CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- For seven seasons, Denzel Robinson sat near the end of North Carolina’s bench, often mistaken for a player as he poked his head into team huddles and cheered every play.
Now, he’s the real thing: a sophomore forward on the Tar Heels' junior varsity team.
“I am very proud of him for making that decision, for electing to want to put on the Carolina uniform,” said his dad, Steve Robinson, a UNC assistant coach. “... I know it can’t always have been easy, being the son of a Division I coach, but he’s never complained, through the good and the bad. And I’m proud of what he’s accomplished.”
When Denzel – now a 6-foot-4, 20-year-old averaging 7.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in his second season playing JV – first took his place on UNC’s bench as a 12-year old, he had dreams of playing for his father.
Born the day before his dad’s Kansas team beat Indiana in the NCAA regional semifinals en route to the 1991 Final Four, Steve dubbed his second son his “tournament baby.” He even put a tiny pair of Converse sneakers in Denzel's crib.
All of the Robinson kids were athletically inclined. Oldest daughter Shauna played several sports; oldest son Tarron is playing baseball at Brevard College, and youngest daughter Kiaya is playing volleyball and running track at Lenoir-Rhyne.
But it was Denzel – whose earliest basketball memories are of Tulsa’s Maxwell Convention Center and Florida State’s Leon County Civic Center (his dad was a head coach at both schools) – who enjoyed watching basketball game film as much as cartoons.
So when his dad returned to Kansas as an assistant coach under Roy Williams in 2002, and Williams asked Robinson if his then-11-year-old son wanted to sit on the bench during games, Denzel was over the moon.
“I was like, ‘Are you serious?’” he remembered, grinning.
Denzel kept his place on the bench when Williams and his staff moved to Chapel Hill in 2003. Decked out in Carolina sweats and ever-growing high-tops, he blended in, even as a pre-teen. And he matured before everyone’s eyes.
“I had the braids, the afro, every year I was a different person on the bench,’’ he remembered. “I heard people say I was a walk-on, or a manager, or a Make-A-Wish Foundation kid.”
What he really was, Denzel said, was lucky. He got to join every huddle, where he heard strategy (and a few words he can’t repeat). He got to witness, up close, great players do great things, from Marvin Williams’ game-winning shot against Duke, to Tyler Hansbrough’s 40-point game against Georgia Tech. He even got hit by an excited fan once when the court was rushed.
“I think the hardest thing about playing JV is having to give up that seat,’’ Denzel said, laughing.
Indeed, the player said he could have played at a Division II or III university. But after he struggled on the court during his last couple of years in high school, he wondered whether basketball should be his top ambition. So he opted to enroll at UNC, where he could focus on school and try out for junior varsity team.
For the past two years, that choice has resulted in a renewed enjoyment for Denzel, while his father watches him score and rebound and defend from the stands (trying not to show too much emotion as his son battles against prep or lower-division teams). During varsity games, Denzel sits in the row behind the bench with his JV teammates. It's still a great vantage point for watching some great match-ups, as well as his dad at work.
“I do miss those moments during timeouts, when every once in a while, I would feel a hand on my shoulder – and I wouldn’t have to turn around, because I knew it was Denzel, looking into the huddle, him being a part of it. That was so special,’’ Steve Robinson said. “But a lot of times, before games now, he’ll come sit behind the bench, and we’ll talk about what happened in the JV game ... and I still know that all I have to do [during varsity games] is look over my shoulder, and he’s there.”
Denzel could have a chance, as early as next season, to earn back a place in that huddle – as well as his old seat on the varsity bench.
Students are only allowed to play JV for two seasons. So with three current senior walk-ons, and the possibility that multiple underclassmen could leave early for the NBA, Robinson could try out and make the team next fall.
The communications major said he hasn’t decided whether he wants to do that yet, but it is tempting.
“Maybe,” he said. “It’s a big commitment. It’s 24-7 from October to April, so if I feel like I want to make that commitment – and I know I’d have to work harder than I ever have in my life, on and off the court – then I’ll try. But we see what happens.”
Right now, he said, he’s enjoying playing in a JV uniform, on the court where he cheered so many big games.
And in front of the bench where he grew up.
“It makes me wonder if one day, [assistant] Coach [C.B] McGrath’s kids and Coach [Jerod] Haase’s kids will be able to watch games from the bench just like I did, when they’re old enough,’’ Denzel said. “I hope so, because it’s really, really special.”
Robbi Pickeral can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter:@bylinerp.