Salute to Services: Kansas' Shay Robinson
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, an American Airlines Boeing 767 crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, killing close to 3,000 people and changing the lives of countless more. One of those people was Kansas women’s basketball assistant coach Shay Robinson.
Robinson, an E5 Staff Sergeant in the United States Air Force, was at work when the attacks occurred and remembers immediately calling his commander to check in. Less than an hour later, the base was a full-battle staff and every commander on base was in the command center putting together a plan of defense. The result – Robinson was on one of the initial waves of troops to land in Afghanistan on Oct. 5.
“Before 9/11 it was all exercises that prepared us physically and mentally to be prepared for wartime then in a split second wartime is your reality,” Robinson said. “Now you have to execute every second of everyday and people’s lives are now at stake”.
Robinson made three tours in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Weapons Load Crew member on F-16s, as well as a Special Operations Senior Command Post Controller, before his honorable discharge in 2004. During more than eight years of duty, Robinson received various medals, including the distinguished John Levitow Award in 2002 and was named Air Force Special Operations Command, Command Post Controller of the Year in 2002-03. Nine years later, Robinson still carries his lessons learned from the Air Force with him everyday.
“What I take with me and what I try to preach all the time to the team is to understand that every day you wake up you have to win and part of that is loving the sacrifice,” Robinson said. “Whether that sacrifice is for the safety and freedom of the soldier next to me, their family, my family and friends and even those I have never met. It’s understanding that my role and what I have to do in fighting for freedom and knowing that it’s big time pressure, but at the same time it’s handling that pressure and that sacrifice.”
Robinson, a Greensboro, N.C., native, joined the Air Force after his college experience didn’t go the way he wanted it to. Robinson said he needed to get control of his life and says it was one of the best decisions he ever made. He continued to play ball during his time in the service, traveling all over the country and playing with his base teams. Robinson admits that his time in the military gave him a new outlook on the game.
“Going through my military background and the things I have seen in my eight years of serving, I gained an understanding that you can’t get away from pain,” Robinson said. “The thing is, do you want your pain to result in success or failure? It’s about how you channel it and how you use it. That’s one of the main things that I discovered when I transitioned from athlete to soldier, to now coaching, is learning to embrace that pain be it physical or psychological and using it to enhance my ability and performance.”
When he received his discharge in 2004, Robinson finished up his associates degree and then enrolled at the University of Central Florida in the sports and fitness program. As part of his degree at UCF, Robinson was required to get practicum hours. Around the same time, Dee Brown of the Boston Celtics opened up a training facility in Orlando, Fla. Robinson attended the grand opening and introduced himself to Brown and asked if he could start volunteering for school credit.
After volunteering for six months, Brown asked Robinson if he wanted to come on staff full-time. This was the break Robinson, who was finishing up his Master’s Degree at the time, needed to kick-start his coaching career. Robinson eventually worked his way up to Associate Director and Lead Instructor at the facility, working with clientele that ranged from NBA and professional Euro League players all the way to high school. While working as a trainer, Robinson began coaching on the side, working on the AAU, girl’s and boy’s high school and men’s junior college levels before receiving a call to return to The Air Force Academy as an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team.
“That was surreal,” Robinson said. “Going back there was really cool for me, because it was a different way for me to serve. Now I could take my experiences and it was directly attached and related to what they were trying to achieve. I felt like I had a strong message and a strong tie with them. I understood the environment, the steps they were taking now and what will be demanded of them as future Air Force Officers. I just used the game of basketball to compliment the lessons and mission of The Air Force Academy that would prepare them for their military careers and life after.”
After spending two seasons at Air Force, from 2011-13, Robinson received a call from Kansas assistant coach Mahogany Green-Eddie to gauge his interest in coaching the Jayhawks. Robinson was familiar with Kansas from his time as a trainer when he would come to Lawrence to work men’s basketball camps.
“It was like a dream job, honestly,” Robinson said. “I grew up a Tar Heel of course, but I’ve always had a lot of love for Kansas. Walking in my office is still kind of crazy, I’m thankful every time I come in here. Thankful and proud, because I understand that this is the Mecca, where it all started and I’m just blessed to be in this situation.”
Robinson now has a new mission: teaching life lessons to his players that will last them well beyond their time on the basketball court.
“The same way that I went about at missions when I was in the service, is the same way that I go about my job here, with the same drive and the same passion,” Robinson said. “It’s all about a successful life and we are using basketball to teach those lessons. Basketball is my classroom and my mission is to make sure that these kids are successful 10, 15, 20 years from now. That’s my passion.”
Robinson still stays in contact with his fellow service members, despite being discharged for nearly a decade.
“My boys that I hooped with and worked with when I was in the service, we stay in contact all the time,” Robinson said. “Some of my guys are overseas now, but anytime I go recruiting and I am close by any of them, I always try to meet up with them. That is a brotherhood that is going to last forever.”
Veterans Day, Nov. 11, is a day that we set aside in the United States to honor veterans like Robinson, who have served in The Armed Services and defended our freedom. The day holds a special meaning for Robinson.
“Veterans Day is big for me,” Robinson said. “It’s a day for me to say thank you to those who have served, those who are serving and those that will serve. At the same time, I thank God that I’m here doing what I’m able to do today, because, Lord knows, I didn’t think I would be in Afghanistan from 2001-04 and nine years later, I’m sitting here at Kansas coaching women’s basketball. I’m just thankful every day I put my feet on the floor when I roll out of the bed that I am blessed to be in a profession I have loved since I was a kid and all of those who helped me get here. So it is a day of reflection on all of that for me.”