On an uneven dirt and gravel driveway, a young Bill Robinson tossed basketball after basketball at a hoop over a garage door.
The basket’s rim, made by his father, was four inches smaller in diameter than the regulation 18 inches. The tinier hole demanded greater precision in shot-making.
Mr. Robinson, who has died at 71, was regarded in his playing days as the best shooter ever developed in Canada. From humble beginnings in a small mill town on Vancouver Island, he went on to become a legendary high school, university, and national team point guard. In 1976, he captained an underdog Canadian Olympic team to a surprise fourth-place finish, just missing a medal at the Montreal Summer Games.
Known for his flair in dribbling and a sniper’s eye for the long-range shot, Mr. Robinson had a testy relationship with authority, often clashing with those in charge of basketball programs. Their own frustration with the player was tempered by his genius on the court.
“It’s a good thing that Robinson doesn’t do as I tell him,” national coach Jack Donohue said during the Olympic tournament, “or we’d never win a game.”
As rough-hewn as you might expect from growing up in a sawmill town, Mr. Robinson also had a university education, expressing a defiance of authority not uncommon in the era. He was aware that he was underpaid as an amateur athlete wearing the nation’s flag. As captain, he complained about the lack of financial support ($2 per day for food, $200 per month expenses), an inadequate sum that was suspended if an athlete suffered injury.
With a rascal’s smile and untamed curly hair, Mr. Robinson was a Roger Daltrey-lookalike on the basketball court. He had the opportunity to indulge in the many diversions on hand for a handsome athlete on the road in the freewheeling 1970s.
Later in life, a free-spirited approach led to Mr. Robinson finding himself more than once in a different court than the one found in a gymnasium.
William Edward Robinson was born in Chemainus (pronounced cha-MAIN-us), about 80 kilometres north of Victoria, on Feb. 2, 1949, to the former Florence Edwards, a nurse born in Wauchope, Sask., and George Elliott Robinson, a sawmill sawyer. His parents were married in a wartime ceremony in Vancouver while his father was serving as a private in the Canadian Forestry Corps.
Billy Robinson first gained notice in the local weekly newspaper as an elementary school soccer player. He was an outstanding right half and team captain for local teams through his high school years, while also playing catcher for local baseball teams. He only took up basketball when he entered Chemainus Secondary School in 1962 at age 13.
“Billy made us better just by his presence,” said childhood friend Ron Waller, a soccer and basketball teammate.
He became known around town as the kid who daily bounced a basketball the three kilometres to school and back.
“I can’t begin to count the number of light bulbs and windows that have been broken in the house from Bill’s practising,” his mother once said. “He was always practising in the basement, shooting and dribbling and he would never just walk through the house. He had to run and jump, trying to touch the ceiling with his elbows.”
His father encouraged him to pursue soccer instead of a sport dominated by giants. When his son insisted basketball was his sport, the father built the basket with a small rim.
In 1967, as a 5-foot-9 high-school senior, he guided the Chemainus Timbermen to the B.C. high school championship tournament, a remarkable achievement considering the senior class at his high school counted only about 20 boys.
Mr. Robinson so impressed the other coaches he was named to an all-star team playing against the best of Vancouver high schoolers. In that game, the diminutive point guard scored 20 points and was named most-valuable player in leading his team to victory.
His obvious skills and superlative ball-handling caught the attention of Vancouver sportswriters, who described him as being “quicker than a cougar.” At the same time, a flair for dribbling led to accusations of being a show off.
“Sure, Bill is a showboat,” Simon Fraser University coach John Kootnekoff said of his freshman guard, “but he’s a good one and that makes all the difference.”
In four seasons with the university’s Clansmen, based in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, he averaged 14.3 points per game for 1,504 career points.
At last fully grown at 5-foot-11, 170-pounds, Mr. Robinson was named to the 12-man Canadian team at the 1970 basketball world championship played in Yugoslavia. Canada finished in 10th place.
Eager to play professional basketball to earn money, Mr. Robinson passed a tryout with the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association, a flashier rival to the stronger National Basketball Association. The Canadian was next invited to rookie camp for the team based in Norfolk. It was rare for a Canadian of his era to have enough talent to consider playing pro ball. He was embittered when he was the club’s final cut, replaced by an American.
The consolation prize was to be invited to a 33-man tryout camp on Vancouver Island to select two 12-player teams, one of which was to tour Europe in trying to qualify for the Munich Olympics, while the other was to tour China. A leg injury slowed Mr. Robinson and his attitude rankled Mr. Donohue, a New Yorker recently hired to revive a moribund Canadian program. Though clearly the most skilled player at camp, the guard was relegated to the second team.
