'First Brother-In-Law' Craig Robinson Talks Family, Character

Craig Robinson, the brother of first lady Michelle Obama, talks to host Michel Martin about his new book, “A Game of Character.” Robinson speaks about his family, his own career path, and what he has learned along the way.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we visit with a diverse group of parents for their common sense parenting advice. Today, a special conversation about one family, a remarkable family, to be sure, but a family that's like a lot of other families in America.

It's a story of someone who's now one of the most famous women in the country -First Lady Michelle Obama. That story is told by her big brother, Craig Robinson, who introduced his little sister to the country at the 2008 Democratic Convention.

(Soundbite of 2008 Democratic Convention)

Mr. CRAIG ROBINSON (Author, "A Game of Character"): Please join me in welcoming an impassioned public servant, a loving daughter, wife and mother, my little sister and our nation's next first lady, Michelle Obama.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MARTIN: And the rest, as they say, is history. But Craig Robinson decided not to leave that family story at the convention like so much confetti on the floor. Like his famous sister, his life has been a remarkable journey from the south side of Chicago to the halls of Princeton University, to a career as an investment banker and then to his current job as head coach of the Oregon State University men's basketball team.

He's written about it in a new book, "A Game of Character." And he's here with us now from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Mr. ROBINSON: Thanks for having me, Michel, I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: I think we should get to the scandalous news first.

Mr. ROBINSON: Okay, what's the scandalous news?

MARTIN: Like that piece of gum you swiped from the teacher's desk when you were in second grade.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What's going on there?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, let me preface this by saying that I would finish my work early and that's when you get into trouble. You know, I'd finish my work early and I'm talking and walking around and there was a kid who the teacher had just taken a whole bag full of candy and gum from. There was a kid who dared me to go up and take a piece. And I went up, took a piece, put it in my mouth and I took two bites and I got to tell you, those were the two worst bites of sweet gum I've ever had.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: I spit the gum out immediately. I knew it was the wrong thing to do from the very beginning. And, of course, the kid whose candy it was told the teacher that I had taken one. And you would've thought that it was a Cuban Missile Crisis because Craig Robinson had done something wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: And I got in so much trouble. I stood in front of the class bent over, got my three swats of the yard stick. I couldn't even cry because I was so afraid of telling my parents what I had done.

MARTIN: Well, I wanted to talk about that because - but thank you for fessing up, we appreciate it. You know, your father was not a hitter. You were so mortified at the idea of disappointing him that that was really worse than any of it. I was just wondering, what is it that he did, and that your parents did to inculcate that sense of really just never wanting to let them down?

Mr. ROBINSON: Michel, the reason why it was so hard disappointing my father, when you think about the man he was. I talk about in "A Game of Character" how he had walked with a limp from my first memories of him and it got progressively worse. Yet, he never ever missed a day of work. I mean, I can tell you there were maybe four times in my entire life, before he got sick, right before he died, that he missed work.

You know, when you grow up in a household with someone who really has worked hard, has sacrificed, you have some shoes to fill. And I felt like I was letting him down. And it was just - it was the very hardest thing to do.

MARTIN: But just to clarify for those who aren't familiar with the whole story is that your father had advancing multiple sclerosis, which he had been living with, really, throughout your lives and that is why he walked with a limp. And his disease progressed to the point where he had to use multiple canes and so forth. But that this is something that he lived with throughout your life with him. And that was the cause of all that.

And you write in your book that this book is, in part, a love letter to your parents. And why did you feel it was important to tell these stories?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, you know, I talk about in the book how giving the speech that you so nicely gave a snippet of, I was underneath the stage trying to get prepared and all I could think about was, oh, my goodness, I wish my dad was here. That was the first time I thought, that would be a good idea to write, you know, write a little book about this. And it really wasn't going to - it wasn't for mass appeal, it was really just for people in the family.

And as I went through my life and had these different experiences and I was trying to figure out what makes a person memorable? A person like my father, a person like a coach that you remember or a teacher that has meant a lot to you. Even a boss who's working in corporate America. You know, you have mentors all along the way. What makes these people memorable? And it all boils down - at least for me - to character.

MARTIN: You know, your mom is no slouch in the character department, either. One of the things you talk about is the time that you got a new bike and a police officer in the neighborhood assumed you had stolen it. And was just giving you the third degree and put the bike in the cruiser, drove you home. And, you know, you said that, you know, you had a sense of peacefulness because you knew that it was going to get handled. Because you knew that it was your bike. You knew that your mom had bought it for you and - your parents had - and that, but you talk about the way she fixed him with this look.

