This story appears in the Nov. 14, 2011, issue of ESPN The Magazine.
HE STILL GROANS WHENEVER his phone rings. If he had his way,he'd never answer it again. You're better off texting him, or just going to find him at his home away from home -- the gym. Sometimes he's at Allen Fieldhouse three times a day, for the sole purpose of self-preservation. He's in there shooting, lifting and running with only two things on his mind: his little sister and a tree.
The sister, 8-year-old Jayla, is an aspiring pianist with a smile that could light up 15 city blocks. He just wishes he'd see it more. As for the tree, it's barely six weeks old and stands inconspicuously outside the fieldhouse, feeding off the autumn mist and growing day by day.
He stops and inspects it every time he's walking to the arena sometimes he'll stay for 10 minutes, lost in his thoughts, his hopes and dreams. When the campus gardeners planted the tree in October, he wrote a letter and buried it with the roots. If what he wrote in that letter comes true, Jayla will be set for life. If it doesn't, it won't be because he didn't try.
"EARL! EARL! Come up in this kitchen right now and learn to cook, Earl!"
Lisa Robinson had a son to raise, and because life is unpredictable, she was always preparing him for emergencies. Maybe she'd have to work late babysitting mentally disabled children, or maybe her chronic high blood pressure would incapacitate her for a day. Someone would have to cook, someone would have to take care of his baby sister. That's why Lisa was always hollering for Earl.
His full name is Thomas Earl Robinson, and while everyone else in southeast Washington, D.C., called him Thomas or T-Rob, Lisa always summoned him by his middle name. Earl was her "yeah, you heard me" name, the one that made Thomas come running. She was the only one allowed to call him that, because to him, Earl sounded like an old man's name. And he never wanted to be older than his years.
Besides, being Thomas was getting him attention on the basketball court. As a young teenager, he was raw offensively, but coaches have a soft spot for kids who can run all day and live to rebound. By 2008,Thomas' junior year at Riverdale Baptist High School in Upper Marlboro, Md., the college scouts were lurking. Before his senior year -- and now with a build of a Greek god -- he transferred to higher-profile Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., and the buzz was that he was among the top 30 or 40 players in the nation.
Kansas coach Bill Self was already frothing. He had first seen Thomas in the summer of 2008 at the Reebok All-American Camp in Philadelphia, and as much as Self loves McDonald's All-Americans, he adores raw prospects with high motors. "The thing I remembered is how hard he tried," Self says. "I said, 'Am I missing something in this kid? He looks better than everybody else here.'"
Kansas started calling -- ahead of Memphis, Pitt and Kentucky -- but Lisa wanted nothing to do with the Jayhawks' program. Kansas was too far away. She was afraid of flying and didn't have enough money for an airline ticket anyway. It was hard enough that her son was spending his senior year in New Hampshire, so she was not having Kansas; she flat-out told Thomas she was crossing the school off his list.
Lisa, a single mother, was a disciplinarian unafraid to grab her son by the ear. Her mantra: Never blink. But Thomas also considered her his best friend; they'd talk about everything -- girls, movies, even the father who had no part in his life. So when it came to his college choice, he pleaded his case and brought other family members into the discussion. The extended group included his grandmother, Shirley Gladys White, who often babysat him; his grandfather, Willatant Austin Sr., who loved hoops; and even his half brother, Jamah, who was eight years older and lived on the other side of town.
Thomas told all of them that he thought Kansas basketball had a family feel. And he told Lisa about Marcus and Markieff Morris, twins who were skilled big men and could mentor him. Better yet, their mother, Angel, lived in Lawrence and served as a second mom to just about every player. They all called her Miss Angel.
Lisa agreed to a home visit in September 2008, though Self knew she remained skeptical. The minute the coach walked in, she said, "So you're the man who's been giving me headaches." But once they hugged and she sensed the coach's sincerity, all was forgiven. Self was particularly taken with Jayla, who grinned wide, asked her mom for a Jayhawk doll and wanted to see the apps on the coach's iPhone. "Not a cuter girl out there than Jayla," says Self, who loved her energy. Lisa fell for Self as well, and Thomas committed to Kansas soon after.
Still, the day in 2009 when Thomas left DC for Lawrence was a melancholy one for Lisa. After her son made it to campus, she called Angel Morris to introduce herself and talk mother to mother. "Please make sure my baby is doing okay," Lisa pleaded. "Can you check that he's not eating pizza every night and that he's doing his work? Can you please take care of my baby Earl?"
