LONG BEACH, Calif. — “Are you dumb?”
Rumeal Robinson looked at the kid in disbelief. It was the summer of his freshman year, on a visit home to Boston, and this was the first time he had ever heard that question. At least to his face. It startled him, mostly because the person asking was a nine-year-old boy whose father had told him Rumeal failed a test, that’s why he wasn’t playing basketball anymore. “Is it true what he said, Meal?” the boy asked. “Are you dumb?”
A thousand miles away, Terry Mills walked through his old neighborhood in Romulus, hard by Metro Airport, where a year earlier he was the toast of the streets. Mr. Basketball. What a future! But then he scored a few points too low on the SAT exam. Now he heard the whispers. “He ain’t going nowhere no more. He’s at Michigan, but he’s too stupid to make it.”
Listen up, everybody. It’s time to finish the story. Langston Hughes, the poet, once asked: “What happens to a dream deferred?” Four years ago, Robinson
and Mills, one the shy adopted son of a Boston postal worker, the other a lanky, smiling but naive local hero, were held out of basketball, their dreams deferred. They were part of an experiment called Proposition 48. If your memory is good, you can still hear the outrage: “Kids like that don’t belong at Michigan. . . . They’re nothing but dumb jocks. . . . They’ll never make it. . . . “
Where are the critics now? Robinson and Mills, who today lead U-M into the second round of the NCAA tournament against Loyola Marymount, have become not only the stars they were projected to be on the court, but young men, mature students. One will own a bachelor’s degree this summer; the other needs just a semester’s worth of credits. So where are those reporters who, during Mills’ and Robinson’s freshman years, banged on their door at 2 a.m., looking for a scoop? Where are the writers who tried to sneak into their classes and the photographers who stalked them like wild game? Where are the “fans” who talked behind their backs, or the critics who held up posters during games:
“REMEDIAL ROBINSON.” “TERRY: CAN YOU READ THIS?”
This is a story about two kids who had their lives changed forever because of a test score. They were tossed together like lab rats. They got insulted, depressed, dejected. Finally, they got even. They hung from heaven as the Wolverines captured the national championship last April. Now, as they wind down their careers, they are here to tell you they also got an education.
Man, what an education. That first year, it seemed like every reporter in the world was after us,” Mills said a few days ago, sitting in an empty Crisler arena. “They’d call at all hours and say ‘Is Rumeal or Terry there?’ and I’d have to say ‘Naw, they went out.’ ‘Well, who’s this?’ ‘This is a friend of theirs. I’m just answering their phone.’ . . .
“Sometimes they would come to our room and start banging the door. We had nothing to say. After a while, we just went out the window.”
He laughed. “I guess it’s a good thing we were on the ground floor.”
Out the window? College freshmen shouldn’t have to live like that. But there was little normal about these particular freshmen. From the moment they arrived on campus in Ann Arbor, Mills and Robinson ceased to be two of the finest high school players in the country. They were suddenly “The Prop 48 Kids,” star recruits of then-coach Bill Frieder who had failed to meet the new standards of at least 700 on the SAT test and a C average in a core curriculum of high school classes. Both made the grades. Both missed on the test. Not by much, maybe 30 or 40 points. But under the new Prop 48 rule, they could be admitted only if they forfeited their freshman year of eligibility.
On one hand, that made life easier. They could focus on college, the work, the new environment. On the other hand, here were two kids who had played basketball all their lives, it was the thing they did best, they were quite likely to one day be professionals (and both are now projected first-rounders in the NBA draft). Yet if they came to practice, they could only sit and watch.
“One time during a break I stepped out on the court just to mess around one-on-one with Glen Rice,” Mills recalled. “I knew Glen from high school. We were just playing, you know? But I could feel everyone looking at me, like
‘You better not do that, Terry. You’re not supposed to even be on the court with us.’ “
Soon, he and Robinson stopped going to practice. After a while they even stopped attending games. It was easier to watch on TV than to sit in the arena and feel the sweat, hear the crowd, your skin starts tingling, then you look down and realize you’re wearing boots instead of sneakers.
They took to playing one-on-one together, Mills versus Robinson, countless games in late-night gyms. But after a while the contests grew old. “Rumeal would go right past me five straight times,” said Mills, “then I’d back in on him and dunk.”
They stopped playing. They grew sluggish; they put on weight. For the first time in their young adult lives, they were working without a net.
Still, somewhere between the reporters and the lonely gymnasiums, between the whispers of “there go the dumb kids” and “they don’t deserve to be here,” a special friendship began to evolve. Mills and Robinson shared pizzas and late-night bull sessions. They had a fish tank in their room in West Quad, loaded with Oscars and piranhas, a good conversation-breaker with girls.
“Watch. Now we’ll feed him a goldfish.” They both liked music, Marvin Gaye and
Dream Boys and rap and soul. Rumeal, a quiet, talented artist, would sometimes ask Terry to pose so he could sketch him. Terry did it for a while, then balked: “People get paid to do this kind of thing, right?” he told his roommate.
