WKU basketball faithful saw the future Saturday and it rode into town on a charter bus leased from New Orleans.
Mitchell Robinson, the 5-star, top-rated center in the nation, Hilltopper signee, led his Chalmette high school team into Bowling Green High School where red towels waved in the Purples’ gym. When his name was called in the lineup announcement, the crowd cheered. When during the game a foul call went against the 7-footer, the crowed jeered.
The Owls from south Louisiana were playing Louisville Ballard in the second day of the Wes Strader Schoolboy Classic. The guys from two hours up the road were the home team on the scoreboard – a scoreboard in their home state – but they were the visitors as far as demonstrated crowd support. (If a person jumped into a bus and drove straight through, it would take them nearly 9 hours to get to Chalmette, La. from Bowling Green.)
Robinson did not disappoint those drooling to see him in Topper red next season. He opened the game with a made 3-pointer. He reverse dunked an ally-oop. He finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and eight blocks. A couple of the blocks were on Ballard 3-point attempts. The Bruins won 75-63.
(NOTE: Ballard is a good team. It has five losses this season with three to Fern Creek.)
When the Owls were finished at BGHS, they spent the evening watching the Toppers fall behind early to Marshall at E.A. Diddle Arena, then rally late to make a game of it. I can only imagine that Robinson was watching from the stands and thinking, “These boys need my help.”
Rick Stansbury said in his post-game press conference that Robinson has a lot of potential and that he looks forward to getting him “over here.”
Many of the old timers who were at Bowling Green earlier in the day mentioned Robinson with the same breath as Jim McDaniels. One of them said, “Jim McDaniels played like that before playing like that was popular.” It’s hard to know the validity of such statements, but many of the folks from south central Kentucky make the claim the Allen County product was a big man before his time. He had range on his shot and quickness in his step, they say. WKU fans are so enamored with the legend because he was a local kid who led the Toppers to the NCAA Final Four in 1971.
Stansbury, being a Kentucky boy himself, is likely well aware of the McDaniels, especially his legacy with the Hilltoppers’ program. But Robinson might remind him of a recruit who got away.
Back in 1999, a 6’11’ kid from Picayune, Miss., signed to play for Mississippi State. MSU had reached the Final Four a few years earlier with Richard Williams as the head coach and Stansbury on the bench as an assistant. Williams retired in 1998. Stansbury landed the top job. He had just finished his first season in that role when Jonathan Bender – a position-bending big man – was set to join the program. It was an in-state signing coup for Stansbury and the Bulldogs.
At that time, Bender was lightly known outside the Magnolia State. That was until he showed up at the McDonald’s All-American game and broke an 18-year old scoring record held by Michael Jordan. Bender posted 31 points, which included making a couple of 3s. He also had 10 assists. The highlight reel night lifted Bender in the national spotlight and eventually led him to jump into the NBA draft, where he was picked fifth by the Toronto Raptors before being traded to Indiana.
Many folks might remember Bender’s flame out of a professional career due to bad knees, but those who really paid attention might have seen the future of basketball on the horizon. About the time Bender’s career ended, along came Kevin Durant and then Anthony Davis.
Robinson showed flashes of his ball-handling skills Saturday to go along with his shooting range and shot-blocking ability. With some weight, work and good health, he should make the Topper faithful proud.
James Brown is digital director for Commonwealth Broadcasting. He spent 20 years covering high school sports in Kentucky and Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter @JbrownESPNKY.
Watch the 1999 McDonald’s All American game here: