Oklahoma City guard Chris Paul wouldn’t stop barking at Miami’s Duncan Robinson during a game in the NBA bubble, not giving him an inch as the two battled for position.
It was classic Paul, a bulldog, eventually ripping the ball away and firing it off Robinson to win the possession.
Across the country, Dan Wohl, a financial analyst at Tesla in San Francisco, watched the play and was giddy.
That Robinson, his former teammate at Division III Williams College, could be bickering on the court with a future Hall of Famer was surreal.
“He has to, and he does, convince himself that what happened with Chris Paul is no big deal because he has to convince himself that he belongs,” Wohl said. “And he does and he’s successful. And really deserves to be out there and is a huge weapon. But yeah, for me, it’s like, I almost want to tell him to, like, just like step back for a sec, and realize how just cool it is that he got into like a fight with Chris Paul.”
It’s unusual that Robinson, 26, is here in the bubble, fighting with superstars and sniping jumpers for the Miami Heat after his college career started at a place more likely to produce a state governor than an NBA gunner. It’s also unusual that Jimmy Butler had to make a name for himself at Tyler Junior College in Texas or Jae Crowder had to do the same at South Georgia Technical College.
But it’s not a coincidence that a team full of players who starred in empty gyms and had to grind their way into the NBA are starring in these circumstances, when mental approach and commitment is as valuable as physical skill. Now they’re in the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics.
“We believe in guys like that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “So many of us have that kind of background. But that’s part of our philosophy, part of our culture are guys that are extremely motivated, driven, have a passion for this game, have a passion for competition and have a willingness to work for it and fight for it. That’s our fabric. But it doesn’t matter where you’ve been drafted or what path you had to take. There’s so many different paths to get to this point.”
Lightly recruited out of Phillips Exeter Academy, a private high school in New Hampshire, Robinson ended up at Williams College in Massachusetts because of the school’s academic reputation.
“I wanted to use basketball to get into a school I couldn’t get into otherwise,” the 6-foot-7 forward said.
His AAU coach went to Williams. His prep coach knew Mike Maker, Williams’ coach. And Maker knew when he saw Robinson play for the first time, he needed him on his team.
“It was love at first sight,” Maker said. “I just absolutely loved everything about his game. … Within the first five minutes, my first comment about Duncan was, ‘He’s baby [Mike] Dunleavy [Jr.)]’
“… He was lanky, smart and skilled. There was nobody we wanted more in the entire country than him.”
During Robinson’s freshman season, Williams went 28-5, losing in the Division III championship by two points. While three of his teammates played professionally overseas, they also took jobs at biotech firms and talked about renewable energy, investment banking strategies and politics as freely as they talked about hoops.
“The conversation in a Williams College basketball locker room is so much different than any other basketball locker room I’ve been in,” Robinson said.
He remembered one conversation about Wohl taking a summer internship at Goldman Sachs, the New York banking behemoth.
“I remember hearing about investment banking, about being up at 5 a.m. and being the last one out of the office. And I thought to myself, ‘Man, when am I supposed to work on my game? When do I get better?’ And Dan was an All-American, an all-league player, really good player. But for me, truthfully, I didn’t want to do that with my summer.
“In all honestly, he was probably the sound-minded one. …I’m the outlier. People were probably looking at me like, ‘Dude, this ball is going to stop bouncing. You’re not going to the NBA. You might as well set yourself up.’”
With Maker headed to Marist for a new job, he got Robinson a spot at Michigan with coach John Beilein, who he had worked for at West Virginia.
Undrafted after three solid years at Michigan, Robinson signed with the Heat on a two-way contract, becoming a starter and double-digit scorer in his first full NBA season.
“When you’re a little kid, you set the goalposts way down there, playing in the NBA. You have that goal and hope that one day you can do it,” Robinson said. “But in all honesty, that wasn’t something that was driving my passion. It wasn’t what was waking me up in the morning and getting me to the gym. I wasn’t working to one day play in the NBA. … I was just very, very focused excelling wherever my feet were.”
The goal was to get on the court as a high-school player, then to contribute more. Maybe get recruited, he thought. At college, he just wanted to help his team win. And once he was at Michigan, playing for a school that produces NBA players, the big goal started to come into focus.
“As you go and check off boxes and gain an appreciation for the day-to-day work, those goalposts all of a sudden start to get a little bit closer,” he said.
With the Heat set to play the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, a new set of goals emerged. In two years, Robinson has managed to get from undrafted rookie to starter on a conference finalist.
“He carries the flag for a lot of us who played Division III,” Wohl said. “… We all made it when he made it.”
Robinson knows none of it would have happened if it wasn’t for a string of decisions, the right opportunities coming at the right time in the right places.
During his freshman year at Williams, a reporter from Robinson’s hometown visited campus to profile the sharpshooter.
“I got wind of it. And in the middle of the story, he said, ‘I’m just trying to fit in. They’ve got so much tradition and so many good players, I don’t want to step on any toes.’ I wasn’t happy when I read it,” Maker said. “I remember sitting him down and saying if we’re going to do what we all want to do here, you need to step on toes.”
Maker reminds Robinson of that mantra to this day — step on toes. Take tough shots. Scrap with Chris Paul.
“It was a mental shift and adjustment that I’ve carried with me,” Robinson said, “convincing myself and growing that belief that I belong.”