Net Gains

Ex-Geoduck Shares Love and Lessons of Basketball

By Carolyn Shea

The game of basketball, it’s been said, is a good metaphor for life: the ups and downs, the challenges and rebounds, the victories and losses. Jackie Robinson ’02 knows this better than most. 

Robinson, the head girl’s basketball coach at Olympia’s River Ridge High School, has been involved in the sport most of his life. 

Jackie Robinson

In his first year as head coach, Jackie Robinson led the River Ridge High School Hawks girls basketball team to a 17-8 record and regular season co-championship of the 2A Evergreen conference. 

Since “the minute I could pick up the ball,” he notes, which was at the age of 5 years old. Basketball was one of the few activities available to him during his childhood and he was good at it. “That’s all we could do in a small town,” says the former Geoduck, who grew up south of Mobile, Ala., in Grand Bay, population 3,400. 

But more than that, being on the court represented an escape for him. “The world stopped once I started playing,” he says. “That was my therapeutic activity. The problems were still there, but for the time being, they went away. I would shoot and play for hours and hours. Sometimes I’d be at it for eight to ten hours. The time would just fly by.”

Another big appeal was the “team building,” says Robinson, the father of two (who is not named after the legendary Major League Baseball player, but after his own father, who is). “For me personally, the togetherness and the connections were important.” 

In the 7th grade, Robinson started playing competitively, but he also started hanging out with a bad crowd. “I wasn’t the perfect kid,” he says.” Fortunately, he had a coach who cared enough about him to take the time and effort to counsel the teenager. “He told me how important I was and what I was capable of doing. He told me I was making poor choices and he basically stopped me in my tracks.”

As a result of that coach’s guidance and the guidance of other coaches he had the chance to play for over the ensuing years—as well as some caring uncles and his own propensity for self-examination and asking lots ofquestions—Robinson stayed on course and became the first member of his family to graduate from college. 

It wasn’t always a straight course: By the time he got to Evergreen, he had already “bounced around” a bit, having been to two other colleges, both in Mississippi. But he was figuring it out along the way. When he started school, he was set on majoring in sports management.  He wanted to be sports agent. He ended up also studying social work because of some of the earlier experiences he had had, including counseling young relatives and peers. “I’d been doing that since I was a kid with my cousins to get them to stay out of trouble and I mentored kids in high school,” he says. “It all started when my coach and my uncles reached out to me.”

At Evergreen, he worked for First Peoples Advising Services, helping students of color achieve their academic and personal goals. He also did an independent contract working with troubled youth in two of the state’s juvenile correction facilities: Green Hill School in Chehalis and Maple Lane School in Centralia.

“We’d read, talk about life experiences. I tried to be a positive role model and help out any way I could,” he says. “I was modeling what I saw as a youth and giving back.”

At the same time, the six-foot-four upperclassman was an important member of Evergreen’s men’s basketball team, playing two seasons for the Geoducks. In 2000-01, he appeared in 30 games, starting 26 and averaging 8.8 points per game. He led the team in free throw shooting that year, making 77 of 93. “He was a big contributor,” says Chris Thompson, Geoducks sports information director. 

Robinson also contributed to the success of the 2001-02 team, which earned the college’s first appearance in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament, winning the Cascade Conference championship. “In 2001-02, when Evergreen won the conference title, he appeared in 33 games, averaging 6.7 points per game,” says Thompson, adding that the former all-conference forward “was a role-player” for the team. 

After graduating, Robinson played basketball professionally for several teams in Switzerland and Germany over a two-year period, where he was “a guard and a forward and wherever I was needed,” he says. “After I got done playing, I started coaching youth basketball. It was cool. I like kids so it was pretty fun.” Having grown up with four sisters, he was certainly prepared when he returned to Olympia to serve as an assistant coach for the girl’s basketball team at Timberline High School. 

He stayed with the Timberline team for five seasons before moving to River Ridge last August and becoming a first-time head coach for the Hawks, who finished 2011-12 as regular season co-champions of the 2A Evergreen Conference.

When the season ends, Robinson says he can often be found playing pick-up basketball and “catching up on what I didn’t do during the season, all the stuff that gets neglected like the yard work.” On top of that, he’s also been counselor for the past four years at Behavioral Health Resources, Thurston County’s primary mental health service provider. He works with “kids who have problems at home” and tries “to get them back on track,” he says. 

Robinson says his greatest friends and advisors are older people. “I feel like I gain wisdom from them. I learn. I might play basketball with the younger crowd, but that’s where it stops. With older people, it’s like sitting down and talking on the porch, sipping lemonade with an uncle telling what to do and what not to do.” He continues to seek the advice of “everyone that’s ever coached me,” as well as the counsel of his wife Kelci’s father, George Karl, the former Seattle SuperSonics coach and current coach of the Denver Nuggets. “I talk to them all the time. They always give me insights.”

But his fondness for kids remains, as well as his desire to help them along. He often brings the youths he’s working with back to Evergreen to tour the campus and show them what’s possible. “Some kids never get a chance to step on a college campus. I figure if you don’t have a vision to go to college, you probably won’t. I try to give them that.” 

When he’s with his team, he has a vision for his players, too. More than anything, he says, “I want the players to have fun. The thing that would make me most sad is if a kid came back to me and said they didn’t have fun. That would be the most disappointing to me. I want them to have fun being part of a team and learning basic life skills though playing basketball.”