Canadian basketball legend Bill Robinson dead at 71

Prolific player put Island town on the map and steered the national team at the 1976 Olympics

Chemainus basketball legend Bill Robinson, one of the greatest Canadian players in the pre-Steve Nash era, died following a stroke on Saturday. He had just turned 71 on Feb. 2.

Robinson put small-town Chemainus Secondary School on the map with his prolific play in high school and then took his talents to higher levels after graduation. He made it all the way to the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and captained the underdog Jack Donohue-coached squad to a fourth-place finish on home court, narrowly missing an Olympic medal.

Robinson played four years at Simon Fraser University from 1970-1974 and he was named to the all-tournament team at the 1974 World Championships.

He finished his Canadian Interuniversity Athletics Union career at Waterloo, Ont. for the 1974-1975 season that culminated in a national championship. He was a 1975 CIAU First Team All-Canadian and tournament all-star and then a member of the Canadian men’s national team.

Robinson honed his considerable skills in Chemainus. No one could shoot the ball as accurately from long range or dribble around and through opponents at the time like him.

From 1960 to 1968, Chemainus was a Vancouver Island powerhouse in basketball, with Robinson leading the way. He was the 1967 Vancouver Island most valuable player and B.C. all-star.

The accolades followed Robinson in later years wherever he went.

“As a youngster, I remember watching Bill Robinson play for Canada,” said Jay Triano during the time he was head coach of the National Basketball Association’s Toronto Raptors. “His play inspired me to chase a dream of playing for Canada.”

Robinson once tried out for the Virginia Squires in the old American Basketball Association and made the team, but lost his place when the team’s No. 1 draft choice, who was holding out, returned. Robinson got the call from the National Basketball Association’s New York Knicks as an emergency roster replacement, but couldn’t play due to an injury at the time and never got another chance.

His height was always an issue for basketball, but he proved his skeptics wrong by rising to any challenge.

Local reaction has begun to pour in from people who knew Robinson well.

Ron Waller of Chemainus was a lifelong friend of Robinson’s, playing on the same teams as him in soccer, baseball and basketball.

“I have so many stories about Billy,” said Waller.

“He was one of those rare people who came along and had a God-given ability in any sport he tried.”

Waller and Robinson were both six years old when they started playing soccer together and they maintained their strong bond throughout the years, being five months apart in age.

“I was always there for sleepovers at the Robinson house,” said Waller.

They devised nicknames for each other, Guillaume for Bill (the French equivalent), and Knobby for Waller.

“Even the last time I saw Billy a month ago, I gave him a hug and said ‘hi Guillaume,’” noted Waller.

Robinson earned many prestigious honours, including induction into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, the Simon Fraser University Sports Hall of Fame and the North Cowichan/Duncan Sports Wall of Fame. A basketball hoop he devised with help from his dad to improve his shooting that was just large enough to fit the ball is in the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame as well.

Ernie Mansueti, general manager of community services for the Municipality of North Cowichan, organizes the North Cowichan/Duncan Sports Wall of Fame and remembers being immersed in the 1976 Olympics.

“Basketball was one of the sports that attracted the most attention with the entire world watching,” he recalled. “Canada was really Bill’s basketball team. He was the captain and his superior ball handling skills and uncanny ability to hit the tough shots under pressure proved that Bill was one of the best players in the Olympics.

“A few years later I was lucky enough to attend a Jack Donohue basketball camp where Bill was the head instructor and you just watched in awe on the things Bill could do on the court and how natural it came. Years later, playing in a senior basketball league with Bill, it was almost intimidating. He controlled everything and you needed to be ready at all times. Bill would snap these no-look passes that you either would catch or it would end up bouncing off your ear.”

Stan Piper knew Robinson well from high school and they played on the same team in Piper’s Grade 12 year. The senior team was short of players so Robinson, in Grade 10 at the time, was added to the senior roster along with Gerry Plester and Richard Harbo.

“They played for us and they were key members of our team,” recalled Piper.

The junior team still won the Island title that year without the three players, giving you an idea about the depth of Chemainus basketball.

Piper said Robinson was “one of those interesting individuals. A few come along in one’s life.

“You’ve got to go back to Chemainus when basically you had baseball and some soccer that was organized for kids to play. And Bill was a very, very good soccer player.”

Piper has never seen anyone as driven as Robinson to succeed.

“Bill had the goal and he wanted to be good. And he worked at it.”

Eventually, basketball became Robinson’s main sport as the attention on it grew in the community. There was no gym at Chemainus Elementary School when Robinson attended the school, but he went to the high school and loved the atmosphere.

“Lots of people were watching the games and the games were good,’” noted Piper. “It was pretty exciting. He started to focus his attention on basketball.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Robinson played every chance he could, at the high school, at the old community centre and at his home. He would get the key whenever he wanted to go into the community centre.

“That’s the kind of tenacity that existed for him,” said Piper.

