Jeremiah Robinson-Earl still sneaks a peak at the video. What he sees on YouTube, count it as inspirational. A young man, nearly 6-foot-10, with a 40-inch vertical jump, snapping off dunks that got people out of their seats.
“That’s your dad?” Robinson-Earl’s new Villanova teammates have asked when he’s shown them the video.
Growing up, Robinson-Earl had a favorite player, shared with a lot of other young ballplayers: Kobe Bryant.
“I love Kobe,’’ the ‘Nova freshman said, making it clear he still does.
He knew his father, Lester Earl, had been a big-time ballplayer, too.
“He could have gone right out of high school to the draft and been a lottery pick,’’ Robinson-Earl said.
If you were following hoops in the mid-’90s, you should remember Lester Earl. Robinson-Earl can’t remember how old he was when his father first showed him the video. Kobe could stay his favorite player — the 1996 McDonald’s All-American slam-dunk contest belonged to Lester Earl. (Villanova fans might note that Tim Thomas was in that dunk contest, too. It wasn’t his night either.)
Robinson-Earl could narrate the whole thing -- his father going over a ball rack, then the topper: “Two hands, two feet, taking off from barely inside the free-throw line. Everybody does it with one hand. But two hands — oh, yeah.”
From there, dad went to LSU — his recruitment from a Baton Rouge, La., high school led to NCAA violations. Earl transferred to Kansas, where injuries meant he didn’t live up to that awesome potential, eventually playing professionally overseas.
What are the pros and cons of being Lester Earl’s son?
“I mean, I wouldn’t say there are any cons,’’ Robinson-Earl said. “We don’t really talk about making a name for myself. We just go with the flow, whatever happens. It’s just kind of awesome to know that he was always like number one in his class. He’s been everywhere, he was McDonald’s all-American. … It’s just kind of cool to have someone who has been in the shoes that I would want to be in.”
Maybe the son is being humble. He’s tried on some of those shoes, found out they fit. He’s been a McDonald’s all-American. He was the second-leading scorer for the USA Basketball team that won this summer’s FIBA U-19 World Championship in Crete.
The son is a different kind of player than the father, with plenty of athleticism — he was Villanova’s leading scorer and rebounder in their exhibition game last week at USC and will be a big part of things this season — but there’s a maturity to his game. Robinson-Earl was Kansas state player of the year as a high school junior, but he decided he’d done all he could do in Kansas, so he transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
“I wanted to be challenged every single day,’’ Robinson-Earl said.
Wagner assistant coach Bobby Jordan, a coach at IMG last season after working as a Drexel assistant coach and head coach at Girard College, wasn’t Robinson-Earl’s coach, but he saw Robinson-Earl up close. That maturity was the first thing he noticed.
“You see a lot of these five-star guys who come with big reputations but aren’t necessarily as mature as you’d think,’’ Jordan said. “It’s hard down there. It’s like Disneyland for kids.”
A Disneyland for athletic kids, with star tennis players and soccer players and football players all together in a dorm that Jordan compared to high-level Division I accommodations.
“They can ride it out, or really take advantage of it, elevate their game,’’ Jordan said, making it clear where Robinson-Earl was. “If he wasn’t in class, he was working out or in the weight room. It’s an $85,000-a-year scholarship to go there. The year down there, he really expanded his game. Did an unbelievable job of putting the ball on the floor. He can grab it and go. You can run offense through him.”
If Robinson-Earl had stayed in Kansas, Jay Wright doesn’t see a path to Villanova. Kansas wanted him. So did every school in the Midwest and every other region. But Wright has known the IMG Academy head coach for years. He’s a former assistant at Bucknell, Wright’s alma mater. Wright said he got a call saying this kid was really committed and mature.
“Normally a kid from Kansas … not that we couldn’t get him, but there’s no connection,’’ Wright said. “He made that connection.”
The move told Wright something. Another state-player-of-the-year plaque wouldn’t have been bad for Robinson-Earl. IMG Academy ended up winning a national prep school tournament.
“He wanted to keep getting better,’’ Wright said. “It definitely wasn’t easy to do, go do something that’s uncomfortable.”
“I wanted to be surrounded by like-minded people,’’ Robinson-Earl said.
When Villanova started recruiting him, they were all in, the whole staff showing up, Robinson-Earl said.
If Villanova hadn’t won a national title, would he have listened?
“No,’’ Robinson-Earl said.
“Not no, like, no,’’ Robinson-Earl said. “I’m saying no to, like, it wouldn’t matter. I would still be coming because of what they have to offer. Obviously, with what they’re doing, national championships are happening. They have a lot to offer.”
Villanova strength and conditioning coach John Shackleton said the “spectrum is so wide” in terms of what newcomers are ready to do on conditioning. Robinson-Earl, he made clear, was at the top of the spectrum.
“He knows how to move, has body awareness,’’ Shackleton said. “I was able to put him in with older guys.”
When you’re talking incoming maturity, Jalen Brunson would be top of the recent Villanova spectrum. Brunson also arrived straight from the U-19 World Championships, where he was named its top player.
“For his position, he’s like a Brunson,’’ Wright said of Robinson-Earl. “Highly intelligent, motivated, very mature.”
It wasn’t just Dad who told him “about the pitfalls and the challenges” of recruiting, Wright said. Mom passed on all sorts of maturity, and Robinson-Earl had savvy coaches.
As for liking Kobe …
“His mentality,’’ Robinson-Earl said. “On the court. He was a Mamba. Off the court, he attacks business.”
But that day in 1996, the video doesn’t lie. Dad’s dunks had electricity. The pride of Lower Merion High, about to head straight to the NBA, wasn’t the king that night.
“It literally shows how bad [Bryant] was doing, missing easy dunks,’’ Robinson-Earl said.