Canadian basketball legend Bill Robinson dead at 71

Prolific player put Island town on the map and steered the national team at the 1976 Olympics

Chemainus basketball legend Bill Robinson, one of the greatest Canadian players in the pre-Steve Nash era, died following a stroke on Saturday. He had just turned 71 on Feb. 2.

Robinson put small-town Chemainus Secondary School on the map with his prolific play in high school and then took his talents to higher levels after graduation. He made it all the way to the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and captained the underdog Jack Donohue-coached squad to a fourth-place finish on home court, narrowly missing an Olympic medal.

Robinson played four years at Simon Fraser University from 1970-1974 and he was named to the all-tournament team at the 1974 World Championships.

He finished his Canadian Interuniversity Athletics Union career at Waterloo, Ont. for the 1974-1975 season that culminated in a national championship. He was a 1975 CIAU First Team All-Canadian and tournament all-star and then a member of the Canadian men’s national team.

Robinson honed his considerable skills in Chemainus. No one could shoot the ball as accurately from long range or dribble around and through opponents at the time like him.

From 1960 to 1968, Chemainus was a Vancouver Island powerhouse in basketball, with Robinson leading the way. He was the 1967 Vancouver Island most valuable player and B.C. all-star.

The accolades followed Robinson in later years wherever he went.

“As a youngster, I remember watching Bill Robinson play for Canada,” said Jay Triano during the time he was head coach of the National Basketball Association’s Toronto Raptors. “His play inspired me to chase a dream of playing for Canada.”

Robinson once tried out for the Virginia Squires in the old American Basketball Association and made the team, but lost his place when the team’s No. 1 draft choice, who was holding out, returned. Robinson got the call from the National Basketball Association’s New York Knicks as an emergency roster replacement, but couldn’t play due to an injury at the time and never got another chance.

His height was always an issue for basketball, but he proved his skeptics wrong by rising to any challenge.

Local reaction has begun to pour in from people who knew Robinson well.

Ron Waller of Chemainus was a lifelong friend of Robinson’s, playing on the same teams as him in soccer, baseball and basketball.

“I have so many stories about Billy,” said Waller.

“He was one of those rare people who came along and had a God-given ability in any sport he tried.”

Waller and Robinson were both six years old when they started playing soccer together and they maintained their strong bond throughout the years, being five months apart in age.

“I was always there for sleepovers at the Robinson house,” said Waller.

They devised nicknames for each other, Guillaume for Bill (the French equivalent), and Knobby for Waller.

“Even the last time I saw Billy a month ago, I gave him a hug and said ‘hi Guillaume,’” noted Waller.

Robinson earned many prestigious honours, including induction into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, the Simon Fraser University Sports Hall of Fame and the North Cowichan/Duncan Sports Wall of Fame. A basketball hoop he devised with help from his dad to improve his shooting that was just large enough to fit the ball is in the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame as well.

Ernie Mansueti, general manager of community services for the Municipality of North Cowichan, organizes the North Cowichan/Duncan Sports Wall of Fame and remembers being immersed in the 1976 Olympics.

“Basketball was one of the sports that attracted the most attention with the entire world watching,” he recalled. “Canada was really Bill’s basketball team. He was the captain and his superior ball handling skills and uncanny ability to hit the tough shots under pressure proved that Bill was one of the best players in the Olympics.

“A few years later I was lucky enough to attend a Jack Donohue basketball camp where Bill was the head instructor and you just watched in awe on the things Bill could do on the court and how natural it came. Years later, playing in a senior basketball league with Bill, it was almost intimidating. He controlled everything and you needed to be ready at all times. Bill would snap these no-look passes that you either would catch or it would end up bouncing off your ear.”

Stan Piper knew Robinson well from high school and they played on the same team in Piper’s Grade 12 year. The senior team was short of players so Robinson, in Grade 10 at the time, was added to the senior roster along with Gerry Plester and Richard Harbo.

“They played for us and they were key members of our team,” recalled Piper.

The junior team still won the Island title that year without the three players, giving you an idea about the depth of Chemainus basketball.

Piper said Robinson was “one of those interesting individuals. A few come along in one’s life.

“You’ve got to go back to Chemainus when basically you had baseball and some soccer that was organized for kids to play. And Bill was a very, very good soccer player.”

Piper has never seen anyone as driven as Robinson to succeed.

“Bill had the goal and he wanted to be good. And he worked at it.”

Eventually, basketball became Robinson’s main sport as the attention on it grew in the community. There was no gym at Chemainus Elementary School when Robinson attended the school, but he went to the high school and loved the atmosphere.

“Lots of people were watching the games and the games were good,’” noted Piper. “It was pretty exciting. He started to focus his attention on basketball.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Robinson played every chance he could, at the high school, at the old community centre and at his home. He would get the key whenever he wanted to go into the community centre.

“That’s the kind of tenacity that existed for him,” said Piper.

As Robinson later moved on to university basketball, “I ended up playing against him when I was at UVic,” noted Piper.

The transition to the national team wasn’t the smoothest at first, but everything changed when Jack Donohue took over as coach. Robinson was Donohue’s kind of player.

“He just loved Bill,” said Piper. “He loved everything about him.

“The thing that worked for the national team was that Robinson could shoot from so far out the guards had to come out and contest him. It opened things up for the forwards.”

And that was in the days before three-point shooting. Robinson would surely have amassed considerably more points in today’s game.

In later years after his attempts at playing pro ball finished, “he used to come back to Chemainus and he’d play on our men’s team,” noted Piper.

“We had a lot of good players in the league. They loved the challenge of checking Bill.”

Robinson is survived by his wife Sandi. David, his son with Caroline, was an outstanding basketball player in his own right at Ladysmith Secondary School.

Robinson had two daughters with his first wife Susan. Ella Robinson Backer and Leah Robinson Benazzi both live in Portland, Oregon.

Robinson also took great pride in his five grandchildren. In addition, he’s survived by his brother Dick Robinson of Chemainus.

Eldest daughter Robinson Backer, who was born in Newfoundland during many of her dad’s travels over the years, said “he was known for his charisma and humour”, but he also “lived by his own rules.”

“He was very humble about his impact on basketball,” added daughter Robinson Benazzi, who was born in Chemainus. “He said he wasn’t that big of a deal.”

A celebration of life for Robinson will be held on Sunday, April 5 at the Chemainus Legion Hall from 1-4 p.m.

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Bill Robinson’s plaque following his induction into the North Cowichan/Duncan Sports Wall of Fame that’s on display at the Cowichan Aquatic Centre in Duncan. (Photo submitted)

Playing for Canada was a huge thrill for Bill Robinson. (Photo submitted)

Bill Robinson had a close relationship with Jack Donohue when he was the national team coach. (Photo submitted)

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