Robbins raising 'Cane at Tulsa

Updated: November 22, 2006, 6:10 PM ET
By Beth Mowins | Special to ESPN.com

The 2005-06 season was the perfect storm for the Golden Hurricane.

Jillian Robbins
AP Photo/Jeffrey HaderthauerJillian Robbins averaged 17.9 points and 12.8 rebounds last season as Tulsa reached its first NCAA Tournament.

Tulsa dominated Conference USA, winning its first regular-season and tournament titles en route to a program-best 26 victories. And in their first NCAA Tournament appearance, the Golden Hurricane even flirted with the Sweet 16.

With C-USA Player of the Year Jillian Robbins back for her senior season, Tulsa is looking to add to the success. Trouble is, surrounded by a much younger cast after graduating three starters, Robbins has been forced to become "Team Mom" for Tulsa this season.

The Golden Hurricane, however, couldn't have a better person for the job, considering Robbins already has the role covered on her life résumé.

Robbins' son, Jordan, entered her life two years ago. The pregnancy and birth could have derailed a promising basketball career. It could also have ended a young woman's dream of a earning a college degree and making a better life for her son.

Instead, Robbins, Jordan and a seemingly endless supply of mother's little helpers had other plans.

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GETTING DEFENSIVE
ESPN's Beth Mowins is part of a committee that will select the Women's Basketball Coaches Association national defensive player of the year.

Right now, Mowins says several players -- including Tulsa senior Jillian Robbins -- should be considered early frontrunners for the honor. Among Mowins' other candidates are: Duke's Lindsey Harding and Alison Bales, Rutgers' Essence Carson and Matee Ajavon, Mississippi's Armintie Price, LSU's Sylvia Fowles, Oklahoma's Courtney Paris, Middle Tennessee's Chrissy Givens, Ohio State's Jessica Davenport and UNC's Camille Little.

Tulsa coach Charlene Thomas-Swinson makes a strong case for Robbins.

"Jillian is very athletic and has a natural gift to get to the basketball," Thomas-Swinson said. "She's a good rebounder and shot-blocker with great timing. When I talk to opponents, they say you can't keep up with her quickness and you can't keep her away from the ball."

Women's basketball fans are fairly well-versed with Robbins' life as a basketball player. She is one of the nation's top defenders, but despite honorable mention All-America accolades last season, she remains perhaps the most underappreciated talent in the nation. Robbins is reminiscent of Temple star Candice Dupree, who during her career emerged from the shadows to lead the Owls to unprecedented success before moving on to the WNBA last summer.

Robbins' coach at Tulsa, Charlene Thomas-Swinson, said her star pupil reminds her of some other big names who have had a big impact.

"When I watch Jillian, she's always playing hard and she's always around the ball," said Thomas-Swinson, who played and then coached in the SEC before landing in Tulsa. "She reminds me of a [Mississippi State All-American] LaToya Thomas, [Tennessee's] Gwen Jackson … or even [Connecticut All-American] Swin Cash."

Last season -- which included an upset of NC State in the NCAA Tournament -- Robbins also was the C-USA Defensive Player of the Year. She was double trouble with a double-double average of 17.9 points and 12.8 rebounds. She also chalked up two steals and two blocks per game.

This year it's a whole new ball game in Tulsa with three freshmen in the starting lineup and six newcomers on the roster overall. Outsiders might consider this a problem. But again, insiders know they've got just the woman for the job of helping the young kids grow up fast.

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"Last year ran smoothly for the most part," said Robbins, whose son lives with her parents, Beverly and Earl Burroughs, in Texas during the season. "Even though we were transitioning to a new coach and the new triangle offense, we had an experienced group and we picked it up quickly.

"This year we have to help out the newcomers. I've taken on more of a mom role, and I'm trying to teach them what it takes to be successful."

Coach Thomas-Swinson gladly accepts any help Robbins can offer and knows motherhood has provided her with a maturity few college kids have.

"Jillian's biggest challenge is to not just lead by example, but to be more vocal and hands-on with the rest of the team," Thomas-Swinson said. "She's a mother, so she knows what is necessary. She's willing to slow things down, to be patient, to be more vocal. She's talking and teaching more this year and her message is one that she lives every day: roll up your sleeves and go to work."

That's another thing that sets Robbins apart from most student-athletes. With a son to provide for, "Double Trouble" works double time -- even during preseason two-a-days -- at two jobs, one at the campus fitness center and a second at "The Buckle" store in the mall. And then there's a class schedule that locks up her Tuesdays and Thursdays.

In her spare time (is there any left?), Robbins checks in on her grandmother, Flossie Robbins, who also lives in Tulsa. Flossie's husband died last summer and Jillian likes to go over to the house for a dose of family chitchat and episodes of Flossie's favorite TV shows, "Dancing with the Stars" and "Law & Order."

Sometimes it seems as if Tulsa has always been home to Robbins, who was born there and lived there through elementary school until the family moved to Texas. Still, Robbins always imagined she would return to Tulsa to do special things.

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At first it looked like the trip back to Tulsa might have been the wrong move. She was sidelined by an ACL injury her freshman year in 2002-03, and then got pregnant before her sophomore season. But Robbins persevered.

Jillian Robbins (14)
AP Photo/ Donna McWilliamAn honorable mention All-American, Jillian Robbins is Tulsa's all-time leader in scoring, rebounding, field goals, blocked shots and double-doubles.