Mr. Robinson balked, returning to the family home in Saltair, outside Chemainus, where he nursed his resentments on the beach overlooking the Strait of Georgia some 200 wooden steps below the house, steps which he used to climb while carrying over his shoulders a tire tube over filled with sand to build up leg strength.
“He and some friends went down to the beach,” Roy MacGregor wrote in The Canadian magazine, “where they sat drinking beer for several hours before Robinson got up the nerve to go back to the house, gather up his team sweater, shorts, jockstrap, socks and shoes, a can of kerosene, and bring them all down to the beach. He placed the equipment on a raft, poured the kerosene over it all, lit it and kicked the burning pyre out into the [sea]. That night he said goodbye to basketball forever.”
Or so he thought. Mr. Robinson spent three months on a scholarship playing for the University of the Americas in Mexico City. After a season with a club in Belgium, during which he was paid $800 per month as an amateur, he enrolled in geography at the University of Waterloo, completing his fifth year of eligibility as a university athlete by leading the Warriors to their first Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (now U Sports) basketball championship in 1975. He went on to teach basketball in Newfoundland.
He returned to the national program in time for the Pan-American Games in Mexico City. The guard scored the winning basket in a 76-74 defeat of Puerto Rico before scoring 27 points the following day to lead Canada to an 83-73 comeback victory over Venezuela. The team played unevenly, finishing in sixth place.
Mr. Robinson was in top form leading to the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. In May, at an international tournament in Sofia, Bulgaria, Canada finished third against 12 opponents with Mr. Robinson being named all-star guard and the tournament’s best free thrower.
In the Olympics, Canada easily handled Japan, by 104-76, before winning a key game against Cuba, by 84-79, as Mr. Robinson’s between-the-legs dribbling and behind-the-back passing confounded a pressing Cuban defence. The coach praised him for not once losing the ball in driving up court. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were among the spectators.
In the end, the Canadians went 4-1 in the preliminary round before losing a semifinal to the United States by 95-77. Mr. Robinson concluded his international career with a desperate 24 points against the Soviet Union, as Canada lost the bronze medal game, 100-72. At the final whistle, the guard and coach – no longer at loggerheads – hugged at centre court.
Throughout the Olympic tournament, Mr. Robinson’s wife and daughters watched on a small black-and-white television at his parents’ home. Other residents of Chemainus chipped in 25 cents each to sign their name to a telegram wishing the player good luck. The family did not have enough money to travel to Montreal.
His time as a self-professed “basketball bum” at an end at age 27, Mr. Robinson returned to Chemainus to earn a living. After nearly a decade of travel to play sports, life in a mill town seemed pinched.
“You don’t just all of a sudden come back here and talk about Cuba to your next-door neighbour,” he once told Gary Kingston of the Vancouver Sun. “How can I say to him, ‘By the way, I met Castro, I was MVP in the tournament, I had these crowds of people chanting my name.’ There’s this huge chill. It’s lost, it’s gone. And there is a shock, a realization that not only is a big part of your life finished, but what am I going to do with the rest of my life?”
He spent a year in the classroom as a substitute teacher. He worked as a logger, a longshoreman, a deliveryman, and a crewman aboard a tugboat. He tore up abandoned railway tracks. He bought an old farmhouse with friends, spending three years renovating it by hand to convert it into a neighbourhood pub. The boisterousness of drunken patrons annoyed neighbouring residents, who complained about liquor law violations minor and major, and put the kibosh on an ambitious plan by the owners to convert fallow farm fields into sports fields.
In the midst of what he would later describe as an addiction to alcohol, Mr. Robinson was twice convicted on marijuana charges. In January 1998, he was fined $5,000 for cultivating and possessing marijuana for trafficking. Later that year, he was arrested after RCMP discovered a grow-op in a barn on a rural property. He pleaded guilty to drug offences and a weapons charge related to careless storage of hunting rifles. In May 2000, he got an 18-month conditional sentence.
For a time, he operated a roadside shake mill.
Mr. Robinson, a resident of Sahtlam, a rural neighbourhood in the Cowichan Valley, died Feb. 8, just six days after his 71st birthday, following a stroke. He leaves his third wife, Sandi Clark Robinson; a son, David Robinson, of Chemainus, from his second marriage; daughters Ella Robinson Backer and Leah Robinson Benazzi, both of Portland, Ore., from his first marriage; five grandchildren; and, a brother, Dick Robinson, of Chemainus. He was predeceased by a sister, Danna Lea Sutton, who died in 2010.
Mr. Robinson’s many honours include induction into Simon Fraser University’s Athletic Hall of Fame (1986) and the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, to which he donated the small rim he used to develop his shooting prowess.