Flynn Robinson, 1970

[When Flynn Robinson ended his pro career in 1974, he retired to the good life in sunny Southern California. But his retirement didn’t bring carefree afternoons playing golf and tennis. Robinson preferred to keep lacing up his Pro Keds, fighting over screens, and hoisting jump shots in rec leagues around Los Angeles. Why wouldn’t he?  As Robinson later explained, “Basketball has been my life.” 

By the early 2000s, Robinson was still working the SoCal rec centers. Somebody somewhere even named Robinson, called “Instant Offense,” by Lakers’ announcer Chick Hearn during his NBA career, as one of the top three players in the world in the 60 – 69 age group. All the while, Robinson remained committed to working with kids and giving them encouragement to succeed in life, just like he did. 

Robinson sadly passed away from cancer about eight years ago at the age of 72. With Robinson’s basketball legend now very much on the wane, let’s not forget “Instant Offense” and take a look back at his all-star season with the Milwaukee Bucks during the 1969-70 season. Our tour guide is journalist Jonathan Segal, who wrote this article about Robinson for the April 1970 issue of SPORT Magazine. The headline: A Basket Quicker Than You Can Say Flynn Robinson, 1970]

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Enter Flynn Robinson, professional basketball player, Milwaukee Bucks. He walks through the hotel lobby virtually unnoticed, except perhaps for an admiring glance at his stylish wardrobe. A writer approaches. They shake hands, and the writer explains that he wants to do a magazine piece on him. Robinson laughs, says he is busy and has to run. The writer insists he is not joking. Robinson is amazed. “I’m sorry, man,” he says, “but . . . well, no one has ever done a story on me before.”

Surprising? In one way it isn’t. Robinson is a small man (6-foot-1) who has played on three NBA teams that generally have had limited success. But, then again, he also is one of the league’s all-star guards. 

Robinson, an outstanding shooter in college, has matured into an outstanding pro scorer in this is fourth season. His reputation among his rival guards is high; his ability to “go to the hoop” well respected. On a hot night, he seems almost impossible to stop. In fact, one outstanding NBA guard says the only way to defend against Robinson is to jostle him. This season, however, Robinson’s career had entered a new stage in which he no longer could be satisfied just with putting the ball in the basket. 

“I feel I must put 22 points and six or seven assists together each night and play tough defense to make a good contribution,” he says. “If I don’t, I’m not doing my job.”

Through mid-January, Robinson was averaging 22.8 points and 5.3 assists per game. He also was making over 90 percent of his foul shots to seriously threaten Bill Sharman’s season record for free-throw accuracy. Flynn was also an All-Star selection who, along with Lew Alcindor, was helping to lead the fast-improving Bucks in their pursuit of the Knicks in the Eastern Division. The captain and quarterback of the Bucks was indeed doing his job. 

Last season, Flynn gave strong indications that he was coming on as one of the league’s premier guards, and he confirmed it early this year. In an exhibition game against the Knicks in October, he was matched against Walt Frazier, who was voted the NBA’s top defender last season. Robinson scored 40 points; Frazier 14. Though he had put on a superb shooting demonstration, Milwaukee coach Larry Costello was more impressed by Robinson’s work at the other end of the court. 

“Flynn can play great defense, and he proved it tonight,” said the coach. “He is quick and fast, and he has great reflexes, so he can pick up the other guy’s moves without being thrown off stride.”

Still, it took some regular-season games this year for Robinson and the Bucks to fully believe in themselves, which is understandable for a second-year expansion team that had finished last in 1968-69. The opener provided an immediate boost. The game was against Detroit in Milwaukee, with national television on hand to cover Alcindor’s debut. Alcindor put on a good show, but so did Flynn Robinson, who scored 23 points and had five assists in 28 minutes of playing time. 

“We realized after that game that if we did our jobs, Lew was going to be doing his,” Robinson said. “I think we got a lot of confidence from that first game, especially because we beat a club that we would have to beat out for a playoff spot.”

But after winning their first three games, the Bucks went into a .500 pattern for a month and a half as the young players (including five rookies) adjusted to each other and the pro game. Then on December 10, they played the Knicks in Milwaukee in a game that would have profound significance.

The Bucks had been bombed by the Knicks the night before in New York, the third straight time in three meetings with the league leaders. This game, however, was tight all the way. With 14 seconds left, Milwaukee trailed by a point. The Bucks took time out, and coach Larry Costello selected Robinson to take the last shot. He took it, but was pressured by Mike Riordan and the ball went nowhere near the basket. The Knicks clung to their one-point advantage as the buzzer sounded. Robinson, who had scored 30 points to break a personal slump, was, of course, deeply disappointed afterwards in the locker room. 

With the passage of time, however, he viewed the defeat much differently. “After being bombed out the night before, we showed we could come back and play their great team even-up,” he said. “We felt we should have won the game and that we were going to beat them before too many more games went by. Personally, it was very important to me. When we got in that huddle and Larry said he wanted me to take that last shot, I knew I had earned some respect and responsibility.”

That loss was Milwaukee’s last for two weeks. They ran off a seven-game win streak, lost in overtime to Cincinnati-—a game in which Robinson scored 42—and then beat Baltimore twice, San Diego, and New York before losing to Atlanta by a point. 

In that span, Robinson averaged 29.5 points per game, with a low game of 22 and a high of 42. He shot over 50 percent from the floor. He penetrated, he sank bombs from the outside, and he played almost 40 minutes of basketball a night—at both ends of the court. For the first time in his life, Flynn Robinson was recognized as one of the world’s finest basketball players. 

