The Pioneer

jerome robinson


oston College men’s basketball combo guard Jerome Robinson was in the middle of another pre-draft workout. Practicing in Thousand Oaks, Calif. at the ProActive Sports Performance Center, alongside a bevy of NBA prospects, the junior turned to a few North Carolina guys. The now former Tar Heels gave Robinson a hard time, and reasonably so. After all, UNC handed the Eagles an embarrassing 30-point loss in Chapel Hill this past January, one in which Robinson mustered a “mere” 15 points.

But before Robinson could even clap back, Grayson Allen walked into the gym and dropped a one-liner that rang true with the Raleigh, N.C. native.

“Oh, but y’all beat us though,” the Duke guard said.

The statement was all of seven words and lasted no more than three seconds of the eight-hour session, but spoke to the ever-changing perception of BC basketball. Two years removed from their infamous 0-18 ACC season, the Eagles recorded seven conference victories, en route to their first postseason appearance since 2010-11. For the first time in five-plus years, the program garnered respect.

Throughout the best season of his career, Robinson, The Heights’ 2017-18 Male Athlete of the Year, discovered a newfound confidence—not only in his game, but also in his school. The program is no longer rebuilding—it’s competing with the best teams in the nation. For Robinson, who won just two ACC games as an underclassmen, the transformation is satisfying to say the least.

“It’s a good feeling to have that BC pride, and now I have something to talk about,” he said. “There is no hiding behind BC now. It’s all out in the open.”

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hat was hardly the case a few years ago. In fact, Robinson didn’t even want to wear BC basketball gear around, especially back home.

“For Jerome, where he is from in Raleigh, people seeing him [wearing] Boston College [apparel], are like, why you got that on,” teammate and fellow North Carolinian Ky Bowman said, recalling Robinson’s underclassmen years.  

Robinson was doomed from the start. Coming out of the heart of Tobacco Road, the 6-foot-5 guard was overlooked by the state’s biggest basketball programs—Duke, UNC, North Carolina State, and Wake Forest. Regardless of where he went to school, he was going to hear from his peers in Raleigh. The fact that he ended up at BC made the return trip all the worse.

Some of Robinson’s friends and family members questioned why he was still in Chestnut Hill. Others simply belittled the program, throwing out insults like “You guys blow” and “You guys suck” without considering what Robinson was trying to accomplish.

“He had enough negativity [surrounding him] that I was waiting for him to ask me to transfer,” Robinson’s father, Jerome Sr., said.

He wouldn’t be the first. Following BC’s 2015-16 season, four players—Sammy Barnes-Thompkins, Matt Milon, Idy Diallo, and Darryl Hicks—including three in his own class, transferred away from the program, leaving head coach Jim Christian and assistant coach Scott Spinelli with a gaping hole in the roster. To make matters worse, Robinson had to sit out a half the ACC slate, suffering a wrist injury and contracting norovirus during a team trip to Chipotle. But he never thought about leaving the program.

“I knew when I was coming to BC, they weren’t on the right track at the time, and we weren’t even on the right track freshman year, but I still wanted to be a pioneer,” he said.

All along, Robinson knew that he had a fallback. As a student in the Carroll School of Management, the alumni network and post-grad opportunities were well within in reach. Jerome Sr. thinks that having that kind of balance helped his son weather two-straight seasons of losing. On the court, though, Robinson had something to prove. He was tired of being made fun of—so much so that there a came a point where he just started using the scorn as fuel, as motivation.   

“It was just something that drove me every day,” he said. “I got tired of it.”

Robinson went to work, gearing up for a summer full of training, with nowhere to go but up. Rather than getting caught in the swirl of the media, he took to the court. Somehow, some way, he had a feeling that everything was going to come together—he just didn’t know when.  

“It’s important to have people with vision,” Christian said. “You have to see what is going on, behind the big picture of it, not just what is happening in one term, both individually and collectively.”

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nfortunately for Christian and his staff, those kinds of players are at a premium in today’s college basketball climate.

Losing half the roster to the transfer market and graduation, the Eagles had to completely restructure their team. Even Robinson was a bit skeptical.

