NEW YORK -- A year ago at this time, Stanley Robinson was working at a scrap metal yard not far from the UConn campus in Willimantic, Conn. He was battling a combination of medical and financial issues, so UConn coach Jim Calhoun told the 6-foot-9, 210-pound forward to take a leave of absence from the basketball program to gain some perspective and maturity.
"We told him to take the time off, told him he had to work," Calhoun said Wednesday night after his No. 13 Huskies crushed LSU, 81-55, in the semifinals of the Dick's Sporting Goods NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden.
"If he came back, he would have to pay for his semester with a Pell Grant, and he did."
A year later, Robinson appears to have steadied his ship, and his job now revolves around the classroom and the basketball court. He put up 14 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks for the Huskies (4-0), who will face No. 7 Duke in Friday's championship game. Sophomore guard Kemba Walker and senior guard Jerome Dyson added 20 points apiece for UConn.
Calhoun says that Robinson was dealing with a "medical reason" last season, while Robinson emphasizes that it was more of a financial concern.
"It was a medical situation he needed medication for," Calhoun said. "The situation where he was not being able to do a lot of things focus-wise, otherwise, and everything was going to pot, to be quite honest with you. Everything was turning up in his life."
Robinson, who has two young daughters, Kamilah, 4, and Kelsi, 2, emphasized the financial aspect of his situation. The girls are being raised in Alabama by their mother, Martia Simmons, whom Robinson describes as his "high school sweetheart." Simmons works as a nursing aid and also attends school, Robinson said.
"My kids' day care was $300 a piece for them, and I had to work for them," Robinson said. "So I pretty much had to handle my responsibility. It was more of a family problem than anything."
Whatever the case, last fall Robinson arose at 6 o'clock in the morning before putting in long, hard days stacking aluminum rims and separating copper for a weekly paycheck of $700.
During his shift, he would impress his Spanish-speaking co-workers by shooting basketball-sized bails of plastic foam into a box from 15 feet away.
"He was throwing them in the box and making eight out of 10 from a good distance," Ruslan Inyatkin, Robinson's boss at the scrap metal yard, said last year. "It was pretty amazing. All the guys were watching. They got a kick out of it."
After the shift ended at 4 p.m., Robinson would run 3.4 miles, lift weights and shoot baskets.
He returned to the team in mid-December to average 8.5 points and 5.9 rebounds. But as the Huskies made their run to the Final Four in Detroit, Robinson hit another gear, averaging 14.8 points and 8.4 boards.
Robinson figures to be a first-round NBA pick next June, and Calhoun isn't shy about promoting him. He compares him to Syracuse's star junior wing Wesley Johnson, who put up 25 points and eight rebounds last Friday when the Orange demolished defending NCAA champion North Carolina in the Coaches vs. Cancer final at the Garden.
"I told him, the kid Johnson at Syracuse is making things happen for Syracuse, and I think Stanley is at least as good, but he's got to start doing some of the same things that Johnson is doing," Calhoun said.
UConn has 13 former players in the NBA and has a long tradition of sending athletic big men to the league, from Emeka Okafor to Josh Boone to Hasheem Thabeet.
"He put a lot of players in that league," Robinson said of Calhoun.
For now, he says he's happy to be out of the scrap yard and back in college.
"I'm just taking it a day at a time," he said. "Just playing college basketball."
The better Robinson plays this season, the more he focuses, the better it will be for UConn, for Robinson and for his family in the long run.
"He can do so much for his family and himself that I really want it for him very badly, and he can do it because he has incredible ability," Calhoun said. "And if he does that, he could have a heck of a year, which in turn means that we're going to have a heck of a year."