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: And just let him...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You don't say whether there was any cussing involved, but it does sound like she handled her business. So would just tell us a little bit that? Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROBINSON: I sure can, Michel. You know, here in Chicago many years ago there was a store called Goldblatt's. And you know how these department stores every now and then they'll have sales on different things. Well, they had a sale on these bikes and every single kid had one of these bright yellow 10 speeds. And I was riding around the South Side of Chicago, not too far from my neighborhood but I wasn't in my direct neighborhood. And this policeman just stopped me and he said, young man come over here for a minute.

And I was like sure and, you know, I'm raised by Frasier and Marian Robinson so a policeman says comes on over, I'm sure he wants my assistance in something. I mean he couldn't possibly think there was something wrong.

He said where'd you get that bike? And I said oh, I just got it. It's a brand new bike. My parents bought it for me. And I was going on, and he said, you stole that bike. And I said well, you're misunderstanding this. My parents bought this bike. And I was being a very calm, level-headed kid. I didn't scream or shout, because in my mind, all I could think of was this poor guy's making a mistake. He's letting the criminal get away, because I didn't steal the bike. Then he starts to get belligerent.

And so he puts my bike in the back of the police car, puts me in the back seat of the police car and takes me home. And I run into the house. I tell my mom what happened. She say go back in the house. She comes out and she talks to this policeman, who happened to be a black man. And she wasn't upset that he wasn't sure who stole the bike. She was very upset at his tone and his attitude with me, in assuming that I stole the bike. And she went out and talked to him for about 45 minutes. And I couldn't hear what they were saying. All I could see was, after about 10 minutes, the policeman started shaking his head. So the other 25 minutes I knew my mom was giving it to him, because I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: I had been in that position myself many times. She calls me out. The guy apologizes to me and he goes off. The next day, my mom is still mad. Went down to the police station and he ended up coming back and really, you know, apologized and saying how sorry he was to jump to conclusions. And it is incidents like this that you can understand, you know, where we come from.

I mean there is such a sense of love and sacrifice, and accountability I always talk about. Those are the kinds of things that I'm trying to pass along and we're trying to pass along to our children. In "A Game of Character" I just want to pass these along to other people, because that's what my mom and dad would do.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking to Craig Robinson about his new book, "A Game of Character." He is the head basketball coach at Oregon State University. He also happens to be the brother-in-law of the president of the United States. Go figure.

You know, I was thinking as I was reading the book, that many of the experiences in the book are ones that a lot of people will be able to relate to. Like this experience of being falsely accused of stealing the bike. And then you talked about how when you were working in investment banking how, you know, a lot of the pathways to success there seemed to be kind of a double standard for people of, you know, a different background.

One of the things I found very moving was where you talked about the pull between - when you graduated from Princeton - between seeking the kind of monetary success that a lot of people thought you should aspire to...

Mr. ROBINSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...and what you really wanted to do...

Mr. ROBINSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...which was coach basketball. And I do want to say the idea of wanting to be financial successful was not just a matter of, kind of, image and wanting to showoff and this and this. But you really did feel like the concern as the oldest son, about your dad's progressive illness that he was dealing with, and the various concerns about your family. I just found that very moving.

Mr. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And I just was curious why you decided to share that.

Mr. ROBINSON: Well...

MARTIN: Because I'm betting I'm not the only person who's felt that way.

Mr. ROBINSON: No. I'm betting I'm not either and that's really why I wanted to talk about it. I, as you can tell from parts of the book, that I grew up a worrier. I mean mom always said wow, why do you have this worried look on your face? Every picture there is you look like you're worrying about something. And it was true. I was worried, you know, and I do think it's a result of having a father who had a debilitating disease and he was a better provider than most people and he had MS. And I didn't know it was MS until I got older. So I think that affected me to worry about things that could go wrong.

When I graduated from Princeton and got through playing basketball, which turned out to be fun and all of that, but it wasn't lucrative - I wasn't in the NBA or anything like that - and I had to get a job, I really thought long and hard about providing. And there are people who have, you know, able-bodied parents who think that way. I'm sure there are people who have single parents who think that way.

MARTIN: You also talk about how, through the game of basketball, that you put your future brother-in-law to the test, by request, by the way.

Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: Your sister requested that you invite him out for a game.

Mr. ROBINSON: That is correct.

MARTIN: Why did she...

Mr. ROBINSON: I was going to leave him alone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, you talk about how you actually felt sorry for him. You thought, you know, well he's too nice. He's a goner. He'll never last. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, what did you learn about him by playing pickup with him?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well Michel, you're kind to point out that that was by request, because I always have to - everybody thinks I was the big brother who said all right, I'm taking this guy out and finding out what kind of guy he is. I reluctantly did that. But I'm glad I did because it was easy to see what type of person he was. He was, you know, very unselfish and he was a very generous basketball player. And I don't mean that means he didn't take any shots, he just played the game. The idea in pickup basketball is to keep the game going. And he was very good at keeping the game going.

