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Craig Robinson On Growing Up, Coaching, and Encouraging Players

5 Sep

From a 2010 (now interview

This past week I had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Oregon State University men’s basketball coach, Craig Robinson, for the Play It Forward campaign.  While I didn’t get an opportunity to ask much about his sister, First Lady Michelle Obama, coach Robinson did tell me about about his life before basketball, his experiences as a player and coach, and the importance of the Play It Forward campaign. He also shared with me his thoughts about Lebron James, since, of course, I had to ask. Check out the interview below.

How instrumental was your former coaches in your life like, for instance, legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril?

Before I talk about coach Carril, it’s important to know that my first real coaches were my mom and dad. They had a huge impact on me getting into coaching. The kind of things that I learned from them helped me become more receptive to coaching. Hard word, diligence, time management, and all those kind of character building traits, I learned from my parents.

In terms of coach Carril, I think that one of the things I learned I hadn’t really picked up on, or understood the nuances, was how much hard work can overcome talent. It’s important to know because it’s not something you can easily pick up on because you just assume everyone is working just as hard as everyone else. It’s like if he’s an NBA player and you’re a college player, then the NBA player should win out all of the time, right? However, I learned from coach Carril that’s not necessarily the case. Team work and a lot of practice can make anyone compete at a much higher level than you think.

You left a lucrative career on Wall Street to coach college basketball. Was that a difficult decision for you?

Initially it was difficult only because when you’re working in investment banking there are a lot of “trappings” you get used to. You live a very nice lifestyle and you make a very good living. If you’re in management, you get to do some coaching, but it’s not coaching of kids, of course. The decision to change my lifestyle was a difficult one because I had young children at the time and I didn’t want them to have to suffer based on what I wanted to do. So that took some real mulling over before I had the courage to do it. Once I had the opportunity it wasn’t hard at all. I knew at some point in my life I wanted to retire and coach high school basketball — so I knew it was going to come. I just didn’t realize it was going to come as early as it did.

As an African-American NCAA coach, do you find that the lack of diversity in NCAA basketball makes it challenging for black coaches overall to advance in their careers, network, and gain exposure opportunities?

I understand what you’re saying, but I think the college basketball ranks have probably done the best job in hiring minority coaches. The difficulty in getting these jobs has to do with the number of jobs available. When you think about Division I basketball, there are roughly 340-something jobs. That’s not very many. Then you also put the number on paper and see that each one of the those 340-something teams have a head coach and three assistant coaches. So that’s four times that number of positions. Each year, only about 50 jobs open up. The difficulty in getting the job [is about] the number of jobs available for the number of people qualified to do the job. I just want to go on record and say that men’s college basketball has done a great job in having a more diverse coaching roster than, say, football.

According to U.S. News and World Report, white Division I basketball players graduate at a 28% higher rate than their African-American counterparts. Why do you think that is?

It would be interesting to see what the overall graduation rates are between blacks and whites because here at Oregon State most student athletes graduate at a higher rate than the overall population at the university. I’d have to see how that statistic compares with the rest of the campus because if it’s the same, then it just is what it is, and that’s a different societal problem and not an athletic problem.

As a coach, how do you encourage your players to succeed off the court and after basketball?

I try to be extremely realistic about what the chances are in making a living playing basketball. That’s first and foremost. When that doesn’t work, I just show them the numbers. There are sixty guys that get drafted every year out of the thousands of college basketball players – it might even be tens of thousands of college basketball players depending on whether you take into account Division II and III. So what we try to do is, while we’re using our opponents to motivate the kids to play better, we’re also using them to motivate the kids to do better in the classroom. We encourage them to recognize all the resources available for them as student athletes; career counseling, mentorship programs, etc. It’s tough because just about every kid you recruit thinks they’re going to play on the professional level, whether that’s in Europe or in the NBA. We have to be really diligent when sending out that message.

I recently spoke with one of your former player, Mark MacDonald, who recently told me that you keep a thesaurus and dictionary in the locker your, can you explain why you do that?

I played and worked for coach Bill Carmody, of Northwestern University, and he did that and I thought it was a wonderful tradition to keep going. The reason why I do it is because I try to talk to the guys like I would talk with a reporter or another person. I use the language best suited for the conditions and sometimes those are words that kids who play college basketball aren’t used to hearing. When they do hear the words and it’s a word they haven’t seen before or don’t understand, I tell them to go look it up! They can use the dictionary or thesaurus to figure it out.  What I enjoy the most, Tara, is when they come back at me with one of the words I used on them.

What are some life lessons you learned, and are learning, as a coach?

I’ve found that there are very few people who can’t be taught something. You know, a lot of players and students get into a kind of box that some coaches and teachers feel they can’t get out of. I’ve found that there are many ways to teach. I’ve learn in this profession that there is more than one way to skin a cat. It’s opened my eyes to the many ways that teachers can be creative when they’re in classrooms. The tried and true trait that we talked about earlier is that a little hard work is good for the soul and it gives you a sense of accomplishment, even if you don’t win the game. Those are a couple of things that I continue to learn as an adult.

Why do you think the Play It Forward campaign, which encourages young athletes to bring lasting change to their communities through sport, is important for coaches and players to be involved with?

I’m a big proponent of giving back. Athletes have this wonderful ability to attract attention and people listen to them. So when you get former and current athletes helping out in the community, you get more bang for your buck. It’s good karma. We’ve always had someone in our lives help us to get where we need to go, so why not reach back and try to do the same thing? So I think [Play It Forward] is a wonderful campaign.

How do you think Lebron James handled his situation to leave the Cleveland Cavs for the Miami Heat?