A FULL SEASON LATER, Lisa still hadn't made it to the KU campus. So when the Jayhawks were scheduled to play Memphis at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 7, 2010, Lisa and Jayla drove the five hours from DC. Before the game, Thomas proudly introduced them to his teammates and their moms, and everyone noticed how he doted on his baby sister. "He loves that little girl," says Jayhawks guard Elijah Johnson, Thomas' roommate. "She's his world." Thomas had always considered her his sidekick. Jayla was born in 2003, just as Jamah was moving out; when Lisa was working, Jayla would have to tag along to Thomas' basketball practices.
Twelve years older than Jayla, Thomas also saw himself as her protector. Lisa gave him leeway to discipline Jayla, so when the girl showed up in New York wearing multiple earrings, Thomas wagged his finger. "Why does Jayla have all those earrings?" he asked Lisa. "They're too grown up for her. You need to take the earrings off."
It was as if he were Jayla's dad. Her real father, James Paris (who is not Thomas' dad), had recently finished serving a prison term for distribution of a controlled substance. Lisa and Jayla had visited him in jail, but according to family members, Paris had never played a consistent role in the girl's life. Thomas had always been the male that Jayla depended on, a responsibility he relished. So when Thomas said so, those earrings came off.
At the Garden, Lisa also visited with Angel and confided that she'd recently found out her parents had little time to live. Both were being treated for serious illnesses in a DC hospital. Lisa, who was stressed and experiencing intense headaches, asked Angel not to tell Thomas. She wanted nothing to disturb his basketball.
At that night's game, Thomas, a bruising forward and Self's kinetic sixth man, was sensational. He had 10 points and 10 rebounds in 15 minutes, and with Kansas comfortably ahead, he sat at the end of the bench so he could quickly hug Lisa and kiss Jayla, who were seated nearby. "Having a good game and seeing my mom happy was priceless," he says. After the 81-68 Kansas win, he was first out of the locker room so the family would have more time to visit before the team plane left for Lawrence. Angel took a photo of Lisa, Jayla and Thomas embracing. She promised to send copies.
Seeing his mom and sister made Thomas miss them even more. He began spending additional time with Miss Angel and the twins. Marcus and Markieff had heard Lisa call Thomas "Earl" back in New York, and when they and some other teammates jokingly said "Pass me the ball, Earl" at practice, Thomas just stared back at them. "He had the best physique on the team," says Barry Hinson, the Jayhawks' director of men's basketball operations. No one dared call him Earl again. The name belonged to Lisa.
Nancy Newberry for ESPN The MagazineFalling on basketball helped the Jayhawks star through his darkest days.
By late December, Thomas had settled back into his Lawrence routine. But before practice one day, he noticed Lisa had been calling his cellphone. He dialed her back and received the bad news: his grandmother had died. As Thomas wept on the phone, Lisa, who faithfully read the Bible, assured him that everything happens for a reason. When Self saw his player sobbing in the gym, the coach urged him to take the day off. But Thomas insisted on practicing. Never blink.
When he returned to DC for the funeral, Thomas was a rock for Lisa and Jayla -- and hid his own emotions. Three weeks later, in the middle of January, the phone rang again; this time his grandfather had died. "I'm thinking, This is bad," Thomas says. "This shouldn't be happening. I'm not even over my grandmother yet. Far from it. And now I get the call that my grandfather passed."
Lisa told him not to fly in for the funeral. He had a season to play, and she wanted to protect him. But she also didn't want Thomas to see what was happening to her. After her mother died, Lisa's headaches and blood pressure worsened, and when she arrived at the morgue with a friend, she needed help getting out of the car. She was in physical pain at her mother's funeral, some of which Thomas noticed, but Lisa never revealed to him that the doctors subsequently found a clogged artery in her heart.
The only person Lisa told in Kansas was Angel, and after Thomas' grandfather died, Angel began calling Lisa regularly. On Jan. 20, Angel phoned and could hear Lisa fussing at Jayla in the background. A few weeks earlier, while Jayla stayed with relatives, Lisa had undergone an angioplasty. She was feeling a little better but was still suffering with intense headaches. Angel sensed that Lisa was overwrought and urged her to go to the ER, but Lisa said she had a new medication and wanted to try it out first.
The next night, Friday, Jan. 21, the Jayhawks players watched film in preparation for a pivotal Big 12 home game against Texas. Afterward, around 11 p.m., the Morris twins recall they were kicking back in Thomas' room when his cellphone rang. "It's from home, man," he said. "I hope it's not any more bad news."
"Pick it up," Markieff said.
"Forget it. I'm not answering."
