Commentary

Nasir Robinson's tourney dignity

Updated: March 23, 2011, 12:42 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Nasir Robinson did several interviews yesterday, which is pretty remarkable all by itself. Do you know how easy it would have been for him to say no? Think of all the things he could have said when they asked him to report to Pitt's sports information office. He could have said he had to study. He could have said he had to work out. He could have just said the hell with it and let everything go to voicemail.

[+] EnlargeJamie Dixon
AP PhotoJamie Dixon didn't blame Nasir Robinson for another early exit by Pitt.

He could have said he didn't want to re-live the worst and most public moment of his basketball career and nobody would have questioned him for a second. He could have said he had something else to do -- anything else to do -- but instead he did a live radio interview and a local television interview and spoke to a Pittsburgh columnist and then talked to me.

All the same questions.

What happened?

What were you thinking?

How are you holding up?

The answer to the last one, which seemed to be the hardest, was really the easiest. He's holding up just fine. He knows he made a mistake by fouling Butler's Matt Howard with less than a second left in Pitt's loss Saturday. He knows a lot of people can't believe he did it because he can't, either. He knows a lot of people are angry. He can live with it.

But something even more unusual than Robinson's foul happened in the aftermath of one of the biggest NCAA tournament blunders since Georgetown's Fred Brown passed to the wrong team:

Dignity broke out.

Robinson spoke to the press after the game and took full responsibility. He didn't blame the referees, even though a national debate erupted over the decision to call two fouls in the final seconds. He was devastated, of course, but he remained polite and respectful.

On Tuesday he told me, "I can't blame the refs. They have a job to do. I put myself in that situation, and I knew the outcome of that."

And while the rest of us were watching the scramble for Gilbert Brown's missed free throw with momentary confusion -- wait, was there a foul? -- Robinson wasn't confused at all. "I knew once I heard the ref blow his whistle what the call was going to be," he said. "I didn't have to look. I was just trying to make a play, and I knew as soon as the whistle blew what I had done."

[+] EnlargeNasir Robinson
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesNasir Robinson had 16 points and two rebounds against Butler, but hopefully he'll be remembered for the grace with which he handled the last-second foul and loss.

For what it's worth, people who watch the Pitt team on a regular basis say they've seen Robinson make that same play several times this season and come away with a strip and the ball. It's not like he intended to climb Howard's back and ruin No. 1 seed Pitt's chances to go to overtime and advance to the Sweet 16. "I just reacted," he says.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon told Robinson to keep his head up, and he attempted to impress upon him that one play never wins or loses a game. Dixon thought it was important for Robinson to understand that, so he told him more than once.

Robinson's gotten some negative responses, too. It's inevitable that sad people express their own inadequacies by taking pleasure in other people's mistakes. They might not understand that Robinson has been through worse. He got punched in the face earlier this season by Villanova's Isaiah Armwood and showed great restraint by not retaliating. He grew up in Chester, Pa., a rough city outside Philadelphia. One of his three brothers was shot during Robinson's freshman year at Pitt, so yeah -- he was upset about the foul, but there's perspective at work here, too.

"I've been hard on myself, probably harder than anyone else," he says. "I just look at this as motivation. I'm always going to remember this play and use it to get more hungry and work harder."

So save your emails. Oh, he's gotten some negative ones, trust him on that. Nasty, mean, vicious; there are far too many people who act as if they have the right to voice their low-rent hate just because the kid was on television and he's getting a scholarship and there's technology available to satisfy their cowardice.

Robinson doesn't care. He really doesn't. As he showed Saturday, he's bigger than that. Stronger, smarter, more mature.

He got a call from Charles Barkley. That was a nice surprise. Barkley said, "Keep your head up and move on. It was a tough play and a tough situation. Everyone should move on and not dwell on it."

So Robinson won't. He'll package it up inside him and unleash it on the court.

Losing with grace is a fine art. It's a rare one, too, especially when you just turned 22 and there's so much on the line, so many people watching. Definitions have changed, too. Pride has morphed from quiet dignity to random bluster, and too many guys motivate themselves by creating disrespect where none exists.

Robinson's mistake will be remembered for a long time. Fighting that is like fighting the tides. But it would be nice if everyone could attach a mental asterisk to this whole episode, something like *yeah, but he handled it like a man. Because Robinson can't see it now, but in the aftermath of one loss he taught everyone a lesson more important than he could in a lifetime of winning.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com