They shared meals and walks to class. They shared turns hiding from reporters. And they shared something else: depression.
“We would get down about the whole situation,” Robinson admitted last week, sitting alongside the empty court. “I was really homesick and sometimes I’d say ‘I want to go back to Boston.’ But Terry knew how to get me out of it. Other times, it would be his turn to go to class and he’d say ‘Forget it. It don’t make no difference anyhow.’ And I knew what to do.”
He laughed. “Just pull the sheets off him and turn on all the lights.”
Together, they dragged and cajoled each other through that first semester. And the second semester. They took a class called “History of the Black Athlete” where the professor, Jon Lockard, encouraged them to talk about their situation. “I tried to show them that fate had dealt them a favor allowing them to spend a year totally on themselves,” says Lockard, who has been teaching at U-M for 21 years. “They could get into the rhythm of school, discover the joy of learning. . . . Both did very well in class. And I can promise you, no tutors wrote their papers for them. They did it themselves. .
“As far as I’m concerned, Terry and Rumeal have shown themselves more than worthy of being college students. Their Prop 48 problems have less to to do with ability than with circumstances.”
And circumstances, sadly, are one thing SAT tests fail to measure. Mills, remember, endured adults hovering around him since eighth grade, when he sprouted six inches and became a playground legend. He would recognize college scouts in his high school hallway. He would get letters and phone calls from potential suitors. What was he, 14 years old?
That’s bound to affect a kid — no matter what books he reads. And yet it’s mild compared to the Rumeal Robinson Story. Born in Jamaica, never met his father, abandoned by his mother years later in the U.S. Found wandering the halls of a Cambridge apartment building, taken in by a volunteer social worker named Helen Ford, who along with husband Louis and a houseful of kids provide Rumeal with a daily shower of love and warmth. There isn’t always time in a young life like that to learn the relationship between “PARSIMONIOUS” and “PRECIPITATION.” But there is time for character. Time for dreams.
“You know, it’s funny,” Robinson said, looking down at his blue jeans as he spoke. “When I was maybe 13, not long after I moved in with the Fords, I had a dream about playing football — and I was wearing a Michigan helmet. I never watched Michigan games, but there I was, in a Michigan helmet. That’s weird, isn’t it?”
No weirder than this: He winds up at Michigan and one day, as a freshman, he turns to Mills and says: “How are we ever gonna get back to where we were as seniors in high school? We only have three years here. . . . Terry, the only way is the national championship. We got to win that thing before we finish.”
A dream deferred? Last April, on a drizzly night in Seattle, the whole world watched as Mills hit an overtime basket to pull U-M within one point of Seton Hall. Then, with three seconds left, Robinson stood at the free-throw line, his heart thumping but his hands steady. . . .
He did it. Champions! Moments later, Rumeal was in the arms of his old roommate, hugging in a way only the two of them could understand.
You can argue that Mills and Robinson succeeded despite Proposition 48, or because of it. Both admit the year off and the adjustment process was invaluable to their success in college. But the criticism and the bubble-like existence also made life hard and ridiculous. “Even now, if I pass a class, they say ‘Well how hard a class was that?’ ” Mills said. “They think I’m taking bowling or something.”
No bowling. No basket weaving. The two have succeeded — and, it is worth noting, with nary a whisper of trouble or off-court controversy. Mills is just one semester shy of his degree in sports management and communication. Robinson will earn his diploma on time; he will wear the cap and gown this spring.
Maybe the lesson is that all freshmen should be made ineligible, given a year to adjust. But this lesson is also obvious: You cannot always measure potential with a No. 2 pencil. The people in Princeton who make up the tests may themselves need a course in human environment.
Robinson says it best: “In the neighborhood where I grew up, sports was stressed more than academics. They kept telling me ‘Make yourself better; play more basketball.’ So I did. When they said ‘Go home and read for an hour,’ I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ Nobody else did that.
“But that’s why it’s wrong to judge someone based on his high school experience. Once you get to college everybody’s studying. It makes you study more — you have to jump or you get left behind. If back in my old neighborhood, one friend said ‘I’m going to study’ and another friend said
‘I’m going to study’ then I’d probably have said ‘Well, I’m studying also.’ But where I came from, everybody said ‘I’m playing basketball.’ That’s the only real difference between there and here.”
They ought to print that paragraph on every loose-leaf notebook in America.
So “The Prop 48 Kids” have shed the label; they take the court today as seniors, co-captains, students, men.
“Do I feel educated?” Robinson said. “Yes. I do. I feel like I can do anything now.”
Mills nodded. “But my story won’t be complete without that diploma.” When asked whether he were the type to hang the sheepskin on his wall, the guy they once called “stupid” had to laugh. “Me? I’m liable to carry it around in my pocket!”
So be it. A brain that is challenged and a pocket full of dreams. Isn’t that what college is supposed to be about?