The Son of Lake Forest Native Elisabeth Kinney Robinson Is Making History in the NBA Finals
By David A. F. Sweet
Still in high school in 2002, LeBron James appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated — right in the middle of the Winter Olympics, when skiing gold medalists might’ve expected to land there instead. Duncan Robinson didn’t quite get the same publicity when he was playing basketball at Phillips Exeter Academy, the elite prep school that has never been confused with a basketball factory.
While James zoomed straight to the NBA after high-school graduation, Robinson attended Williams, a Division III college whose alumni are far better known for running the United States (James Garfield) or earning Nobel prizes (Robert F. Engle) than forging a career in the NBA. In fact, only five NBA players in history have emerged from the Division III level.
Today, Robinson — the son of Lake Forest native Elisabeth Kinney Robinson and grandson of longtime Lake Forest resident Doug Kinney — is battling James’ Los Angeles Lakers’ squad in the NBA Finals. (To add yet another Lake Forest twist, the Lakers general manager is Rob Pelinka — a Lake Forest High School standout in the 1980s.) Robinson’s Miami Heat team, like the 6-foot-8 player himself, seemed to come out of nowhere to meet the Lakers for the crown. Miami, after all, was a 60-1 shot to win the championship at the start of the season, and Robinson’s NBA prospects were so dim two years ago that all 30 teams passed on drafting him.
Let’s just say he’s a long shot who lives by the long shot; his 44.6-percent mark from three-point range ranked fourth in the league this season. And the 26-year-old is making history: no other player has competed in the Division III finals, Division I finals (for Michigan after he transferred from Williams) and NBA Finals.
After Game 1 on Wednesday — which the Heat lost, 116-98 — Robinson’s mother Elisabeth shared the thrill of watching her son on the game’s ultimate stage via television.
“It was very cool, and he was so excited,” said Elisabeth, who traveled from New Hampshire to Orlando Saturday to watch the rest of the series up high in the arena with only a handful of other relatives of players. “He loves his teammates. He has a huge amount of respect for them. Each one of them is talented and hard-working. They don’t play me ball.”
Elisabeth gives Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra tremendous credit for Robinson’s entrance into the NBA after the undrafted player tried out for a number of teams.
“Coach Spo was the first to call him directly — he didn’t go through Duncan’s agent,” Elisabeth said. “Duncan felt the authenticity.”
Elisabeth — who played basketball in a women’s league while five months pregnant with Duncan — remembers him dribbling on the sidelines while he watched his older brother Eli’s games in New Hampshire
“We were always into basketball as a family,” said Elisabeth, who played at Berkshire and has three children, including daughter Marta. “Basketball was always Duncan’s favorite, even though he played tennis and other sports.”
She said a turning point came his senior year at The Governor’s Academy outside of Boston. The coach barely played him. Elisabeth picked him up on a Sunday morning.
“He said, ‘Am I as bad as he thinks I am?’” Elisabeth recalled. “We went to the movie The King’s Speech that day, and he saw about adversity and overcoming it. Instead of going to dances on weekend nights, he and his friends would go to a basketball court and shoot, shoot, shoot. It’s almost like it became his meditation.”
Newly motivated, Duncan then focused on attending Phillips Exeter for a post-graduate year and bulking up so he could play in college (as a high school senior, he only weighed about 170 pounds). He propelled Exeter to a 28-1 record and its first NEPSAC Boys Basketball Championship. By the time he arrived at Michigan from Williams (he transferred because the Ephs’ coach departed, even though he had been named the Division III Rookie of the Year), Duncan was around 190 pounds. That still wasn’t NBA weight. After a conditioning program, by the time he left Michigan he weighed 215 pounds – better to compete against players like James.
As a starter for the Heat this season (he played in a handful of games during the 2018-2019 campaign), the hard-working sharpshooter averaged more than 13 points per game. Robinson has turned it on during the playoffs, tying a Heat record by making seven three-pointers in one game and icing the clincher against Boston with a number of treys.
Along with his mother and other family members, Duncan is making his grandfather Doug — also known as Growlie — proud.
“He is so excited,” Elisabeth said. “This basketball has kept him entertained in quarantine. Liz (Doug’s wife) got him a jersey last year that Duncan signed. When he went to the gym before quarantine, he wore it there all the time.”
The Sporting Life columnist David A. F. Sweet can be followed on Twitter @davidafsweet. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.