Permission to be great – D3hoops

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Photo by Eric Kelley,

This is Part 2 of the The Quintessential D3 Moment series. While researching their book Pipeline to the Pros: How D3, Small-College Nobodies Rose to Rule the NBA, authors Ben Kaplan and Danny Parkins asked some of the most accomplished former D3 hoopers for their best “love of the game” moment from their college days. The book is available for pre-sale and you can sign up for Ben’s newsletter here.

By Ben Kaplan

Duncan Robinson’s first game as a Michigan Wolverine was, thankfully, nothing like his first game as a Williams Eph. The Michigan debut might not have been Robinson’s best outing – in 15 minutes of action he missed the only shot he took and turned the ball over twice – but at least the Wolverines took care of business, beating D2 Northern Michigan by 26.

TPipeline to the Pros cover art
he fact that the game was played on Michigan’s home court as originally scheduled went unappreciated by just about everyone. Everyone, that is, except for Robinson.

Two years earlier, when Robinson was anxiously awaiting his maiden voyage in Williams purple and gold, there was a D3-sized wrench thrown into the athletic department’s plans. The Williams women’s volleyball team earned the right to host an NCAA Tournament game on the same night the men’s basketball team was scheduled to take on Southern Vermont in the Williams Tip-Off Tournament. So, instead of walking that already-familiar route from the dorms to the Williams athletic facility, Robinson and his teammates drove 10 minutes down the road to the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, where they would play a home-away-from-home game .

Southern Vermont was not exactly a formidable foe. They were fresh off a disastrous 1-24 season, which included two blowout losses at the hands of Williams. The Ephs, ranked third in the nation, were expected to win once again by 30-plus.

But that night, in that unfamiliar gym, Williams couldn’t shake Southern Vermont. Despite the rookie Robinson’s hot shooting (5-6 from the field for 13 points), the Ephs let the underdogs hang around and start to believe. With three seconds remaining, DeShawn Hamlet’s two free throws put Southern Vermont ahead by one point. Williams coach Mike Maker called a timeout and drew up a play to hopefully give his team a chance at a game-winner.

“We were taking it out under our own hoop,” Robinson remembers. “And our player threw the ball. Because we were in this random gym, it had this low ceiling with this curtain. The [pass] just hit the ceiling and dropped down.”

A gym’s ceiling is technically out of bounds – one of those rules whose enforcement a basketball lifer can avoid witnessing first-hand. The refs blew their whistles and awarded the ball to Southern Vermont. Had the game been played as originally planned – underneath the relatively high ceilings of Williams’ home court – that long pass would’ve at least had a chance to find a teammate and result in a game-winner. Instead, it was a turnover that effectively ended the game.

“There was nobody in the crowd because it was a neutral site,” Robinson says. “It was like, this is quintessential Division III basketball. In some random gym in Western Massachusetts, two teams are just going at it.”

With apologies to Devean George (Augsburg), Terry Porter (Wisconsin Stevens-Point), Jack Sikma (Illinois Wesleyan), the late Vern Mikkelsen (Hamline), and more, Duncan Robinson is the only alum of a current D3 member institution featured in our book. And even then, it’s more due to the fact that he’s a) the punchline of an inside joke between 76ers GM Daryl Morey and Rockets GM (and Williams grad) Rafael Stone, and b) because the reason he attended Williams helps prove one of the book’s main theses (which we won’t spoil here).

Robinson’s unlikely journey from neutral court battles in Western Mass to taking the floor for multiple NBA Finals with the Miami Heat mirrors many of the paths traveled by NBA coaches and executives with D3 backgrounds. His remarkable career is not only a testament to his work ethic, but also the result of some crucial assists from people he met along the way. One individual who was integral to Robinson’s success was Williams coach Mike Maker. Robinson credits Maker for building his confidence and giving him what he describes as “the permission” to be great. “Coming in as a timid freshman, [Maker] saw the talent that I had,” Robinson says. “I didn’t fully realize it at the time, and he really encouraged me and brought that out of me.”

As a first-year, Robinson poured in an impressive 17 points per game. He and his teammates bounced back from their disastrous “home” opener and reached the National Championship game, where they lost in heart-breaking fashion to Wisconsin-Whitewater. That offseason, Maker parlayed his success at Williams (three Final Fours in six seasons) into a D1 head coaching job at Marist. Unlike most D3 coaches, Maker spent most of his career at the D1 level, including two stints as an assistant for John Beilein. Spurred on by his coach’s departure, and leveraging his coach’s connections, Robinson opted to transfer from Williams to Michigan. Their head coach? Beilein, Maker’s former boss (and someone familiar with the D3 game, thanks to his brief time coaching at Jeff Van Gundy’s alma mater, Nazareth University).

Had Maker stayed at Williams, Robinson might not have explored transferring to a D1 school. Had Maker not known Beilein, Robinson might not have landed at Michigan. Every success story, especially one as unlikely as Robinson’s, is full of these moments, where talented individuals need a hand in order to have the opportunity to showcase their abilities.

Robinson’s brief time in D3 is not only an integral part of his story, it’s a key piece of his identity. “I hope that when people who played Division III see me play, they’re like, ‘Yeah, he was at my level. That could’ve been me. I could’ve played against him,’” Robinson says. “I hope people take pride in that because I certainly do. I think a lot of those [NBA coaches and executives with D3 backgrounds] do as well.”

Over the past decade, Robinson has learned the same lesson that the growing number of former D3 players now coaching and managing NBA teams have been fortunate enough to experience first-hand – for a D3 player, sometimes the gym ceilings are a little low, but , with some luck and a whole lot of hard work, their careers can still reach great heights.

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