Jordan was born that September and Robbins was with the team when practice started just one month later. She has been there for Jordan and for her teammates every day since, though some days are better than others.

"It was right around this time last fall that she wasn't acting like herself," said Thomas-Swinson, who was pregnant last season and gave birth to her second child last April. "You could tell she was missing Jordan. She's had motherhood discussions with me and we've dealt with some issues that most coaches and players might not have to deal with. But then again, her focus is different than other student-athletes. She's human, but very mature."

Robbins quickly admits it's difficult to be away from Jordan.

"I just take it one day at a time," she said. "He's learning new stuff all the time and I don't get to see it. He has learned how to spell his name and sing songs. I try to make the best out of it and look forward to when I can see him again.

"It's a learning experience for both of us. Jordan has changed my mentality about life. Normally I'm pretty stressed out, but he's taught me to take a moment and catch my breath and step back when things get crazy."

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Tulsa has had to undergo a learning curve, as well. Thomas-Swinson took over the team just last year. She arrived with high expectations for a veteran group, and having a leader like Robbins helped pave the way.

"Jillian's own experience with Jordan helped our team immensely," Thomas-Swinson said. "She was very sensitive to my needs as a pregnant woman, not just a coach. She got the team together on her own and told them that there would be days when I might be moody or fatigued and they adapted accordingly."

From her own experience, Robbins knows how fatigue can affect someone who's pregnant.

"We as players needed to help alleviate some of that stress and help each other out to make things easier," Robbins said. "Coach was in a new job in a new town, so I would help watch her older son, Charles, and recommend good places to get a buffet meal, which every pregnant mother likes."

In her own words, Robbins has "accepted more personal responsibility."

"I have to do my job and help others do theirs," said Robbins, whose own favorite "pregnant foods" included Piccadilly catfish, macaroni and cheese, Jell-O and a Sprite. "I'm much more aware of what's going on around me, and I understand that I am the last line of dependability."

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That dependability will be tested like never before on the basketball court in the next couple of weeks. Robbins, a 6-foot-1 undersized post player, is about to embark on a daunting task of muscling up with some of the best big girls in the nation.

Tulsa's schedule includes meetings with 6-6 Sylvia Fowles of LSU on Friday, a double dose of FSU's 6-4 Britany Miller and 6-4 Jacinta Monroe on Monday, and then Oklahoma's 6-4 twins, Courtney and Ashley Paris, on Dec. 2.

After two years of twisting a diaper genie, cleaning SpaghettiOs off the ceiling and chasing a toddler, Robbins is ready for someone her own size.

"There are tons of mid-majors and smaller schools that don't get a lot of respect," Robbins said. "We need to make the most of this chance against the big names. We have to prove we are worthy and that we belong. We were not surprised by our NCAA success last year. We're pretty darn good and getting better.

"What do I lack? A lot. I'm 6-1 and all bony parts. But I can run and I can work hard, so that's what I'll do against them."

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Among everything else in Robbins' story, there's the irony of the situation. Robbins could have run. She could have walked away after the torn ACL. She could have bolted after the birth of her son. And she could have thrown in the towel with life's load of motherhood, work, school and basketball bearing down on her.

Instead, she chose the hard work.

"I get overwhelmed … oh … about once a week!" Robbins admitted. "But that's when I lean on my support system. That's when I think of Jordan and remember to make the best out of moments with my family and teammates."

Jordan is with Jillian's mom and dad north of Houston, down in Spring, Texas. He stays with Beverly and Earl Burroughs during the basketball season and then joins Jillian in Tulsa in the spring and summer.

When Jordan is on campus, it's just the two of them -- and a support team that would rival the best NASCAR pit crew. For practice or during pickup games, friends and school support staff keep an eye on Jordan. Or sometimes it might be a Tulsa men's basketball player or football player who will lend a helping hand. Jordan's father is also around and living in Tulsa, and there is Jillian's aunt as well as Grandma Flossie.

When Jillian has to go to class, her teammate and roommate, Tandem Mays, takes over. Mays' "play group" for Jordan consists of Tulsa teammates Chivis Merriweather and Jamie Dreiling.

"He's a piece of work," Robbins says of her precocious son. "He's me, in little boy form. He loves to hang out, he loves sports and loves being around people. He'll play with anything that looks like a ball and he loves being with the girls on the team."

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Robbins doesn't like to look too far ahead into the future. But she does have one date circled on the calendar. She is set to graduate Dec. 16 with a major in psychology, a minor in marketing and papers for African-American Studies and Women's Studies.

She'll walk across that stage with her families in the audience. Her extended family of Tulsa basketball will be there, and so will her immediate family of grandma Flossie, her parents, brother and sister, and Jordan.

"I don't like to think about it too much because I will freak out," Robbins said. "But it will be a special day considering what it has taken to make it there.

"People like to call me a single mother and I have to laugh. My mom does it all for eight or nine months and my dad does whatever else needs to be done. They are raising Jordan as well as my brother and sister, who still live at home. I can't thank them enough because I've gotten everything out of the college experience that I could possibly hope for and it's all because of them."

After the December graduation, there is still plenty of work to be done for this power forward, mother and team mom. There is a basketball program to keep building at Tulsa and there is a young boy to be raised. Both projects go hand in hand.

"I want to go out successfully," Robbins said. "I want to leave my mark. I'm a fate person, and I believe it will all work out."

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

Beth Mowins

Women's Basketball
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.