Exclusive: First Brother-in-Law Opens Up

Craig Robinson: In the beginning, Obama was "some guy who likes your sister."

ByJen Wlach via via logo
February 03, 2010, 10:38 PM

Feb. 4, 2010 — -- On the basketball court at Oregon State University, Coach Craig Robinson was known as the two-time Ivy League Player of the Year from Princeton and former Brown University coach who had been working diligently for two years to transform a once-storied program.

But off the court -- and pretty much everywhere else in the world -- Robinson is known by a different title: big brother of first lady Michelle Obama. Before she took up residence in arguably the most famous house in America, Robinson recounted when she was just his little sister who was starting to date some guy named Barack.

"When you meet your sister's boyfriend, he's not the president of the United States, you know what I mean?" Robinson said. "He's just some guy that you're meeting who likes your sister. And in my sister's case, I was glad to meet him, because most guys -- they didn't make it that far. They got cut before the games even started."

After a lifetime of being the older sibling in the spotlight, Robinson said he was glad to step back and watch his kid sister take center stage on the world stage.

"I think I'm having more fun being her big brother than she had being my little sister. You know, growing up, it was basketball and Craig. But now, you know, being Michelle Obama's brother is pretty cool."

A little more than a year since watching his family become the first family, Robinson still caught himself in moments that he said are awesome and humbling.

"When I'm talking to her on the phone, I never think, 'Hmm, she could be sitting in the green room talking to me.' But then you go to her house. And then you realize you're sitting in the White House. And it's like, 'Oh my goodness, can you believe this?'"

For Robinson, it's all still a bit surreal. He remembered the time when Michelle asked him to test Obama on the basketball court. It was their father's adage on sportsmanship that led Michelle to ask the favor of her big brother.

"She called me up and said, 'Hey, listen. Barack fashions himself a basketball player, and I want you to take him to go play with you and see what kind of guy he really is, because she grew up hearing my dad and me talk about how you can tell people's personality on the court in sports in -- in stressful situations."

Robinson: Conversations Center Around Family, Not Policy

According to Robinson, Obama stood out immediately, both on and off the court, showing a friendly demeanor, good sense of humor and some athletic prowess.

"He could play. You know, 80 -- 85 percent of the people out there are pickup basketball players. He could fit in with all of 'em. … The thing that I liked the most that he did -- was that he did not just pass me the ball, because he was dating my sister. That was impressive."

It's well known that basketball played a big role in fostering Robinson's close relationship with Obama. Even now, he said the president kept track of Oregon State's schedule and will call him after big wins.

But when asked whether their phone conversations turned to politics, Robinson said the two don't talk policy. And though he isn't one to offer political counsel, it didn't mean others weren't soliciting their own advice free of charge. Robinson said people are always sending him messages, gifts, packages -- even health care proposals -- for the president.

"There were -- a few people who sent me -- you know, these thick packets with their views on health care and their idea on how to fix it. … So that kind of stuff I pass along to the right channels."

Robinson said his conversations with the president and first lady center on family, especially the kids. He and his wife, Kelly, recently added one more to their brood -- son Austin, born last month. He said he is a hands-on dad, handling some overnight feedings before heading out to daily 5:30 a.m. team practices. Robinson admitted he was a tough coach -- disciplined but fair. It's all part of his strategy to teach his players about life beyond the basketball court, to instill in them the lessons he learned from his parents, Fraser and Marian.

"My parents always had this thing that there is no such thing as peer pressure if there's parental pressure. I never had to deal with peer pressure. I never had any friends who could talk me into doing something that my parents would be disappointed in. Never, because it was the ultimate insult to me as a son to disappoint my mom and dad. I try and do the same thing with my players."

Robinson, who says his parents are his heroes, also mentioned another critical lesson that has become especially poignant for the first family, who now live under the biggest microscope there is.

"My mom always said, 'Make sure your underwear's clean, 'cause you might get hit by a car.' All that stuff that you do to make sure you live your life the right way. You never know who's gonna be watching. Well, who would have ever thought? Everybody's gonna be watching. … It's the same advice that old school moms gave people. You never know who's watching you. And -- and you never know where you're gonna end up, especially in this day and age."

Looking back on the first year for the Obamas, Robinson recalled attending the Inauguration, getting to play basketball with his son at Camp David, even bringing his team to visit the White House. He even had the chance to stay in the Lincoln bedroom, adding, "I couldn't even sleep, because I was worried about breaking something in there."

When asked as a coach what advice he would give Obama as a first-year assessment, Robinson said, "Stick with your game plan ... your overall philosophies and beliefs. Stick with 'em, because that's what got you to where you are. That's the first thing I'd tell him. And then the second thing I'd tell him is -- go with your strengths."

As for his sister's job as first lady -- it was no surprise to Robinson that Michelle would outline an initiative centered on children. Just last week the first lady unveiled her latest program, tackling childhood obesity, adding another facet to a platform focused on good health and eating habits.

"She has always been -- conscious of being healthy, even before she was in the spotlight. Her kids ate well. Her family always ate well. And it was something that we sort of took -- kind of took on as a family -- you know, when you see your dad go through a debilitating disease, it just makes you think about how you take care of yourself."

As the college basketball season ramps into full gear, Robinson remains focused on coaching. Oregon State is currently 9-12 and set to play the University of Oregon this Saturday. As for 2010, Robinson said he looked forward to more family trips and playing some basketball on the White House tennis-turned-basketball court.

And though he enjoyed playing with Barack back when he was just "Michelle's boyfriend," Robinson may think twice now about picking teammates. When asked who is the better player between Obama and body man Reggie Love (a former Duke basketball player), Robinson said with a laugh, "Reggie Love. You know, if you weighed and averaged them for age, it'd still be Reggie."

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