“I had no clue how we were going to rebuild a team when we had five players left at 6 a.m. lifts,” he said.

For a team picked last in the ACC preseason poll, BC exceeded recruiting expectations, pulling in transfers like Jordan Chatman (BYU), Mo Jeffers (Delaware), and Connar Tava (Western Michigan). Christian and Spinelli had to sell hope more than anything—and Robinson was a big part of their pitch. As convincing as it was for some of the old guys, it was arguably more effective for players like Bowman.

“I mean it was the most important thing for me, even to make my decision to come to Boston College, just having a player on my team that I knew came from the same background, that I knew was going to help me succeed,” Bowman said.

As soon as the eventual All-ACC Freshman got to campus, Robinson took him under his wing. At first, it almost looked as if the college game was too fast for Bowman. But when the team made the trip to Madison Square Garden to play Auburn in the Under Armour Reunion Game, the fiery guard came into his own—fittingly, so did the whole team.

Nik Popovic tipped in the game-winner at the buzzer, securing BC’s first win over a Power Five opponent in 643 days. Robinson recognized that everything was finally changing.

“It’s a new beginning for us, and that’s what we were telling everybody in the huddle,” he said in a Fox Sports postgame interview. “It’s going to be a whole different team.”

Less than a month later, Robinson and Bowman teamed up to take down Syracuse—the reigning Midwest Regional champions—snapping the program’s 666-day ACC losing streak. Although BC went on to lose its final 15 games of the season, the guards established themselves as one of the best backcourts in the conference.

Robinson wasn’t stopping there, though.

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ight after finals, he flew out to Santa Monica, Calif. Robinson spent seven weeks at Integrity Hoops—an offseason personal development program for college and pro players. Six days a week, he logged countless hours in the gym, working on both his body and his game. Perhaps best of all, he got to go up against prospective and current NBA players like Emmanuel Mudiay and Bismack Biyombo, not to mention the valuable conversations he had with the reigning league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

Bowman joined his partner in crime for the last two weeks of the session, getting his own taste of the Association and further refining what was a lethal one-two punch. It was clear that Robinson was upping the ante on the practice court, to the point where he was outplaying everyone else on the floor. His father says that there were days when his son performed so well that he started getting phone calls from people in California.

In Christian’s eyes, the trip out West shaped Robinson internally more so than it did physically. The results were a byproduct of how he rewired himself up top.

“You can’t get that much better at basketball in two months, but your mentality can change, and I think that is really what happened,” he said.

But, come fall, Robinson didn’t hit the ground running. Actually, he did the opposite. Unlike his sophomore year, the premier scorer averaged just 10.25 points per game over the course of the first four games of the season. Robinson hit rock bottom against Sacred Heart, shooting a putrid 1-of-14 from the field. Jerome Sr. didn’t even call his son after the game like he normally does—Robinson took the initiative and promised his father that he wasn’t going to have a game like that again.

Despite some frustration, he realized that a rolled ankle and the return to a college-sized court factored into his slow start. Soon enough, all of the work he did over the summer started to pay off. It just so happened that Robinson flipped the switch when his team needed him most, doing his best to make up for the loss of Teddy Hawkins, who went down with a season-ending knee injury at Nebraska in the Big Ten/ACC challenge.

Three days later, the All-ACC First Teamer strung together the first of three-straight 20-point games in a victory over Hartford. But what he did the next week was all the more significant. Pulling off one of the biggest upsets in program history, Robinson drilled back-to-back 3-pointers in the waning minutes of the Eagles’ ACC opener against Duke—the undefeated No. 1 team in the nation at the time—catapulting BC into a two-point lead—one that it’d never relinquish.

The first triple drew the Eagles within one. The second nearly caused Conte Forum to erupt. Dancing around the top of the key, Bowman toyed with Trevon Duval before driving toward the free throw line and swinging the ball to Robinson behind the 3-point line. From way downtown, the team’s leading scorer drained the NBA-range trey over none other than Grayson Allen himself.

“I knew Ky would be throwing me the ball at that time, I knew it would be there, and I knew I was going to be shooting it, and I knew it was going to go in,” Robinson said. “And to see all that come together right there was amazing.”