Thomas let the call go to voice mail, then checked the message. It was from Jayla; she was crying and begged Thomas to call her back.
He dialed Lisa's cellphone, but she didn't pick up. "Oh man, I don't know what's going on," Marcus said. Thomas' eyes were watering, and the twins were starting to tear up. He dialed his mom's home phone, and Jayla answered. She told him that Lisa had had a heart attack. Their mother was dead.
Thomas dropped his phone, sobbing. In less than a month, he had lost both maternal grandparents and his mother. The twins called Angel, who, when hearing the news, yelled, "Oh my god." She immediately left for Thomas' apartment and phoned Self on the way. The coach started weeping. "He was crying, I was crying," Angel says. "I said, 'Coach, we gotta get ourselves together. Because we both got to walk through that door and be there with that kid.'"
They found Thomas slumped on his bed, surrounded by teammates. When Self entered the bedroom, the players cleared, and the coach asked Thomas: "What can I do to help? Is there anybody you need to talk to tonight?" Thomas had been sobbing uncontrollably. But he stopped, dry-heaved and looked up at Self. "Coach, you don't understand. I don't have anybody. All I have is my sister. All I have is Jayla."
THE NEXT 12 HOURS were a blur. Thomas kept howling that Jayla needed to fly to Lawrence and pleaded to Angel: "Just don't leave me. Can you stick with me through the entire thing?" Self called the team doctor, who said to make sure Thomas wasn't left alone. Angel brought him to guard Josh Selby's mother's house, which was quieter; he didn't fall asleep until about 4 a.m. The other players were up most of the night as well, with the Texas game only hours away.
The team met that morning for its pregame shootaround, and out of the blue, Thomas arrived in uniform. Self hadn't expected him to play, but Thomas remembered how Lisa had always prepared him for emergencies, how she ordered him to never blink. He found himself being pulled to Allen Fieldhouse, and once he arrived, he asked Self if he could address the group.
"Nobody treat me different," he told the players and staff. "I don't want anybody to baby me. Babying me is not going to help me get through. I don't need the coaches not to yell at me. I'm a grown man."
When he finished, he was the only one not in tears. Self asked whether Thomas wanted the PA announcer to ask for a moment of silence, but Thomas said he couldn't endure it. Self reminded him that Lisa had never been to a home game; this would be the way to finally get her there. Thomas agreed, and the second he checked into the game, Allen Fieldhouse erupted. "It wasn't loud in a fan way," Hinson says. "It was, if there is such a thing, loud in a loving way. I looked around, and I mean grown men, ladies, kids, students, little ones -- just tears."
The team played the first six and a half minutes on adrenaline, leading 18-3, but finished the game on fumes. The Jayhawks' shots kept rimming out. In the stands, Angel kept repeating three words: "Release the rims." Hearing her, guard Tyshawn Taylor's mom, Jeanell, asked, "Who are you talking to?"
Angel replied: "Lisa. She's here."
But two hours later, the Jayhawks' 69-game home winning streak was over. Hinson accompanied Thomas to DC, with Angel following the next day for the funeral. Angel shielded Jayla as best she could, while Thomas and Jamah picked out a casket and an outfit in which Lisa would be buried. Even more difficult for Thomas was entering her apartment. He took her favorite sweater, some photos and her Bible as mementos, but he quickly had to get out of there. All Angel kept saying was, "Baby, it's going to be okay."
Out of necessity for Jayla, Thomas tried to remain a rock. The funeral -- paid for by KU, with the blessing of the NCAA -- was held during a snowstorm, and the electricity was out for much of the gray afternoon. But for Thomas, the day brightened a bit when the entire Kansas team walked, single file, into the church. Afterward, the KU coaches watched Jayla cling to Thomas on the way to the hearse, and one by one they began thinking the same thing: We'll adopt her.
IT WASN'T JUST FOR SHOW. Bill and Cindy Self, who had raised a son and daughter, were serious about gaining custody of Jayla. Assistant coaches Danny Manning, Joe Dooley and Kurtis Townsend, as well as Hinson and Angel, made similar inquiries. But that wasn't the half of it. Kansas fans around the state were e-mailing and texting, offering to be Jayla's guardians. They were also donating cash to a newly formed scholarship fund for her.
Still in a fog, Thomas was grateful. But he was the one who wanted custody, even though he was living in the Jayhawker Towers apartments and had a full load of classes. It didn't seem feasible that a 19-year-old basketball player could raise a second-grader, which is why Self and his staff were willing to step in. But up until Lisa's funeral, Thomas was still thinking of ways to fly Jayla to Lawrence, still looking into area grammar schools. "He thinks every day of his life, Jayla, Jayla, Jayla," Angel says.
