Basketball

Josh Robbins: Why I’m moving to the Washington Wizards beat


My dad, Jay Robbins, died two weeks ago.

I’m not writing this in the hope that it will help me process my grief. Truth is, I feel uncomfortable even mentioning this personal news. I cringe when journalists put the spotlight on themselves instead of on the people they cover. I’m violating my own rule.

But there is something I need to tell you, especially the people who have read my Orlando Magic coverage here for the past three years and for the nine years before that at the Orlando Sentinel.

On Monday, I’ll begin a new role: covering the Washington Wizards for The Athletic. I’m ecstatic about it.

At the same time, though, I owe an explanation to our Magic readers, and I can’t sum it up in something as pithy as a tweet, or even in several tweets.

I’m going back home. I am from Washington, D.C. — born at Washington Hospital Center, raised in Montgomery County, Md. Yet as I’ve figured out the past two weeks, this is about more than a homecoming. This is about fulfilling a dream that my dad always supported, a dream he and my mom made possible.

Dad and I were close, and when he started to get sick earlier this year, a bit after his 87th birthday, I started to think about how he and my mom impacted me. They taught their decency, their compassion and their work ethic through the power of their examples.

They also shaped me in part by not trying to shape me. They allowed me to be who I was: a sports-obsessed kid who devoured any bit of information about Washington sports teams I could get my pudgy little hands on. Glenn Brenner and George Michael’s 6 o’clock sportscasts were appointment TV for me. Each morning, I’d swipe The Washington Post sports section from the kitchen table, read David Aldridge, Richard Justice and Michael Wilbon and, when I was a really little kid, cut out the pictures of Art Monk, Darrell Green and Johan Cruyff and thumb-tack them onto my room’s walls.

Dad grew up on Long Island and was the starting quarterback on his tiny high school’s football team. He played his entire senior season with his left arm in a harness after he dislocated his non-throwing shoulder. Even as an adult, he couldn’t raise that arm over his head without his shoulder popping out of place.

But he never cared that I took the sports section. I don’t think he ever read an article about sports until I started writing about Little League and high school sports for the Sentinel.

Dad was a Type-A personality until he suffered a heart attack in 1989. He was a scientist who worked for the federal government, trying to learn the causes of diseases in order to one day help other scientists cure them. It was his calling, and while well-intentioned, it probably meant he spent too much time in his lab and not enough time with my older brothers. I grew to learn that he corrected the errors he made during my brothers’ childhoods by doing better with me.

In those years, my dad and I didn’t have much to talk about, but he and I could connect through sports, and I think that’s how he got to know me, too. In 1983, a summertime thunderstorm knocked out the power in our neighborhood. In the pitch black of our home that night, with nothing else to do, Dad listened for an hour as I told him about what had happened a couple of months earlier in the NFL Draft, sharing that the Denver Broncos eventually traded for John Elway and how the San Diego Chargers expected linebacker Billy Ray Smith to become a perennial All-Pro.

Dad would let me pick one Bullets or Capitals game to attend each season as long as it wasn’t on a school night. He’d take me to the Capital Centre, even though the Beltway’s bumper-to-bumper traffic frustrated the hell out of him. During the 1983-84 season, I chose the Bullets’ game against the Lakers, because I wanted to see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson in person. I had no idea that the game was scheduled on Dad’s 50th birthday, and I suppose some fathers would’ve asked their kid to pick a different night. But he never let on that it was his birthday. I only figured it out a few years ago, after curiosity prompted me to Google the Lakers-Bulls game story from that night.

I didn’t start playing baseball until sixth grade. When I asked Dad to hit me ground balls so I could field as well as the other kids fielded, he and I would go outside each morning at 6:45 before work and school, and he’d hit me grounders. We continued for the next three weeks — until my coach informed me that left-handers like me never become second basemen or shortstops. So my dad started to hit fly balls to me so I could become an outfielder.

Dad often told me he was proud of me, but I never quite believed him until 2001. I had just started as the Sentinel’s Florida State beat writer, based in Tallahassee, and he flew down from Washington to spend a few days with me. I led him through Doak Campbell Stadium one afternoon, rode the elevator up to the empty press box and showed him the Sentinel’s seat. He looked around that cavernous press box and started to cry. I had only seen him cry once before, in the days and weeks after my brother Jeff died in a motorcycle accident.

I’m not suggesting I applied to cover the Wizards because my Dad died or to make him proud. What I’m saying, though, is I never would’ve gotten here if not for him and my mom. This dream exists because of them and my late brother. They gave me the freedom and the encouragement to become who I wanted to become.

Leaving the Magic beat and Orlando is bittersweet. I would not trade the past 12 years for anything. Because of the readers, what began in 2009 as merely an assignment to a new beat became a passion to me. Moving off the beat pains me, but it also feels right. I need to do this.

I stopped being a fan when I went into this profession, and that won’t change now. But for me, this new beat is already personal. I know what it means to people. I know it because I once lived it.

I am a Washingtonian, and I am my father’s son.

You’ll get the best I’ve got.

(Photo of Jay Robbins and the author: Courtesy of the Robbins family)





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