After becoming a fan favorite in Lawrence and ending his career with a national championship, former Jayhawk Russell Robinson went on to play professionally for nearly a decade around the world, with stops in the NBA D League, Spain, Turkey, Poland, Greece, and Bulgaria.
What is he up to now and what is his take on basketball in 2020-21? He was kind enough to catch up with me on Wednesday to talk about the Jayhawks, playing during a pandemic, and a ton of other topics you’ll want to keep scrolling for.
Editor’s note: Some questions and responses were condensed for space.
KD: I guess the best place to start is what has this past year been like? Obviously the pandemic has messed up everyone’s plans.
RR: I took the time to figure out what I want to do next for my career. Obviously I had been playing up until this point and I kind of just wanted to utilize the free time to figure out what my next move would be. I’ve been looking into maybe coaching in college. Watching a lot of film, a lot of college basketball, and those kind of things. I used this quarantine year really to just kind of hone in on that.
KD: You mention you’re watching a lot of college ball now and this season is something we’ve never seen before. It’s weird without fans in the stands and it’s challenging with the travel, pauses, etc. What do you make of how teams are able to move through the season, really a day at a time?
RR: Watching it from this perspective with this mindset, I applaud all college coaches—head coaches, assistant coaches. Coaching these 18-year-old, 19-year-old guys can be frustrating. And I just see the patience that these college coaches have with these young guys and developing them. Watching universities first having to beat COVID, then having to keep their team together and work together, just having to work through that evens the playing field, especially not having fans. You’ve seen the blue bloods, we’re struggling more so than ever before because of that. We’re seeing teams we wouldn’t normally see at the top of the top 25, I think it’s good for college basketball.
But like I said, I applaud all of the head and assistant coaches for dealing with, mentally, these young kids and coaching them and getting them developed.
KD: You experienced Allen Fieldhouse at its best with 16,300 strong going nuts. How weird would it be to play in these empty arenas trying to still get motivated?
RR: Yeah, I mean, it’s probably tough on (Kansas) because we say we have the best fans in college basketball and now it shows, you take that away and teams are coming into Allen Fieldhouse and playing really well. There’s definitely energy missing. Our sixth man is missing. Teams are more comfortable and confident coming in.
I think guys are making adjustments and still finding ways to play well, but it’s definitely tougher. And it’s probably tough on the fans, too, because a KU game, no matter how your week is going, it’s a way for you to come in as a fan and recharge. Everyone is frustrated getting there but it’s slowly getting back and hopefully this vaccine gets everything back to normal sooner than later.
KD: I just trust that as a player, and especially a point guard, you see so much more than normal fans like me are able to when watching at home. We can talk about K-State game specifically or the season as a whole, are you seeing certain things about the adjustments that coach Self has made and what is working or not working?
RR: Coach is giving Dajuan Harris some more playing time, a bigger role. It all comes down to the players. Coach is a Hall of Fame coach, he’s seen it all. So now it’s up to the players to figure out what they want to do and go out and execute, because I’m pretty sure they’re getting all of the coaching that they need.
I think Marcus needs to get back to being more aggressive. That’s offensively and defensively. He can dominate the game defensively, he’s shown us that already, and he’s got to continue to show us that. The players just need to go out and play to their potential.
We’ve got more than capable pieces, it’s just one of those years. It’s a different kind of test for guys to pass and we’ve had some tough spots early enough that we can change it and control how the season ends. I’m happy that guys are not backing down. The K-State game was a good start to that. This West Virginia game will be a better look at where guys are at.
KD: I did want to ask you about Harris. He’s young and we haven’t seen much, but whether his passing ability and vision, what have you seen specifically with him that’s really caught your eye.
RR: His poise. I can see that he’s definitely looking veteran-ish with his poise, getting guys involved with the ball, getting guys side to side, and making the right play. I can see that. In my opinion, I wish he would get a little more aggressive offensively, especially in the pick and roll, looking to put pressure on the defense, but I think that’s going to come.
I think he’s playing his role right now and as his years at KU continue, his role will get bigger. So far, it’s great. You can trust him not to turn the ball over, and that’s probably the biggest thing for a freshman. I’m happy when the ball’s in his hands and that will allow Marcus to get more aggressive.
KD: As we talk, I’m seeing Kentucky fall to Missouri and continue to struggle. I’m curious with you wanting to get into coaching, the one-and-dones and the approach that Kentucky and some of those guys have taken... is the one-and-done good for college basketball?
