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Will Robinson, 1911-2008

Former Pistons scout Will Robinson passed away this morning. He was 96 years old. From the Detroit Free Press:

Robinson made history when he became the first black Division I coach, leading Illinois State in the 1970s.

He joined the Pistons as a scout in 1976 and discovered Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman, key players on Detroit’s 1989 and 1990 NBA championship teams coached by Chuck Daly — who took the job after Robinson declined former general manager Jack McCloskey’s offer.

"Will Robinson was truly a legend and will be missed dearly," Dumars said. "He was a huge inspiration for me and so many others. He was simply the best."

Robinson was the first black high school coach in Michigan. He also joined Spencer Haywood, a member of his Detroit Pershing 1967 state championship high school team who had left the University of Detroit to sign with the ABA’s Denver Rockets, in a successful legal challenge to the NBA’s ban on underclassmen.

Robinson’s life in sports was bracketed by his high school years in Steubenville, Ohio, where he won 14 letters in five sports, and by 28 years as a scout for the Pistons. He also was a scout for the NFL’s Detroit Lions.

[...] Midway through the 2003-04 season, en route to their third title, the Pistons renamed their locker room the "Will Robinson Locker Room of Champions."

"He’s someone that’s going to be missed, not only by the Pistons but by the City of Detroit," said Pistons coach Flip Saunders.

Ryan Pretzer of has more on Robinson's life and accomplishments.

Update: Here's Terry Foster's article for the Detroit News. Also, the Free Press just posted an old Charlie Vincent column from May 10, 1997 when Robinson received an honorary degree from the University of Detroit Mercy. Here's an excerpt, but I can't urge you enough to read the entire thing:

Will Robinson is one of those men who has outlived his history. One of those men who disproves the adage about the good dying young. He doesn't like to give his age, but if pressed, he'll tell you he was born in 1911. He is a black man who grew up during the worst possible times, when he could play golf in the Ohio high school tournament, but only if he played at a different time of day than the white kids, so no one had to see him.

He could have been bitter, he could have said nobody needs that kind of aggravation, nobody needs that kind of disrespect, nobody needs that kind of humiliation. He could have turned his back on athletics for treating him differently because he was black and gone to some street corner somewhere to hang and while away his time and his life.

Instead, Will Robinson made it a lifetime work to see that others used sports before sports could use them, dedicated every working day to finding a way to make life richer, mostly for young black kids. But not just for young black kids.

Beginning in 1937 -- 10 years before Jackie Robinson became the first Afro-American to play in the major leagues, 13 years before the first blacks played in the NBA, 21 years before Ozzie Virgil became the first Tiger of color -- Will Robinson coached kids.

And that's just the beginning -- if I included all the good parts, I'd end up re-printing the whole thing, which I can't really do. I've never met Robinson, but I was reminded of him every home game this year when I walked past the plaque bearing his name above the locker room door. The difficult challenges he embraced in his life helped pave the way for so many of the athletes who have walked through that door the last several decades.