Fans threw money at Flynn Robinson’s feet at Arizona State, a tribute akin to passing the hat at minor-league baseball parks following a home run. The coins had George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s faces on them, but they might as well have pictured Robinson.
Sometimes Wyoming fans chanted, “Flynn! Flynn!’
A half century after he represented Wyoming on the basketball court and seven months after Robinson died from cancer at 72, mention of the 6-foot-1 guard elicits enthusiastic exclamations describing his offensive game.
Flynn Robinson was a Cowboy and a gunslinger.
His jump shot was as smooth as a silk scarf and as on target as a Marine sniper. In three seasons for the Cowboys between 1962-63 and 1964-65, Robinson averaged 26.3 points per game. That is still the school record. His biggest single game was
48 points, but to his teammates Robinson seemed capable of doing that any night he suited wearing No. 30. He possessed a jumper that left people gasping.
“He could smell the hoop,” said one-time Wyoming teammate Ken Rochlitz.
He was indeed the Mighty Flynn.
One of the greatest of Wyoming athletes, Robinson’s was the most notable of sports deaths this year amongst Cowboy state athletes when he passed away from cancer on May 23. When old teammates speak of Robinson, their tones mix admiration, affection and chuckles.
The man they played alongside, who followed college greatness with an All-Star NBA career for the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks and other teams, kept his Cowboy teams in the hunt for victories with his scoring and in stitches from his quips.
“I never saw Flynn uptight,” Rochlitz said. “He kept the locker room loose. He was a jokester.”
It was an unlikely pairing, this jewel on the prairie, and the University of Wyoming. Robinson was a big-city black man come to roam with the deer and the antelope. He hailed from Elgin, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, agreed to play for Southern Illinois and yet was sweet-talked into coming to Wyoming to at first play for Casper College.
Robinson did not grow up transfixed by “Gunsmoke” or “Have Gun — Will Travel” on TV, didn’t pack a lasso in his suitcase. He shot a basketball, not a six-gun. But Thunderbirds coach Swede Erickson, for whom the junior college’s gym is now named, was a great living-room closer, and when he traveled to the Midwest he returned to the Cowboy state with Robinson and others in tow.
“Swede was called ‘The Silver Fox’ for a reason,” said Bin Graefe, later a Casper College assistant, but for one season in the early 1960s he was Robinson’s back-court mate.
Graefe said Robinson was marvelous to watch, his long-range shooting boggling and his slick moves on drives to the hoops leaving trail dust in his wake as surely as Marshal Matt Dillon on his horse.
“He was one-in-a-generation for Casper College in my mind,” Graefe said from his home in Abilene, Kansas. “He was just a phenomenal player. His spin moves, he was just way ahead of his time.”
Robinson wore his confidence in his grin and in his brash body language. Graefe remembers Robinson dribbling the ball across half-court to 10 feet behind the top of the key and taunting a defender: “You better get on me.”
“I thought he had quite a cocky swagger,” Graefe said. “He just had an unbelievable belief in what he was going to accomplish in the game.”
Evidence of what Robinson accomplished at Wyoming after transferring from Casper is written large in the school’s basketball record book.
Besides the career scoring average, Robinson authored the top three single-season averages in Cowboys history. He scored
26.2 points a game in 1962-63, 25.6 in 1963-64, and 27.0 in 1964-65. His
701 points during that ‘64-65 season is a record. Robinson made 84.3 percent of his free throws.
Robinson scored 2,049 points in three seasons and was chosen All-Western Athletic Conference three times. Teammates rave about Robinson as a smooth player, a sometimes unstoppable one. But also call him a “great guy,” a “great teammate,” and someone they enjoyed hanging out with.
They also laugh about what they call his one basketball flaw. The odds against Robinson’s name being listed in any defensive record category are as far-fetched as Vin Diesel winning Best Actor. Robinson was as allergic to playing defense as some people are to pollen — and it didn’t start in Laramie.
“Many, many times, he’d say, ‘Graefe, switch,’” Graefe said of how Robinson shouted for help covering his man. Graefe and another player complained about Robinson’s lack of D to an unsympathetic Erickson in a closed-door session.
“Flynn is going to get me 30 points a game and you two can’t get me 15 together,” was Erickson’s response.
As fond of ex-teammates are of Robinson, they diss his defense. Former Wyoming guard Bob Hanson said from home in Wichita, Kan. that “switch” was Robinson’s favorite word.
Rochlitz laughed about Robinson’s defense. He recalled Robinson once saying, “You don’t get those handshakes playing defense.”
Robinson also preferred the ball in his hands. Sometimes he told back-court partners to pass the ball in-bounds to him, so he didn’t have to worry about getting it back.
“We used to pass to Flynn and cut for laughs,” said Paul Homar, another ex-teammate.
Yet all agree that Robinson’s patented jumper, virtually unblockable as he cocked the ball behind his ear when firing it up, was so good he should have taken most of the shots. Sure enough, he took a school record 1,770 of them. Coach Bill Strannigan told the Cowboys, “Get the ball to Flynn.”
“He started shooting when he got off the bus,” Hanson said. “He was shooting when he came out of the locker room. He was not shy.”
Before facing No. 4 ranked Arizona State in February of 1964, Hanson heard Robinson tell Aztec players, “I’m gonna get 50 on you guys.” He scored his career-high 48.
Homar recalls Robinson making an astonishing fall-away shot from the baseline to leave broadcaster Larry Birleffi nearly speechless. And in 1965, on the season-ending road trip to Utah to wrap up second place in the WAC, Robinson put the team on his shoulders to pull out the key 107-102 win. The Cowboys went 16-10 that season, their best with Robinson.
Once in a while the city guy made teammates chortle by accident. He couldn’t figure out how the cows he saw with their heads down from train windows derived nutrition from the rocks. On those train journeys players learned Robinson was as good at poker as stroking jumpers.
“You didn’t want to get in a card game with Flynn,” Hanson said.
You didn’t want to get in a shootout with him, either. Robinson moved to the NBA for the 1966-67 season and played professionally through 1973-74, including a stop in the ABA. He averaged 14.5 ppg. and won a championship ring with the Lakers.
Hanson stayed in touch and watched Robinson play in person for NBA clubs. More recently, they were at a YMCA and Robinson, then around 67, wanted to play one-on-one. Hanson declined, but said, “We were friends forever.”
In 2005, Wyoming announced its All-Century team — Robinson was on it. Many players milled around the Arena-Auditorium in street clothes and Robinson said, “Give me the ball.” The old dead-eye shooter casually heaved two air balls.
“Then he hit eight in a row,” Homar said.
That was the Flynn Robinson they all knew and now miss.