In addition, there is an underlying sense of integrity in the game of basketball, because you have to - there's no officiating in pickup basketball -so you have to call your own calls and they have to be true. And then you have to give up your calls when someone calls them on you, and he handled that extremely well.

And then finally, I always save this for last, he didn't try and suck up to me by passing me the ball every time just because he was dating my sister. And I was impressed by that.

MARTIN: I still want to know why your parents and you were so convinced that he was never going to cut it with Michelle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, that's easy. That's easy.

MARTIN: You all were very clear on that, he'll never make it, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: That's easy because, you know, up until that point in time; my sister really never had any long-term relationship. We were just playing the averages. You know, it was just like nah, this one's not going to work out, and it's a shame because this is really a nice guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: As I mention, you deal with a lot of really personal things in the book that I think might be surprising to some because here you are, you are in the public eye at this point and you are kind of sharing some of the dilemmas that many people have.

There is one thing I did want to ask you about is your wife, with whom you seem very happy, is white.

Mr. ROBINSON: Yes.

MARTIN: And that's I think, your first wife was African-American and...

Mr. ROBINSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...I'm just interested in it, just because I think, as we know; there's been all this talk about Barack Obama and his heritage as a biracial man...

Mr. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...and his mother and his unusual family history, and I'm just wondering what do you think, of course, he's got a stepsister who is was I think born in Indonesia and...

Mr. ROBINSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...and your family is very diverse at this stage of our history. Yeah.

Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah. And well, they're two things I'd love to address with that. First of all, my mom and dad would have been appalled if I met someone like Kelly, my current wife, and she turned out to be as nice and as loving as she is and I didn't give her a chance just because she was white. My dad would've been all over me about the double standard. Just because you're black doesn't mean you can be prejudiced. That's first and foremost.

The second thing is, after my first marriage, I think my mom was so worried that I would never meet another woman. She was just glad that whoever was happy to get to know a 30-something year old guy who had just changed his career from investment banking to basketball coaching, living upstairs from his mom with two kids and bald headed. You know, she just thought oh, she likes him. She's a keeper.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for spending so much time with us. We appreciate it. I do have to mention, you do dish a little dirt in this book.

Mr. ROBINSON: Which one.

MARTIN: You mention that your sister was a little tight with the dollar when you were growing up. In fact, you were kind of jealous that she always had more in her piggybank...

Mr. ROBINSON: Ssh.

MARTIN: ...than you and...

Mr. ROBINSON: Let me tell you, you're the person to bring that up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: And I was like how come no one's picking up on the fact that she's a cheapskate.

MARTIN: I - see, that's what I'm trying to talk about here. It sounds to me like...

Mr. ROBINSON: That...

MARTIN: ...Michelle's a little bit tight with the dollar.

Mr. ROBINSON: A little bit. I bet she still has that piggybank and it's jammed right now because she can't get the money out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: No, she was very frugal. But my sister was the rich one in the family. She had all the money.

MARTIN: Is she still kind of frugal? Kind of cheapskate?

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh yeah. You know, she is not - I can't call her cheapskate because she's not really a cheapskate. She's just careful with her money and always has been. And it's actually rubbed off on me. I mean, you know, when you can get the same things on sale and you go to, you know, T.J. Maxx or Feline's Basement or some one of those places, instead of going right for the new stuff...

MARTIN: No free-spending liberal she, huh?

Mr. ROBINSON: No.

MARTIN: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: No. No. No. She is not. She is very frugal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And finally, this is a tough one. I'm putting you on the spot here. As we mentioned, you're head coach of the Oregon State men's basketball team.

Mr. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You ended up this season 14 and 18 for the season.

Mr. ROBINSON: Right

MARTIN: And you got four guys graduating.

Mr. ROBINSON: Right.

MARTIN: So, what's the outlook for next season? You think you'll be at the Big Dance next year?

Mr. ROBINSON: I am hoping that we will. That's our goal. That's going to be our goal for next year is to be at the Big Dance.

MARTIN: Now who are we channeling her? Is it Marian or is it Frasier here? Because you're very diplomatic. You're kind of cool but you seem like you got your game on. Who's the - who we channeling? Is it...

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, we can't be channeling my mom, because she's to this day when she comes out and watches a game, if it's not a blowout she can't watch it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: It's just too stressful for her. So I'm really channeling him. And in the games where we win by, you know, 20 then I'm channeling my mom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Well, good luck.

Craig Robinson is the men's basketball coach at Oregon State University. He is author of the new book "A Game of Character." It's a memoir. It's available in bookstores now and he was kind enough to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Oh, we should mention, he's also the older brother of the first lady Michelle Obama and the brother-in-law of our current president.

Craig Robinson, thank you for joining us.

Mr. ROBINSON: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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