SEATTLE — When the game was over and the crowd was singing and the players had gathered in front of the TV cameras, arm in arm, sweat on sweat, screaming, howling, ready for their 60 seconds of network glory, only one of the victorious Wolverines was missing.
“Hey . . . where’s Rumeal?” said Terry Mills.
“YO! RUMEAL!” yelled Sean Higgins.
Suddenly, Rumeal’s image flashed on the monitors. He had slipped away to find his family. And there he was, in the stands, raising a six-year-old boy over his head, kissing him, waving his hand.
“Hey, that’s his baby brother, Louie!” said Higgins.
“Little Louie and Rumeal!”
In the wake of Michigan’s sudden assault on a national title, here is a lesson that truly stands out. More than basketball. More than full-court presses. More than the predictions of some bald-headed announcer screaming,
“All the way, babeeeee!” People. This whole thing is about people. A coach and his players. A player and his family. The magic that comes from throwing the right ingredients in the human blender.
So it is that on this morning of a possible Michigan national championship, the best story we can tell you does not have a ball in it, does not involve a jump shot, and didn’t even begin in Seattle. It began Saturday morning, 3,000 miles away, in a tree-lined campus in Cambridge, Mass. Louis Ford, a 62-year-old postman, was delivering the mail.
“I was in the apartment complex near MIT University,” he says, “and I looked up and saw my supervisor. The first thing I thought was, ‘What did I do wrong?’ Then he said, ‘Lou, you’ve got to hurry. You’re going to the airport.’
“I said, ‘The airport?’
“He said, ‘Yeah, somebody bought you a ticket to Seattle. You’re gonna get to see Rumeal play basketball.’ “
Louis Ford is Rumeal Robinson’s father. Not his natural father, who died years ago in Jamaica. Louis Ford and his wife, Helen, are the couple who found young Rumeal when he was 10 years old, abandoned, sleeping in hallways, walking the Boston streets. His natural mother had put him out. He hadn’t eaten a real meal in weeks. Helen took him home, fed him endless portions of pork chops, string beans, potatoes, and tucked him into a real bed.
The following morning, she says, “He came downstairs and said, ‘Hi, mom.’ ” And that was that. Within months he was one of their own, adopted, safe and warm in the grip of a loving family. They really didn’t have money for Rumeal, they already had five others — how many kids can you support on a postman’s salary? — but so what? They loved children.
They got by.
When Rumeal grew up and won a scholarship to Michigan, the Fords kissed him goodbye and remained in that same old house on Norfolk Place. And last week, when Michigan won a crack at the Final Four in Seattle, the Fords knew they had only enough money to send two members of the family. Helen and little Louie would go. Dad would stay behind.
But, you know, people. A Boston sports writer wrote of the dilemma. By Saturday morning, there were offers to pay for Lou’s airfare. Strangers. Mysterious, wonderful people. Here, take my money, Go see your son. “Someone named Mr. Goldstein paid $1,056 for my ticket,” Ford says, still amazed. “I mean, I never met this gentleman in my life!”
And the next thing he knew, Louis Ford, still dressed in his postman’s uniform, was on a United Airlines flight headed west.
Isn’t this what this whole Michigan story is all about? Rising above the obvious? Beating your circumstances? And who better personifies that than Robinson, a kid who, by all odds, never should have made it. Abandoned. A victim of Proposition 48. Cynics look at his background and say, “Sure, here’s another dumb athlete. Give him a basketball and let him amuse himself.”
Yeah, well, what do they know? Not only has Robinson excelled on the court, and developed into one of the nation’s premier point guards (a position that is not really his natural specialty), and not only has he made it academically at a top-notch school such as Michigan — despite a learning disability and that Prop 48 stigma — but he has also emerged as thoughtful, reflective and confident. And if there is a single player on the U-M team who now embodies the spirit of them all, it is Rumeal.
“We would not trade him,” coach Steve Fisher said Sunday, “for any guard in the country. I don’t care how great he might be.”
When Bill Frieder left Michigan in the whisk of a jet plane, it was Rumeal Robinson he most worried about. It was Rumeal, he said, whom he called first, for fear he might be the most hurt. Although the smallest starter in the lineup, he is probably the most respected, a quiet fire that everyone watches.
“I don’t think what’s happened to me ever made me bitter,” he says. “It just made me want to achieve more. The same as our team. We knew what was being said about us and we wanted to prove everyone wrong.”
“Weren’t you scared as a 10-year-old, alone on the streets?” someone asks.
“Not really. When you’re 10 years old, everything’s like an adventure. You’re kind of like Curious George. There were times I used to cry, wondering if I had a real mother. But I got over that, thanks to the Fords.”
“How about being a Prop 48 kid? Was it hard coming to a school where everyone knew your grades or test scores were lower than the norm?”
“Well, I see Proposition 48 as a beginning. It doesn’t stay with you. I don’t think of myself as a Proposition 48 kid, I think of myself as Rumeal Robinson, University of Michigan, trying to graduate and play basketball.”
How far was this from the lonely child who did not speak for days until Helen Ford took him home? How far is this from Jamaica, his island birthplace, where he once went to search for his father, only to learn that his father had died 24 hours earlier?
Plenty far. But what he thinks about now, he says, are the good things, the good people.
Which brings us back to Louis Ford. . . .
The plane trip was long. The game had started while he was still in the air. One of the flight attendants knew the situation, went up to the cockpit, and somehow got the pilots to pick up the radio broadcast of the game so that Ford and the other passengers could listen on their headphones. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Ford. “I was excited enough just to be on an airplane.”
You have to picture this. A 62-year-old guy in a postman’s outfit, looking as if he’s delivering the mail, listening to his son’s basketball game on the earphones. Is that beautiful?
While Michigan was crashing the boards against Illinois, Louis Ford was flying over Idaho. While Rumeal was racing downcourt on the fast break, Louis Ford was landing at the Seattle airport. While the final tense minutes were ticking away, Louis Ford was being sped to the Kingdome in a limousine provided by someone, who knows who? (“A limousine? I’ve never been in a limousine in my life!”)
And when Rumeal swung a pass to Terry Mills, who took a shot, missed, and saw Sean Higgins throw in the rebound for the game winner — 83-81, Michigan is going to the championship game! — Louis Ford was running around the outside of the Kingdome, looking for an entrance.
“What happened?” he asked, as the people began to file out. “What happened?”
“Michigan won,” they said.
He smiled. Michigan won. They won. Suddenly, he heard a voice, his wife’s voice. And two hours later, the whole family was together, Rumeal, Helen, Louis, and little Louie, thanks to someone else’s checkbook, and someone else’s conscience. The kindness of strangers meets the kindness of strangers.
Tonight they play for the national championship. Big stuff. It’s about jumpers and fast breaks and trap defense. But it’s about people, too, some good people overcoming some bad circumstances, rising above, be it a departed coach or a lost childhood. Think about that, tonight. In the long run, win or lose, that’s really all that matters. CUTLINE Rumeal Robinson thought he had escaped Sunday’s media crush, but he was boxed in by columnist Steve Jacobson of Newsday.
(METRO EDITION ONLY) Rumeal Robinson drives past an Illinois defender during Saturday night’s semifinal victory.