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Published: Monday, 4/28/2008

Pioneering basketball figure Will Robinson dies at 96

ASSOCIATED PRESS

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. Will Robinson, who was the first black coach of a Division I college basketball program and a legendary evaluator of talent in both basketball and football, died on Monday. He was 96.

Robinson died at a Detroit hospital, said Detroit Pistons spokesman Matt Dobek. Robinson had been sick for 15 months and in a nursing home for more than a year, Dobek said.

Robinson made history when he became the first black Division I coach, leading Illinois State in the 1970s.

He joined the Pistons as a scout in 1976 and discovered Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman, key players on Detroit's 1989 and 1990 NBA championship teams coached by Chuck Daly who took the job after Robinson declined former general manager Jack McCloskey's offer.

"Will Robinson was truly a legend and will be missed dearly," Dumars said. "He was a huge inspiration for me and so many others. He was simply the best."

Robinson was the first black high school coach in Michigan. He also joined Spencer Haywood, a member of his Detroit Pershing 1967 state championship high school team who had left the University of Detroit to sign with the ABA's Denver Rockets, in a successful legal challenge to the NBA's ban on underclassmen.

Robinson's life in sports was bracketed by his high school years in Steubenville, Ohio, where he won 14 letters in five sports, and by 28 years as a scout for the Pistons. He also was a scout for the NFL's Detroit Lions.

Robinson was inducted into a number of halls of fame, including the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1982. Accolades aside, he took pride in helping more than 300 young people attend college on sports scholarships.

"My grandparents raised me," Robinson once told The Detroit News. "Sports was a family thing, and I coached that way whether a kid needed money, clothing, a place to stay. I put all these things into a family. And (many of) the players who played for me, I got into college. Some are doctors. Some are lawyers."

Born June 3, 1911 in Wadesboro, N.C., Robinson quarterbacked the Steubenville High football team and finished second in the Ohio high school golf tournament, despite not being allowed to play the course at the same time as whites. He won 15 letters in four sports at West Virginia State College before graduating in 1937.

After working at YMCAs in Pittsburgh and Chicago, Robinson began his coaching career at Chicago's DuSable High School in 1943. He moved to Detroit the following year, coaching basketball and football at Miller High. The starting lineup of his 1967 Pershing team featured not only Haywood but four others who went on to play professional sports: Ralph Simpson (ABA and NBA), Glen Doughty and Paul Seal (NFL) and Marvin Lane (baseball).

Scouting part-time for the Lions for 22 years, Robinson scoured black colleges in the South for talent. His finds included Jackson State cornerback Lem Barney, who went on to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career.

Heading the Illinois State basketball program from 1970-75, Robinson coached the Redbirds to a 78-51 record without a losing season. His best player was Doug Collins, the school's first consensus All-American who was taken by Philadelphia with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1973 NBA draft.

"As I look back, I am sorry I did not accept Jack's offer because we were on the upgrade and never looked back," Robinson said in 2004. "I know I could have won championships with those teams. But after coaching for as long as I had, I found it a relief to not be coaching."

Midway through the 2003-04 season, en route to their third title, the Pistons renamed their locker room the "Will Robinson Locker Room of Champions."

"He's someone that's going to be missed, not only by the Pistons but by the City of Detroit," said Pistons coach Flip Saunders.

A viewing is scheduled from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday at the Pye Funeral Home in Detroit. A funeral is set for 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, and after the funeral, a celebration of Robinson's life will be held at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.

Read more in later editions of The Blade and toledoblade.com



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