Power of One

Greg Robbins picks hoops—and a Virginia university couldn’t be happier.

Lower Merion High School senior Greg Robbins. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)

 

He wasn’t thinking about redemption—or his four fouls. He didn’t care about that ugly three-pointer a couple minutes earlier, the one that barely skimmed the iron. “Just instinct,” recalls Greg Robbins.

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Tie game, overtime, up goes the shot. No good, and there’s the ball, right in front of him. Only so is a 6-foot, 3-inch black-and-gold barricade. A mere 1:39 to go. Instinct. Don’t grab. Don’t push. Just a tip. A flick of the wrist.

Money. Suddenly, the frustrations melt away. There’s a two-point lead to protect, and protect it they do. When it’s over, and the four-point playoff victory for Lower Merion High School is sealed in the record books, Robbins can reflect briefly on the moment. “That’s a play I don’t usually do,” he says of the tip-in. “I usually come down with the rebound.”

This time, he didn’t. It could’ve been a subconscious reminder that, had he tried to rebound teammate Alon Seltzer’s errant three-pointer from the right corner, he would’ve almost surely committed his fifth foul.

Whether the thought process was that involved or not may never be known. The play was there to be made, and Robbins made it. His tip gave Lower Merion a 41-39 lead, and four free throws later, the Aces had survived February’s second-round district tournament tussle with Central Bucks High School West, 45-41.

Robbins’ key play was an indication of the maturity of his game. Sure, he has substantial physical skills, but his knowledge of how to play and his ability to shine at the proper moment have been traits since he started on Lower Merion’s 2006 state title team. “He has a certain clutchness to him,” coach Gregg Downer says of the wily, small forward.

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That ability to deliver in situations when others suffocate from the pressure—or just plain run from the responsibility—is the byproduct of an athletic career played out at the highest levels. Since he began playing soccer at 5 years old, Robbins has faced elite opposition and competed in national showcases. His sense of delivering when stress mounts has been honed further by the difficult decision he had to make two years ago: basketball or soccer?

On the court, he was receiving interest from top-flight collegiate programs. And why not? He started on Lower Merion’s state title team and has been a stalwart of the program ever since. On the field, he ascended to the top of the age-group heap, representing the perennially mighty FC Delco in tournaments throughout the country. Put a ball in Robbins hand or on his foot, and he has no problems. Ask him to choose between the athletic loves of his young life, and a few cracks appear.

“It got to the point where I knew I wasn’t going to play two sports in college,” Robbins says. “I needed to make a decision to get as good as I could in one sport. I always liked basketball a little bit more and always was more attracted to it. I knew it was going to be my choice, but I took a while with the decision.

“I had to leave a [soccer] team I had played with for a long time, and there were a couple kids on that team that had been on every travel soccer team I had ever played on. Since I started playing organized soccer, I had played in every game with them. I had a bunch of really close friends on that team, and I had to leave that behind.”

After his sophomore year, Robbins committed to basketball full time and began the process of dedicating 12 months—not eight—to the game. That may sound excessive to some, but in reality, he had fallen behind the players who’d been doing that for years. The ideal of the three-sport athlete is passé. Today, kids are encouraged to specialize before they hit double figures. “I think playing one sport is what gets you to the top quickest,” Downer says.
 

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Robbins was still living a split athletic life when he tried out for Lower Merion’s hoops team as a freshman. He had spent the fall on the soccer team and was angling for a spot on a squad that had a pair of established senior leaders, Ryan Brooks and Garrett Williamson, both of whom would go on to play Division I ball.

“We knew about him because he was a neighborhood kid,” says Brooks, now a junior at Temple University. “We were excited; we thought he could help us.”

Robbins began slowly, as most freshmen do. But by mid-season, he was in the starting lineup and displaying the kind of versatility that would become his hallmark. The 6-foot-4 guard plays a smart game, which is often a euphemism used for those who don’t have the athletic ability to dazzle with sheer talent. That’s not quite the case here. Robbins does see the court well and makes good decisions. He’s rarely out of position defensively and can direct his teammates to the right spots, too.

All of that falls into the “cerebral” category. But Robbins’ physical prowess, while not close to “freak” on the athlete-o-meter, is certainly sufficient to serve him against top hoops players. You don’t play soccer at the elite level without having superior footwork, and you can’t hang in top-flight basketball competitions unless you have exceptional coordination and excellent body control. Robbins has all of it. That alone is a pretty substantial package, but he also has an opportunistic outlook on all sports that serves him well when situations demand successful action.

“When he played soccer and got an opening to put the ball in the back of the net, he was a very good finisher,” Downer says. “It’s like he has a calculator in his head. If he gets the chance to make a play in basketball, he will. If he gets a chance to score in soccer, he will. He’s not statistically our best foul shooter, but he’s the guy we want on the line at the end of the game.”

Lower Merion won the district title during Robbins’ freshman year and made an improbable run to the state title game. Waiting was Schenley High School, a perennial Pittsburgh athletic factory, and its hulking pivot man, DeJuan Blair. College basketball fans know Blair as the 270-pound interior fortress that anchors the University of Pittsburgh’s roster. At the time, Lower Merion knew him as a fearsome obstacle. “We looked at him and asked ourselves how we would stop him,” Robbins says.

The Aces didn’t stop Blair, but they did control him and earned a 60-58 win over heavily favored Schenley for the school’s record sixth Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association state title.

“It all happened so fast, but I’ll never forget it,” Robbins says of the season.

Robbins’ memories of his freshman year may be filled with improbable wins and the joy of a title, but perhaps the most important thing to emerge from the experience was his ability to respond positively to criticism and firm coaching. Since he’d been so dominant as a youth player, Robbins never encountered a coach who demanded more from him. Downer did that. The two may enjoy a close relationship now—“He’s a funny guy; I just learned that in the last two years,” Robbins says of his coach—but their early days were rocky.

“He had some growing up to do,” Downer says. “He would play tug-of-war with the coaches. He realized the best way to do things was to have everybody tugging on the rope in the same direction. A light went off in his head.”

Robbins agrees that he needed to adapt to a more disciplined approach to the game and to Downer’s methods. “I realized I had to adjust to him,” he says. “He helped me understand the game more and learn new things.”
 

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Despite losing Brooks, Williamson and four other seniors, the Aces advanced to the 2007 state quarterfinals, where they lost to Simon Gratz High School. In an early tourney game against Easton, Robbins nailed a buzzer-beater to give Lower Merion the win.

Over the next two years, his game continued to grow, to the point where he became a highly coveted recruit. Last summer, though, he broke his arm, and some suitors turned away. Robbins was determined to make a decision before the ’08-09 school year began, fielding offers from the University of Richmond, Siena College and Florida State.

Robbins chose Richmond, where he’ll play for former Archbishop Ryan star Chris Mooney. “I think his versatility is probably what makes him such a special player,” Mooney says. “He has the ability to pass, defend, score and shoot. That’s a tremendous combination.”

As for Robbins, he’s now free to focus solely on basketball. “I’ll play 12 months a year now, and I’ll see where I go,” he says.

Chances are, that’ll be pretty far.
 

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