As soon as the ball fell through the net, there was a sense that BC was actually going to do it—the Eagles, once the laughing stock of the league, were going to beat Duke. Right then and there, the program took the next step toward greatness, and so did Robinson. 

“When he hit that shot, in my mind, I said that he has arrived,” Jerome Sr. said.

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obinson had shown flashes of greatness in his first two years on the Heights. Consistency, on the other hand, was hard to come by. After watching his numbers dip against ACC opponents as a sophomore, Robinson made a point of playing his best each and every night. Besides, that was the only way he’d ever reach the NBA.

Week-by-week, he impressed, topping the 20-point mark 14 times in conference play. As far as ACC-only stats are concerned, Robinson was the cream of the crop: The junior led the conference with 24.3 points per game—3.1 more than future lottery pick Marvin Bagley III—on 55.1 percent shooting, including a 44.5-percent clip from beyond the arc. Arguably even more impressive, Robinson converted 83 percent of his free throw attempts, an 18.7 percent increase from his freshman year mark.

The junior was turning heads. That said, it wasn’t until he traveled to South Bend, Ind. that he saw his name pop up on a few NBA Big Boards. Robinson was dialed in from the moment he stepped in the Edmund P. Joyce Center. Effortlessly, he knocked down an array of shots in the first half. When he walked to the locker room at intermission, he looked up at the scoreboard and saw that he already had 18 points—he thought to himself, “that’s kind of high.”

Not compared to the numbers he’d put up in the back half of play. Robinson exploded for 28 second-half points, scoring from everywhere on the floor. When he realized that he had already eclipsed the 30-point barrier with a significant portion of the game remaining, he heard graduate assistant Stevie Taylor chirp something from the bench.

“Stevie said go get 40, and I said, no, 50! I am about to get 50!”

Robinson didn’t quite hit the 50-spot, but his 46 points were pretty darn close—the third-most by a player in a losing effort since 2010-11. BC lost the game, but the effects were immediate. The next game—a home matchup against No. 25 Miami—Danny Ainge, general manager and president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics, made the trek to Chestnut Hill to watch a handful of prospects—Robinson presumably included.

As the combo guard continued to climb the ranks, his team earned a reputation as one of the toughest outs in the ACC. When Robinson, Bowman, and Chatman were on their game, BC had the firepower to contend with just about anyone. That alone was enough to draw flocks of students to games. Conte Forum—an arena that was a ghost town for much of last year—was rejuvenated.

Picking up seven victories in the ACC and locking up the program’s first winning season in seven years in the process, BC was finally back on the bubble. Ultimately, the Eagles fell short of the NCAA Tournament, in spite of a three-game conference tournament run—one in which Robinson bounced his hometown team, N.C. State, with another game-winning shot, securing back-to-back ACC Tournament wins for the first time since 2005-06 and quite possibly playing his way into the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft.

Still, BC’s return to the NIT was monumental in itself. Robinson may not have reached the dance, but he accomplished what he set out to do when he first came to BC: leave the program in better shape than he found it.

“To be a part of team that went from nothing to something, it’s awesome,” Robinson said.

The junior endured two-consecutive years of infamy and shame while several of his teammates jumped ship. He served as the foundation of a multi-year rebuild that has revitalized the Eagles’ program. Robinson—BC’s fifth-ever AP All-American—was the pioneer that he set out to be three years ago.

“I don’t know anyone who has paid the price and done as much for our program,” Christian said.

UNC draft prospects can poke as much fun as they want—at the end of the day, they have a national championship under their belts. But Robinson has something on them, too: the reputation as the player who saved a program that had people questioning whether or not BC should even be in the Power Five.

Featured Image by Keith Carroll / Heights Editor

Photos by Kaitlin Meeks and Melissa Rice / Heights Editor and Heights Staff

Andy Backstrom

Andy served as the sports editor and managing editor of The Heights, wrote over 450 articles, covered hundreds of Boston College sporting events, and made lifelong friends in McElroy 113. Like what you see? Follow him on Twitter @andybackstrom.

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