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"Mr. Robinson," one of the staffers whispered with a mix of politeness and urgency, pointing me toward the stage where I would enter in darkness during the last minutes of a video about our family. Before I turned to go, Michelle, playing coach for a minute, gave me a last once-over, nodding with approval at my choice of attire—a tailored black suit with an orange tie that my wife, Kelly, had picked out, with input from my son, Avery, and daughter, Leslie. Four months earlier, in the midst of the fever pitch of the presidential primary season, I had accepted the post as head coach of the men's basketball program at Oregon State University. We had only recently started to acclimate to Providence, Rhode Island, where I'd spent the last two seasons as head coach at Brown University, but the opportunity to move to a Pac-10 school (its subbasement record at the time notwithstanding) was too great to pass up. With the season set to start in days, I knew what a boost it would be to wear the school colors as a shout out to Oregon State.
"Well?" I said, with a final it's-now-or-never shrug to Miche, making sure that we were both good to go.
She answered by doing something either one of our parents might have done: She stepped forward to straighten my tie, a gesture of love and pride, no words necessary, and then turned to go toward the other side of the set from which she would be entering.
Now it was time to take my place on the stage in the darkness and wait for the lights to come up. Was this crazy or what? The question uppermost in my mind while I stood there in the dark was, How had all of this happened? It was one of those out-of-body experiences others had described before but that had been foreign to me until now—with floodgates opened and scenes of my life passing in front of my eyes, memories from the past coming at me from every direction. Everything was so vivid—all the stages of my own journey and those of loved ones, the critical turning points, the all important counsel sought by me and by others, and then the everyday, ordinary family upbringing in the Robinson household on the Southside of Chicago that was the primary music of my childhood and youth.
As if no time at all had passed, what suddenly came into my awareness were word-for-word conversations shared with Dad over the course of many years about the game of basketball—which to him was indeed a game of character. This wasn't our only topic of philosophical interest, but because basketball was a personal passion and serious pursuit for me, I was especially attuned to his analysis as to how you could tell everything you needed to know about someone by how they played the game—whether it was the dog-eat-dog combat of street basketball in the neighborhood, or the more structured play at the high school level, or at the top tiers of collegiate and professional basketball, or in a more casual game of pickup ball.
As someone who embodied character in its truest sense, Fraser Robinson spoke with authority. And without a doubt, I listened. Here was a man who never missed a day of work, sometimes doing double and swing shifts for the City of Chicago at the water filtration plant, and who would come home to spend time with the wife he adored and the two children he loved—as fully engaged in his role as husband and parent as he was at everything else in his life. It is noteworthy that I often have to remind myself that he did all this while he battled the debilitating disease of multiple sclerosis. Never once in any of my memories can I recall seeing him walk without a limp. Yet never once can I remember him complaining, even when he went from using one cane to two, and in those times when he needed help getting up and dressed in the morning and, later, more help just getting around.