Before there was Eli Pasquale and Steve Nash, there was Billy Robinson.
The Island basketball legend, one of the greatest point guards in Canadian history, died of a stroke Saturday in Duncan at 71.
Robinson was only five-foot-11 but dribbled out of Chemainus to a pro career and captained Canada to a fourth-place finish at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
“When I first came to Canada, I would start Billy and the next four guys out of the dressing room,” former national team coach Jack Donohue once quipped.
The late Donohue listed NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who he coached in high school, and Robinson as the two greatest players he coached over his lengthy career.
Robinson was named Island high school tournament MVP in 1967 as he led tiny Chemainus Secondary into the final against the mighty Oak Bay Bays. He went on to star for Simon Fraser University.
Robinson’s court genius was abundant yet erratic. It was Donohue who harnessed it.
“[Donohue] was good to me,” said Robinson, in 1988.
“I was always the hot dog from Chemainus — the smalltown kid. I didn’t become a player until subjected to good coaching. I needed someone to teach me to believe in myself and practice hard. Coaches didn’t like me dribbling through my legs and around my back and shooting 50 times a game. I was sure hoping to find someone to tell me what to do.”
That someone was Donohue.
With Donohue’s acumen on the bench and Robinson’s prowess in the backcourt, Canada went on a tear at the Montreal Olympics. But the hosts met their match in the semifinals at the Forum against Dean Smith’s U.S. team that included Mitch Kupchak, Adrian Dantley and Phil Ford.
“It was like the [NHL’s] Edmonton Oilers playing the [junior hockey] Victoria Cougars,” Robinson once said.
In a touching tableau frozen in time, Robinson and Donohue tightly embraced amid a standing ovation following the Olympic bronze-medal game loss to the Soviet Union.
Robinson also represented Canada at the 1970 and 1974 FIBA world championships.
Robinson was the final cut in 1971 of the Virginia Squires of the old American Basketball Association.
“They told me my numbers were good but that nobody knew where Canada was,” he said.
“It was between me and another guy and they kept him because he was known from the NCAA college tournament in the U.S. and would draw more fans.”
There was a memory from the experience, however, that would remain with Robinson: “My biggest thrill was going to the Virginia camp with Dr. J [NBA great Julius Erving].”
Robinson went on to play professionally in Spain, Italy, Belgium and Mexico. After his pro career, he concluded his playing days with the old Senior A Victoria Scorpions and also senior hoops in Nanaimo.
“[Robinson] was an intense competitor and a real character,” said friend and University of Victoria coaching legend Ken Shields.
“On the court, Billy was vibrant, tough and fearless. He didn’t care who he went up against. He had confidence going against any player in the world and he went head-to-head with the best.”
Robinson was also known for his off-court antics.
“Billy had a great sense of humour and a quick wit and I really enjoyed him as a person,” said Shields.
“He lived his own life his own way.”
Robinson is survived by wife Sandi, son David, daughters Leah and Ella and five grandchildren.
“We have heard from so many people within the Canadian basketball and Island communities, about what my dad meant to them and to the game in the country, and are so thankful for the support,” said daughter Leah.
A celebration of life will be held April 5 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Chemainus Legion.