RR: For the game of basketball, the NBA has to figure it out. They’re the top of the tree that everyone is trying to get to. I played in the D League, and I think it’s making steps for those guys that want to go straight to being a professional but not quite ready for the NBA.
If they can figure out that minor-league system in the US and get those guys who maybe just need to get some money early, give those guys that outlet, so that those that want to experience college can and can be there for 1-2 years and not be penalized draft-wise, the answer is the minor-league system in the US. I think college will improve once guys are there for 1-2 years and actually want to be there. If they can get guys to stay 1-2 years, it’s better for the fans, better for the players, better for the universities, and in those situations, when guys need to get to some money, the D League will be there for them.
KD: One thing I wanted to talk to you about was the small-ball era, and not even with KU specifically. You’re watching a lot of hoops right now across the country. When you played, you obviously had guys who could shoot from three, Mario, Brandon, etc., you just also had some great big men playing the high-low game. The three-point reliance, the small-ball play, are you a fan? Is it weird to see KU go four or five out?
RR: You can thank the NBA for that, they set the tone with that. Everybody wants to be a guard now. Some of the more established universities try to stick with the big ball but they have to adjust with everybody else.
I would love to play in this era where you could come down and shoot threes and get away with it. It’s more just the way the game of basketball is. I think the NBA is the biggest reason for that and guys are using college to get to the next level. I think college coaches are reluctant but they have to adjust, and some games it’s working out.
I think it’ll get back to the big ball at some point, but right now, guys are ready to shoot threes and play guards.
KD: We’ll stick with the NBA theme a little bit, because I know you’ve been watching that, too. Where is Joel Embiid in your MVP standings right now?
RR: I’m watching him right now and I’d put him at probably two or three with LeBron and Jokic. He’s doing great, but I think he could give a little bit more, just from my perspective. But I’d put him top three. And I think he has a good chance because Philly is No. 1 in the east right now and it doesn’t look like they’re slowing up. I would like him to rebound a bit more and he can get to the free-throw line every possession, but he’s doing great defensively.
KD: In the 12 years since you left Lawrence, if you could pick anyone who came after you at Kansas to be on your team, who would you go with?
RR: That’s easy, I’m watching him right now, too: Devonte’ (Graham). Devonte’s one of my favorite KU guys since I left. Just his energy, his ability to score, his ability to get better. And right now I’m watching him face adversity, they just drafted a point guard, and he’s still leading. Devonte’ definitely, by far.
KD: I feel like we have to talk about the Chiefs. When did your Chiefs fandom begin? Did you get hooked when you were in Lawrence?
RR: Well I’m a Giants fan. Being from New York, that was the first game I went to. I’ve been a Giants fan since I was four years old. But definitely being at Kansas, just being around a bunch of Chiefs fans, even before they were winning, that was the first tailgate I ever went to. It was a great experience, so I have a little special place in there for the Chiefs and since my Giants are nowhere to be found right now, I’m an honorary Chiefs fan.
And then Mahomes and a lot of those other guys are just making it great to watch. And I’m happy for all of the loyal fans. Hopefully they get another one this year.
KD: From the videos I’ve seen, it looks like Mahomes has a decent jump shot, too.
RR: I just read an article about that, how his father said he was better at basketball than football. I don’t believe it, because he’s phenomenal at football.
KD: Do you have a prediction for Sunday’s game?
RR: I don’t think everyone is going to be happy with it. As much as I love Kansas and the fans and want the Chiefs to win, I think when Tom Brady is at—what, this could be his seventh?—and be in that GOAT, Michael Jordan-type league at the age he is in, all of that for him to get this one and cement himself in sports history, I think it might be in his favor.
And Mahomes and the Chiefs, they have some more chances down the road. But I’ll go Tampa Bay by two or three points. I will be celebrating if the Chiefs win. But sports history says Tom Brady gets his seventh and is one of the greatest of all time.
KD: Do you have a go-to story or memory from your time in Lawrence?
RR: No go-to stories that often, but I would say one of the greatest memories all time was the parade. Winning the national championship, the parade was probably the most rewarding because at the parade you get to see all of the lives you’ve influenced and you really get to notice that I’m a small piece of a big pie. It’s not just about the game of basketball. And seeing all the fans and how it’s impacted their lives, it’s a big family. It’s bigger than me.
The parade for me was one of the greatest memories and one of the memories I’ve traveled with. Holding the trophy in the parade, I take that everywhere across the world with me and I think that’s one of the greatest moments of my college career.