Recognition’s been a long time coming. Robinson first played organized basketball at Murphysboro (Illinois) Township High School, a few miles from the Missouri state line, but after two years, his family moved to Elgin, Illinois, where he played his last two years for Elgin High School. At Elgin, basketball was the wrong sport to play if you were interested in getting attention, because the school had produced a state champion football team the year before Flynn arrived. That was still the talk of the town. Though Robinson liked football, he was persuaded to concentrate on basketball exclusively if he wanted to play professionally. 

For a year after he graduated, Robinson played AAU ball in Chicago, then accepted a basketball scholarship to the University of Wyoming, a school that was ready to make a serious recruiting effort to become a basketball power. By the time Robinson left Laramie, he had scored close to 2,500 points to rank as the 15th-leading college career scorer (at that time) and the highest scorer in Wyoming’s history. 

The Wyoming coach then and now is Bill Strannigan. When he speaks about Robinson, it is almost with reverence. “In 22 years of college coaching, I’ve never seen a better ballplayer of Flynn’s size,” says Strannigan. “His determination was his biggest attribute in his approach to the game: The moment he stepped on campus he made it clear that he wanted to play ball and to excel at it. Although he never worked for 40 minutes defensively the way I would have liked him to, I felt that many times it was because he worked so hard, so long, at the other end of the court. He was voted team captain his senior year, so I think the team showed how much they appreciated his efforts.”

The team may have appreciated Robinson’s efforts, but they were about the only ones. “Publicity-wise, Wyoming did not afford me too much, and I came to the NBA pretty much unheralded,” says Flynn, who was the second draft choice of the Cincinnati Royals in 1965. “I kind of wished it was different at first, but I got used to it in no time at all.”

A severe chest infection stopped him from signing a contract immediately with the Royals, but after six months of recuperation and six more months of AAU ball, he joined Cincinnati at the beginning of the 1966-67 season. He wisely spent most of his time studying Oscar Robertson. 

“By just talking to and watching Oscar, I had to make myself better,” Robinson says. “He taught me how to drive better, how to protect the side, to draw a man one-on-one and then beat him, to fight over picks quicker, to stop reaching on defense, to forget about stealing the ball all the time, and to concentrate on playing position.”

Flynn soon found himself able to play better defense, shoot quicker, and change speeds with greater expertise. In that first season, he got into 76 games and scored just under nine points per game on a 46 percent shooting average. He showed lots of promise, but with Robertson a fixture in the Royals’ backcourt, there wasn’t much room for a young guard to advance. One week into the ’67-68 season, Flynn was traded to Chicago for Guy Rodgers. 

“The trade didn’t bother me too much, really,” he says, looking back. “For one thing, I was going to be living and playing most of the games in Chicago, not too far from Elgin. And I knew there was a starting job for me with the Bulls if I could prove myself. In Cincinnati, it would have been awful hard. And by the time I was traded, I had proved something to myself—I knew I could play in this league. I had convinced myself that, given enough court time, I could be a top pro.”

As Flynn sees it, when he joined Chicago, he was the last man on the squad. By midseason, however, he was a starter and eventually finished second to Bob Boozer in team scoring, averaging 15.7 points per game. In the first-round of the playoffs against Los Angeles, he averaged 20.2 for five games, including one 41-point night. And, as he had anticipated, Robinson enjoyed the Chicago surroundings; he played his best games at home throughout the season. Soon, however, he had a new home again. On November 23, 1968, he was traded to Milwaukee for Bob Love and Bob Weiss.

Milwaukee was in its first year, and, from the very beginning, Larry Costello was a reliable and enthusiastic coach, aiming not to win a title but to break the expansion record and build for the future. Costello had made some things clear when the franchise was in its infancy.” “One thing I will always stress is team play. I want players who love the game. A lot of them don’t, and, if you don’t love the game, forget it.”

The ’68-69 season proved love along is not enough. Paced by Robinson’s 20.3 points per game, the Bucks managed to win 27 games, the second-highest number ever won by an expansion team, but it was clear that, without an outstanding big man, progress would be limited. 

Then, last March 19, [NBA commissioner] Walter Kennedy flipped a coin, and, two weeks later, the Bucks had a contract with the name “Alcindor” scribbled on it. Joy in Mudville. Joy in particular for Flynn Robinson.

“Having Lew in the middle really helps me,” he said, “especially if I get into trouble. I can always get the ball to him. They’re not sagging off me to double-team him like I thought they would, but it’s not as crowded when I drive to the basket as it used to be. They can’t climb all over me and leave Lew unguarded. And, on defense, we can gamble so much more knowing he’s underneath.”

Alcindor’s reactions to playing with Robinson are complimentary and succinct: “Flynn can really put the ball in the hoop. I very rarely have to set a pick for him and, when I do, he usually goes the other way and scores.”

The happy court marriage of Costello, Alcindor, and Robinson has at least given Flynn some measure of fame in the form of his selection to the All-Star team. Flynn made it very clear even before the balloting that “just being a member of the team is an honor. I know I’m not playing in New York, and that has its disadvantages in a getting a name. But Milwaukee is a helluva town, with some great people and one helluva owner,” he said. “No, it’s not New York, but New York’s not the only city I can be happy in. Recognition is something that every athlete wants deep inside, and it sometimes hurt me when other guys in the league were getting publicity that I thought I had earned the right to be a part of. But recognition will come with winning and, in the end, that is most important.”

It is this message that Robinson brings to groups of kids either in summer work in the city or a speaking engagement in the suburbs. He takes special pride in the fact that through his efforts he has won athletic scholarships for 17 boys in the past three years. In the offseason, he has been involved in recreational programs for kids in which he organizes neighborhood tournaments and holds clinics. “I tell the kids to just try to be the best at what you do, no matter what it is,” says Robinson. There are few better than Flynn Robinson at what he does.

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