of listen to Michelle and Barack telling me they know what they’re doing. They don’t listen to what these folks are saying. They’re trying to do what’s best for the most people and they don’t listen to what these folks are saying. If you just go by that, you can handle some of these negative types of hyperbolic stuff.”

“Also, my mom did a good job raising us with a lot of self-esteem, and to know you know when you’re doing the right thing. It really doesn’t matter what other people would say.”

One thing people often say — or rather ask — that Robinson is less forthcoming on is the question of whether his basketball skills outweigh those of his powerful brother-in-law.

“Well, you know, we’ve never played one-on-one because the first thing is, you know I played professionally and Barack is pretty much pick-up player,” Robinson said. “And he’s always wise enough to put me on his team.”

And is that a subtle, brotherly way of saying he’d win?

“Bingo,” Robinson said, laughing, and proving that brotherly trash talking on the court can even survive the Oval Office.

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