The kid has more baggage than a cargo plane. We know that. The college basketball player-as-sociology-project is nothing new. Robert Whaley is UC's biggest risk-reward recruit since Dontonio Wingfield. We know how Wingfield turned out.
We know the climate has changed at UC, that even passionate UC and Bob Huggins fans questioned Whaley's admission. We know Nancy Zimpher, the new UC president, is not the big fan Joe Steger, the old president, was. She will be cheering. Also, watching.
We also know Huggins has never been paid to produce scholars. Until he is, we won't judge him that way.
We know what Robert Whaley has done. We'd like to see what he can do. We aim to give him that chance. If it doesn't work, we'll crank up the Second Guess Band. For now, Whaley should play on.
He's 20 years old with a 9-month-old son. He's a 6-foot-10 manchild with the same dreams, fears and background we've written about for years: raised by his mom, mentored by his high school coach, badly influenced by straying friends, dreams of the NBA. Wants to do right. Tries. Fails. Tries again. Jury very much out.
He listens to a rapper from his down-and-dirty hometown of Benton Harbor, Mich. Fatsola plays on Robert Whaley's Discman, a cut called "Self Made Record."
I'm worth my wait in gold, so you gotta pay me;
I'm a Benton Harbor legend, like Robert Whaley
Whaley the hometown legend had Muhammad Ali check out one of his high school games. Ali lives on a farm in nearby Berrien Springs. Whaley himself looks a little like Ali, a face that's strong and soft at the same time.
Ask Whaley, "What's the nicest thing anybody ever said to you?" He says, "I'm gonna think about that." He has no trouble recalling the worst thing:
"The last time I was home, one of the guys I grew up with told me, 'I can't wait for you to come home and be like the rest of us.' "
Like the rest of us?
"Thugs. Nothing to live for."
Lou Harvey saved his life. These are Whaley's words. Ask Whaley if life allowed him one do-over, what would it be, he says quickly, "Leaving Coach Harvey's house and going back home."
When a juvenile judge had seen enough of Whaley the 6-7 eighth-grader in his courtroom, he said, "Son, I'm going to send you away." Harvey took Whaley in instead. He was his high school coach and became Whaley's legal guardian. It worked for three years, until Whaley tired of the discipline and left after 10th grade. "If I'd have stayed, none of the trouble would have happened," he said. "Worst mistake of my life."
Whaley isn't specific about his transgressions.
"My problem? I was always taller, so I hung with the older crowd, doing older things. Other than Coach Harvey, the only role model I had was my mom, but she worked three jobs and was never around."
He wants to do well. This is what he says. Until now, he has taken the easy way out. "It didn't work. I've found that sometimes, the hard way is the best way."
It's why he came to UC. Huggins' first words to the two-time junior-college all-American problem child were, "All you get from me is a hard time and a pair of sneakers."
"I was used to coaches coming in there and blowing me smoke. There wasn't no smoke blown. He told me he was gonna work the mess outta me," Whaley says.
For his part, Huggins says: "I think he understands he needs it. Before Rob got here, he really hadn't worked very hard."
Whaley says his best friend is his girlfriend, Tequela Blackwell, the mother of Robert Jr. You ask him, "What's the nicest present you ever got?" He says, "Can I say my son? He inspires me. I'd rather go to my grave than have him grow up the way I did. I want to be a father figure from Day 1."
Whaley says his life "has been like a movie. So many ups and downs."
What's the working title, you ask. "We Fall Down, But We Get Up," Whaley says.
His perfect day is a good breakfast, lifting weights, getting to class on time, working on his game, talking to his mother on the phone and going to bed. His oldest sister is an Army veteran. One of his other sisters played five years in the WNBA and is now an assistant women's coach at Indiana. The last time they played one-on-one, she beat him. Whaley says it was several years ago. He says he let her win.
Whaley describes himself as "very intelligent, outspoken, kind-hearted and friendly." He describes his game as "unselfish and dynamic. I want to say I'm a hard worker, but I'm working so hard to work hard, you know? I got to admit, I was lazy, but all that is changing. It's got to." Whaley has a jump hook he says is "unblockable."
Huggins says Whaley is skilled but doesn't know how to play. Once the UC weight room carves away some of his excess marbling, Huggins says Whaley will resemble Danny Fortson. But Whaley lacks Fortson's assertiveness and need for the ball. "He's a good passer," Huggins says. Whaley works out with Jason Maxiell, one of the most try-hard players Huggins has had.
Whaley is coachable, if only because he's mature enough to understand he has no choice. The skeletons aren't in his closet. They're dancing around the room. He's on probation for a year since June, when a judge convicted him on two counts of misdemeanor battery, stemming from a fight in February. If he violates it, he goes to jail.
That came two years after a mistrial was declared in a case where police charged Whaley with criminal sexual conduct.
So we ask Huggins: "Is this the biggest risk-reward guy you've taken in a long while?"
"I suppose," Huggins says.
"Is he still at risk?"
These days all players are at risk, Huggins says. "I think he's a really nice kid."
Is he? Seems to be. Whaley is open, friendly, speaks softly, admits much, cares deeply. Wants to do well. The jury is out.
A sportswriter's biggest fear is being conned. You write nice things about someone and he makes you look silly. It's why cynicism rules most days. But there are times to squint your eyes, and there are times to open them wide.
This seems a time to open wide and let Robert Whaley in. Second chances mean more than second guesses, unless they are blown. It's not what happens to you. It's what you do about it. Whaley has that figured out.
We fall down, but we get up. Whaley's own Self Made Record started spinning Friday. Play on.
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