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For his candidate-in-law, hoops Coach Robinson records an assist

Friday, January 25, 2008

As Craig Robinson takes a sip of his coffee, his cell phone buzzes. He puts down his drink to look at a new e-mail.

“German public radio,” he says. They want an interview.

So a radio station from Germany wants to interview Brown’s men’s basketball coach for a story about his team?

Not quite. Though Robinson has taken the Bears from the Ivy League cellar and turned them into championship contenders in the past two years, a German public radio station and a bevy of other media outlets have been clogging Robinson’s voice mail and e-mail inbox for an another reason: They want an inside look at his brother-in-law, Barack Obama.

Since last summer, Robinson has been officially campaigning for the Democratic presidential candidate. Robinson said he has been the main speaker at just over a dozen Obama events in Boston, Chicago and New Hampshire. He rarely appears with Obama or his wife, Michelle, who is Robinson’s sister, but he occasionally has been asked to take their places if one of them can’t make an event.

Robinson made most of his trips during the summer, though he did campaign in South Carolina over winter break on a day off for the basketball team. With the Ivy season getting underway, Robinson has limited his campaigning to only interviews, setting aside time during mornings before he starts work.

Like this morning, at Blue State Coffee, which Robinson insists he chose as an interview site primarily “because it’s the closest place to my office.” Robinson is in a good mood, though his team lost its league opener at Yale on Saturday, and is eager to talk Obama.

When Craig Robinson met Obama nearly 20 years ago, he liked him immediately. His sister, Michelle, was dating Obama at the time, and she brought the then-Harvard Law School student to their Chicago home to meet the family.

Obama appeared smart, engaging and outgoing – “all the stuff you would look for in a boyfriend” for Michelle, Robinson said. Nothing about Obama struck Robinson as especially prodigious – and certainly not presidential – at the time. But he did see potential.

“It’s like seeing a guy in college basketball – he might play in the NBA, he might not,” Robinson says.

As Michelle’s relationship with Obama got serious, she asked Robinson for an unusual request: Take him to the basketball court with your friends.

“My father often said that you could tell a lot about a person’s personality by taking him to the basketball court,” Robinson says. “You judge a guy on how he reacts when his team is losing, when he’s not one of the better guys on the court or how he guards his man when the game is on the line.”

Still, Robinson initially blanched at the request. The first reason was that he liked Obama.

“I kind of liked the guy, and I didn’t want to come back and say I found a flaw,” he says.

The second reason was that Robinson was a 6-foot-6 forward at Princeton, earned the Ivy League Player of the Year title twice and played professionally in Europe. The 6-foot-2 Obama played a bit for his Hawaiian high school team.

But Robinson granted his sister’s request and called up some friends. In Chicago, they played with Obama, who “was fine on the court,” Robinson said. Obama was confident but not arrogant and worked well with his team.

“He passed all of that with flying colors, which was obvious,” Robinson says, “because (Michelle) married him” in 1992.

Robinson got close to Obama in the decade after they became bothers-in-law. Obama and Michelle stayed in Chicago after their marriage, he as a lawyer, law school lecturer and then state senator, and she as a nonprofit director and a University of Chicago dean. Meanwhile, Robinson was a vice president in the Chicago offices of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter before changing careers to become a basketball coach at Northwestern University in 2000.

As Obama’s résumé became more and more impressive, Robinson began thinking of Obama’s political potential. But he still didn’t imagine Obama as commander in chief until the event that boosted Obama’s presidential star, the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in which Obama delivered a now well-known keynote speech.

But when Obama asked Robinson to join his campaign before last summer, Robinson hesitated. He wasn’t sure how he could help his brother-in-law’s candidacy.

“Why would anyone care about what a basketball coach says?” Robinson recalls thinking. But he signed up, and now when he campaigns he thinks of himself less as a basketball coach and more of a brother-in-law who’s known Obama for nearly two decades.

Robinson acknowledges that he wouldn’t be getting the publicity he gets if he weren’t a Division I basketball coach. But he doesn’t feel that he is wrongly using his coaching fame and he considers himself an Obama expert.

“If (the media) asked me about the Arab-Palestinian conflict, that’d be different,” he says.

Robinson says the University is fine with him campaigning for Obama, though there are restrictions. Robinson can’t conduct interviews about the campaign on campus, and he refused to be photographed in Brown apparel or with his team for this story. Before every interview, he makes it clear that he is speaking as “Craig Robinson the person, not Craig Robinson the Brown basketball coach.”

Robinson says he only does campaign activities in his free time, and his players say his campaigning has not affected the team at all.

“Coach Robinson is extremely professional and he does everything the right way,” said Damon Huffman ’08, one of the team’s three captains. Huffman added that he didn’t even know Robinson was campaigning until recently, when the coach told the team he had spent one of the team’s day’s off on the campaign trail.

Huffman and Mark MacDonald ’08, another captain, say Robinson has never encouraged any player to support Obama, and that he rarely brings up the presidential race, though the players sometimes like to banter with him about it. MacDonald says the 15-man team is about evenly split between liberals and conservatives, and that no player has ever expressed discomfort that Robinson is stumping for Obama.

Though Robinson says he is focused on Brown basketball, he’ll have to fight a compelling distraction on Saturday. While his team plays Yale at home on Saturday afternoon, South Carolina will be holding its Democratic primaries. Robinson says he’ll be focused on the pre-game preparations, but what about afterward?

“It depends on whether or not we win,” he says flatly. The coach, who isn’t afraid to show his emotions or make his opinions known to referees and poorly performing players during basketball games, says he might only catch the news at the end of the night.

That’s not to say that he isn’t enthusiastic about his brother-in-law’s candidacy. When talking about Obama, Robinson speaks excitedly, making strong eye contact to hammer home points.

“I support him, number one, because I trust him,” Robinson said. “I don’t trust a lot of politicians. Number two, I think he is the best candidate to change the way in Washington.”

Robinson, who has voted only for Democratic presidential candidates, has even adopted a bit of Obama’s vocabulary – “change” is a word that Robinson uses often to describe the Illinois senator. The coach says he finds it easy to speak on behalf of Obama because he trusts and loves him so much. Robinson, who has made many presentations as a corporate executive vice president and countless more pep talks as a basketball coach, says he’s won over crowds as large as 500 speaking at Obama events.

The similarities to Obama don’t end there. Both Obama and Robinson’s stars have quickly risen. Obama declared his presidential candidacy after just three years in the U.S. Senate, while Robinson became a Division I head coach after six years at Northwestern. Both have stellar academic credentials – Obama attended Columbia and Harvard Law School, while Robinson received his masters of business administration from the University of Chicago. And as a New York Times article pointed out last year, Robinson coaches at a gym on a street named Hope, a word commonly associated with the Obama campaign because of the senator’s memoir, “The Audacity of Hope.”

But Brown basketball fans concerned about losing Robinson to politics shouldn’t worry, the coach insists. Robinson says he doesn’t think Obama would offer him a spot in his presidential administration if he’s elected. Even if he did, Robinson says it would be hard for him to leave basketball. And Robinson doesn’t think he’d enter politics himself because he doesn’t have the temperament.

“I don’t really see it happening,” Robinson said of running for office. But in the same way that critics say Obama hedges his words about campaign issues, Robinson adds: “But I didn’t see myself coaching a Division I basketball team, either.”

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