As Robinson later moved on to university basketball, “I ended up playing against him when I was at UVic,” noted Piper.

The transition to the national team wasn’t the smoothest at first, but everything changed when Jack Donohue took over as coach. Robinson was Donohue’s kind of player.

“He just loved Bill,” said Piper. “He loved everything about him.

“The thing that worked for the national team was that Robinson could shoot from so far out the guards had to come out and contest him. It opened things up for the forwards.”

And that was in the days before three-point shooting. Robinson would surely have amassed considerably more points in today’s game.

In later years after his attempts at playing pro ball finished, “he used to come back to Chemainus and he’d play on our men’s team,” noted Piper.

“We had a lot of good players in the league. They loved the challenge of checking Bill.”

Robinson is survived by his wife Sandi. David, his son with Caroline, was an outstanding basketball player in his own right at Ladysmith Secondary School.

Robinson had two daughters with his first wife Susan. Ella Robinson Backer and Leah Robinson Benazzi both live in Portland, Oregon.

Robinson also took great pride in his five grandchildren. In addition, he’s survived by his brother Dick Robinson of Chemainus.

Eldest daughter Robinson Backer, who was born in Newfoundland during many of her dad’s travels over the years, said “he was known for his charisma and humour”, but he also “lived by his own rules.”

“He was very humble about his impact on basketball,” added daughter Robinson Benazzi, who was born in Chemainus. “He said he wasn’t that big of a deal.”

A celebration of life for Robinson will be held on Sunday, April 5 at the Chemainus Legion Hall from 1-4 p.m.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Bill Robinson’s plaque following his induction into the North Cowichan/Duncan Sports Wall of Fame that’s on display at the Cowichan Aquatic Centre in Duncan. (Photo submitted)

Playing for Canada was a huge thrill for Bill Robinson. (Photo submitted)

Bill Robinson had a close relationship with Jack Donohue when he was the national team coach. (Photo submitted)

Just Posted

Police tape is shown in Toronto Tuesday, May 2, 2017. (Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press)
CRIME STOPPERS: ‘Most wanted’ for the week of Oct. 18

Crime Stoppers’ weekly list based on information provided by police investigators

Ivan Scott. (Aaron Hinks photo)
Surrey mayor enters word war with speakers, councillor

McCallum calls brief recess after asking two speakers to leave chambers

Montreal-based writer Michael Foy grew up in the Newton area of Surrey. (submitted photo)
Surrey-raised writer Foy really loves to set his short stories in the city

His latest is published in ‘Canadian Shorts II’ collection

Brandon Nathan Teixeira, arrested last December in California in connection with a fatal 2017 shooting in South Surrey, is next due in court on Nov. 12. (File photos)
Notorious South Surrey fugitive returns to court Nov. 12

Brandon Teixeira was arrested last December in California

The site of the former Rona store in Newton could be home to a park and civic amenities, in the 6900-block of King George Boulevard. (Photo: Google Street View)
Surrey buying 16 properties in Newton for parkland, civic amenities

Mayor Doug McCallum says project will be ‘fast-tracked’

FILE – People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing facility in Burnaby, B.C., on Thursday, August 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
167 new COVID-19 cases, 1 death recorded as B.C. enters 2nd wave

Three new healthcare outbreaks also announced

Maple Meadows Station’s new Bike Parkade. TransLink photo
TransLink to remove abandoned or discarded bicycles from bike parkades

Rules at TransLink bike parkades ask customers to use facilities for single day use only

This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 particle isolated from a patient, in a laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID/NIH via AP
At least 49 cases of COVID-19 linked to wedding in Calgary: Alberta Health

McMillan says the city of Calgary has recently seen several outbreaks linked to social gatherings

UBC geoscientists discovered the wreckage of a decades-old crash during an expedition on a mountain near Harrison Lake. (Submitted photo)
Wreckage of decades-old plane crash discovered on mountain near Harrison Lake

A team of Sts’ailes Community School students helped discover the twisted metal embedded in a glacier

The official search to locate Jordan Naterer was suspended Saturday Oct. 17. Photo courtesy of VPD.
‘I am not leaving without my son,’ says mother of missing Manning Park hiker

Family and friends continue to search for Jordan Naterer, after official efforts suspended

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

A bear similar to this black bear is believed responsible for killing a llama in Saanich on Oct. 19. (Black Press Media file photo)
Bear kills llama on Vancouver Island, prompting concerns over livestock

Officers could not track the bear they feel may not fear humans

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
RCMP cleared in fatal shooting of armed Lytton man in distress, police watchdog finds

IIO spoke to seven civillian witnesses and 11 police officers in coming to its decision

A 34-year-old man was treated for a gunshot wound in Williams Lake Monday, Oct 19, 2020. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Williams Lake man treated for gunshot wound after accidental shooting: RCMP

Police are reminding residents to ensure firearms are not loaded when handling them

Most Read