We live in a society where you can work where ever you want to work. So I don’t have any problem with Lebron going to Miami at all. I just would’ve wanted the separation to be less public, just for the sake of the fans in Cleveland who got left. You know, I’m excited to see what Lebron can do down there [in Miami]. I don’t have any problem with that. If it was me, though, I would’ve given a heads up to the people of Cleveland. It was almost like he celebrated leaving, and I’m sure that’s not what he meant, but that’s the way it came across.

Everyone in the league and the fans know it’s a business, players move around. More power to them. I just would’ve hoped for a bit more sensitivity for the fans he was leaving.

Many thanks to coach Robinson for this exclusive interview. Also thanks to YouthNoise, Play City, and Up2Us for co-sponsoring the Play It Forward campaign. Stay with Play City this summer for more uplifting interviews from inspiring coaches from around the country!


Randomly Remembering My Dad Randomly Dreaming

30 Jul

My dad circa 1942 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

He’s been gone for almost 4 years now. I was thinking about the letter I found that he wrote right before I graduated from college.

An Old Man Dreams

What could have been, what might have been, what is. When life is new there are many years ahead. What are you going to be? Your dreams of a life in baseball, yes, that was a dream. It didn’t happen, but many other things did; some good and some not so good, but still you dream on. I dreamed about a time in the Army. Survival happened. There was a dream of family. I wanted children to be proud of. That happened. Thank God. Two good women that gave those children to me. Thank you. You are always in my dreams. What happens to an old man who never felt old? A dream of many older people: to stay young. You dream of the next generation and you have hope and prayers for them. My youngest Tara is still young enough to be that generation. She will graduate with honors from the University of Houston. She is the dream I have for the new generation. They’ll be just fine. Thank you, Lord. So I dream now of leaving something for my family. Love God. Love family and love life. Live accordingly. My dream is being with all of you in Heaven. God bless. Dad. ~ James Joseph Conely, December 2004.

I’ve been wandering in frustration lately. New York City does that to a person. Thanks again for reminding me where I’m supposed to be, Daddy.


4 Dec

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.  From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.  I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.  ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 7

scribbled paper

17 Feb

I know. I’ve been a way for a while.  A lot has happened since the last time I posted. I founded a non-profit organization, I wrote a published piece, I danced until 3am on my birthday in NYC, and watched a film called Dear Zachery: A Letter to a Son About His Father that had me in tears for several hours straight.

Even while I continue to morph into a grown-up and work eleven jobs (without health insurance), thoughts of my father still linger in the back of my head like residue. I can never quite escape my childhood especially when Daddy is the subject of my thoughts.  One of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with is learning how to stay connected (and sane) while mourning my father’s death. One way I continue to try and stay rooted in this lifetime is by surrendering myself completely to the creative process. So last night, after I watched Zachery, I was inspired. This is what happened after creativity took over at 2am in the morning.

scribbled paper: a short film by tara

scribbled paper is a short (and amateur) film that depicts a daughter searching for some semblance of her father through drawings, sketches, signature markings, and an acrylic painting her father produced while he was alive. Though eerily reminders of a life that has passed on, these images symbolize a touching and unique bond between a daughter and her artist father.

Today marks a year and two months since my father’s passing.

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12 Nov

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When Things Go Too Far: Caster Semenya Suicide Watch

17 Sep



The Associated Press is reporting that 18-year-old South African runner, Caster Semenya is on suicide watch after recent tests revealed (in front of the entire world no less) that she is intersex.

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Maia Campbell & The Curious Case of Social Blogging

4 Sep

I suspect that many women of color suffer quietly or at best receive inadequate attention from family practitioners, internists, or clergy when afflicted by even the most commonplace maladies, such as mood and anxiety disorders . . . With educational efforts of the past decade, mood, anxiety, eating, and substance-abuse disorders are being increasingly recognized in the general population, and larger numbers of women of color are seeking and receiving treatment for the first time.  Paradoxically however, women of color may still be less likely to receive adequate evaluation for psychotropic medications, even when their presenting symptoms are recognized (or recognizable) by health providers . . . It is not uncommon, for example, that African American, Latinas, and Native American women feel patronized by a health care system that tends to portray them as either ‘victims’ or ‘perpetrators’ of societal ills such as drug abuse, crime, and so on, rather than as individuals.  On the other hand, some groups–such as Asian Americans–have a tendency to ‘delay and underutilized’ psychiatric care (Lin, Innui, Kleinman, & Womack, 1982) leading to an ‘invisibility’ of their problems.”

Frederick M. Jacobsen, MD, MPH in Women of Color – Integrating Ethnic & Gender Identities in Psychotherapy (Lillian Comas-Diaz and Beverly Greene, Eds. 1994).


With the recent viral video of actress Maia Campbell appearing disoriented and detached, it’s time our virtual communities, particularly communities of color, recognize that mental illness, whether brought on by genetics, trauma, or drug abuse, most certainly should not warrant exploitative and childish mockery in the name of increasing YouTube and blog hits.  I’m sickened by some of my fellow gossip bloggers, and bloggers of color that chose to distribute this video without providing context, but instead posted cheeky bylines to attract viewers, or otherwise, start shit.  YouTube users that posted the video on their channels with links to their websites, record labels, and blogs, are just as pathetic.  Campbell’s recent video is not the first of its kind to surface. About a year ago, Campbell appeared withdrawn yet again while being video taped by some guy who thought it would be a cool idea to record her engaging in sexual acts.

For obvious reasons I refuse to post or link to any of the videos currently being distributed virally.  I also refuse to link or track back to certain bloggers that choose to use their medium as means of speculating about Maia Campbell’s mental state and circumstance.

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