What Thomas didn't expect was the fast bond Jayla was forging with her dad, James Paris, back in DC. Perhaps Jayla was subconsciously gravitating to the only parent she had left, but Thomas noticed Jayla latching on to James and his three sisters. James implored Thomas to let Jayla stay with him. Rather than uproot a brokenhearted little girl, Thomas gave his approval.
"I have a lot of mixed feelings about James," says Thomas. "But he loves his daughter and she loves him, so that's something that I thought about, as far as me wanting to take my little sister. She'd lost a lot, and all she knows is me and him. So I couldn't be selfish. That's why she's home.
"It kills me. I pray the days go by fast sometimes, just so I can see her. I wished that she could be with me here right by my side. But it wasn't the best timing for it, you know?"
Thomas' uncle, Willatant Austin Jr., who had filed for custody of Jayla, took Paris to court in the spring, claiming he was unfit to be a parent. (Lawyers have advised both Paris and Austin not to comment.) For his part, Thomas just wanted the legal haggling to stop. He was drawing up his own long-term plan for Jayla, and he began implementing it on Jan. 29 against Kansas State, his first game after Lisa's funeral. Coming off the bench to another tearful ovation -- "I couldn't even look up," Hinson says, "because I'm bawling like a baby with about 16,000 other people" -- Thomas was a beast. He scored 17 points, shooting 7-for-11, and in the stands Angel thanked Lisa for releasing the rims. Thomas, then a sophomore, was the best player on the court, including the twins, and there was one overriding reason: "My whole purpose of playing basketball was different," Thomas says. "I don't care about the points anymore. I don't care about the stats. I don't care about being the man. This was just a stepping-stone for me to get where I have to go.
"I want Jayla with me. I want full responsibility for everything. And I was in a position that if I took care of business with basketball, everything I wanted for her could become possible."
His teammates could sense what was happening. At first, they had wrestled with the deaths, wondering why a good kid would have to bury three relatives in a month. But they would hear Thomas, quoting Lisa, say that everything happens for a reason. They soon realized what that was: The deaths motivated Thomas to become a star. He had to take care of Jayla.
The plan was delayed, if not derailed, last February when Thomas needed surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his right knee. After coming back, he didn't even score in KU's Elite Eight loss to Virginia Commonwealth. But that just made him more determined.
Over the summer, Thomas was a workaholic. He wouldn't take a day off and was the most electric player at the Amar'e Stoudemire Skills Academy, outplaying even Ohio State's Jared Sullinger. "He has the speed of Kobe and a body like LeBron's," Markieff says. "Sky's the limit."
When Thomas wasn't on the court, he was back in DC with Jayla or on the phone with her. She'd begun asking when she could live with him. He'd tell her: "Soon, baby. Soon." What he didn't tell her is that the minute he gets to the NBA, he is going to request full custody and move her in with him.
"I would never say he needs to leave for the NBA," Self says, "but I hope Thomas is able to leave. I hope this is his last year at the University of Kansas. Selfishly I want him to stay. We would win more games. But it needs to be his last year."
Now a 6'9", 237-pound junior, Thomas is no longer a sixth man. In a preseason poll, he was voted first-team All-America by CBSSports.com. Some NBA scouts are even predicting he could be the No. 1 overall pick in the next draft. In the meantime, he lives part-time with Angel, who is fulfilling her promise to Lisa and keeping an apartment in Lawrence, even though her twins were both NBA lottery picks in June. Angel also flies regularly to DC to check on Jayla, who, because of her scholarship fund, is attending private school and learning piano. And on both Thomas' and Jayla's bedroom wall is the same photograph -- the picture Angel took at Madison Square Garden of Lisa and the two kids, hugging.
"I'm still scared for my little sister," Thomas says. "I cry and I complain about how it's not fair for me, but she's going through way more. She's 8 years old. She ain't got the memories that I got with my mom. I just feel like I can't stop. I got to do something to where I make her so happy that she'll never have to go through any pain in her life ever. No more bad phone calls. None of us can have any more bad phone calls."
Basketball and Jayla: That's about all Thomas thinks about. When Self recently suggested planting a tree in memory of Lisa outside Allen Fieldhouse, a place she never lived to see, Thomas thought it was the quintessential idea. He and Self watched the gardeners dig the hole, and Thomas placed his letter in with the roots. It reads:
I guarantee you have no worries about Jayla.
I will make sure everything is okay. I won't blink.