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Like Father, Not Like Son : Purdue's Glenn Robinson Stays on Right Side of the Street as He Dominates the College Game

February 05, 1994|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Last year, I said he was absolutely an incredible player, the best player in the country," West said. "My position hasn't changed. He plays a very simple game. He's not really flashy. He just plays basketball the old-fashioned way."

So overwhelming was Robinson against Michigan last season, Wolverine Coach Steve Fisher later said: "We have nobody who can guard Glenn. But no one else does, either."

Illinois Coach Lou Henson once called Robinson "Superman." Greg Lackey, an assistant with 18th-ranked St. Louis, called Robinson probably one of the top 50 players in the world.

Even Purdue's coaching staff has yet to be numbed by Robinson's play. There have been times during practice when Robinson will do something so incredible that Purdue assistant Frank Kendrick, who recruited him, will look at Keady and say: "Coach, did you see that?"

In two seasons--he sat out his freshman year because of Proposition 48 restrictions--Robinson has become a cottage industry and a reluctant star. The City of Gary wanted him to be grand marshal of the July 4 parade. Fast-food employees ask for his autograph when he pulls up to the drive-through window. Middle-aged women sneak into Mackey Arena and conduct stakeouts at the locker room.

"I'm just regular, just like y'all," Robinson said. "I'm a normal person. But if I go out to the mall, people stare at me. If I walk past someone, I'll look out the corner of my eye and I'll see them all turn around. Little kids follow me sometimes, but there's nothing wrong with that."

He says this minutes after a local photographer has all but pleaded with him to bare his tattoo for a snapshot or two. Robinson tells him he'll think about it.

"See, it's hard to stay normal," said Robinson, as the photographer mopes away. "When I go out, I'm not like how I am around here. When I'm out in public, I'm very quiet. I like to keep off to myself. I really don't like to talk to a lot of people. But, you know, that's just me."

*

The legend of Robinson began at Gary's Roosevelt High, the city's oldest black high school and a place so pristine that you would never guess it was located across the street from the Delaney projects and only blocks from the inner-city blight common in metropolitan areas.

Not a single can of spray paint has been pointed at the school's outer walls. There is no barbed wire, no broken windows, no graffiti. In years past, students weren't even allowed to walk on the grass--out of deference to the landscaping.

Out front is a fiberglass sign. On one side: "Congratulations, Winston Garland. Pro, Italy." On the other side: "Congratulations, Glenn Robinson, 13 Purdue."

Ron Heflin, who has coached basketball at Roosevelt for 25 years, knows all about the sign.

"You got people who might rob banks," he said, "but they won't throw anything at that fiberglass."

One day, Heflin was conducting a tryout for sixth- and seventh-graders when he noticed Robinson. For the next 40 minutes, Heflin kept running the players, and one by one they began to stagger toward the sidelines.

All except Robinson.

"Son, you ready to quit?" asked an exasperated Heflin, who couldn't believe what he was seeing."

"Nuh, uh," Robinson said.

That night, Heflin went home and told his wife about the kid who wouldn't stop running. "I couldn't break him," Heflin told her.

Heflin knew Robinson's father. He never coached him, but he taught him at school. Then came the breakup with Bridgeman and later, the stories.

"He has some problems," Heflin said of Robinson Sr., "but we don't need to be writing about that."

Bridgeman still makes her home in a gray, single-story house across the street from Roosevelt. There is no visible number above the door, and visitors knock at their own risk. Last year an ambitious agent informed Heflin that he was going to visit Bridgeman and Jesse Mack, Robinson's stepdad of sorts (Bridgeman and Mack aren't married). Heflin told him it was a good way to get shot.

Contacted at his appliance repair store in Gary, Mack declined an interview request. "We're not into that," he said. "I'm real busy."

It is a private family and a disciplined one, too. Bridgeman sees to that.

When Robinson struggled with his grades as a Roosevelt sophomore, Bridgeman stormed into Heflin's office, son in tow, and vowed to pull him off the team if his marks didn't improve. The fiery woman, no taller than 5-6 or so, pointed a finger in her son's face.

"Do you understand that?" she said.

"Yes, ma'am," Robinson said meekly.

The grades improved.

When Purdue's Kendrick came to visit, the bond between mother and son was obvious.

"The way you can tell a good kid is the relationship with his mother," Kendrick said. "Glenn would never raise his voice to his mother. They're best friends."

Mama's boy off the court. Terror on it.

Heflin called Robinson, "The Horse." The reason? "Because he took you to places you haven't been before," he said.

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