AT a local hangout on Purdue University's campus, the big-screen TV is showing highlights from a recent Purdue basketball game. Star forward Glenn Robinson is flying through the air, ready to slam-dunk the ball. He slams it hard, and students respond by whistling and shouting Robinson's name.
``He could easily make $100 million,'' one student says, yelling to be heard above the loud music. He's sitting in a corner booth with three friends. ``Maybe even more with endorsements,'' he continues. ``But I think he's overrated. He's good, but not that good.'' Robinson is a common topic of conversation on campus.
``I disagree,'' says another student, sitting opposite the first speaker. ``He's good enough to make it into the NBA. He's the best college player in the nation. I think he'll turn pro next year.''
It's a beautiful day in Mr. Robinson's neighborhood - the Purdue campus, that is. The Boilermakers are first in the Big Ten Conference and ranked No. 6 in the nation. Their record is 25-4 with one game left in the regular season (this Sunday, against the University of Illinois).
Robinson, a junior, has proved everyone - his fans, the media, NBA coaches and players - wrong. They thought he would turn pro after his sophomore year, but he has chosen to continue his education.
`I plan to stay here'
``For the 50th time,'' Robinson says in a Monitor interview, ``I never had any plans of leaving Purdue. If people [in the media] knew how to read, they would know I never intended to turn pro. I plan to stay here until I graduate.''
Robinson leads the nation with 29.7 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. Before this season started he was the consensus Big Ten Player of the Year, and a likely candidate for nationwide Player of the Year.
``It's very rare to have a player like Glenn in your coaching career,'' says Purdue coach Gene Keady. ``I knew when I first saw him play in high school that he would be extra special.''
As a freshman at Purdue, Robinson was sidelined for failing to meet National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) academic standards. From that moment on, Robinson has attracted unwanted media attention.
``It's not that I don't like the media,'' Robinson says. ``When I sat out my freshman year, they were mean to me. All they wanted to know about were my grades. Now, it's all basketball.''
The 6 ft., 8 in., 225-lb. player had run afoul of Proposition 48, which requires a high school senior have a 2.0 grade-point average for a specified curriculum and either a 17 on the ACT or a combined score of 700 on the Scholastic Achievement Test. A player who fails those requirements can't play intercollegiate athletics as a freshman.
``His freshman year was difficult on him because he likes to play so much,'' Coach Keady says. ``He wanted to help his teammates win, and that really bothered him.''
Robinson, formerly a physical education major, now carries a B-minus average studying communication. He says he hits the books regularly. ``It's important to get my degree,'' the Gary, Ind., native says. Robinson is on track to graduate in four years if he goes to summer school.
A few of Robinson's peers have walked away from college hoops early to sign multimillion-dollar pro contracts. Chris Webber of the University of Michigan signed a $74.4 million contract; Anfernee Hardaway (Memphis State), $65.3 million; and Shawn Bradley (Brigham Young University), $44.2 million. Robinson says getting a degree is at the forefront of his mind; the money will come later, he adds.
``I don't know that much about basketball,'' says his mother, Christine Bridgeman, ``but it's a joy to watch him play when he scores and even when he doesn't.'' She and her husband, Robinson's stepfather, go to all the Purdue home games. But ``ever since 7th or 8th grade, when [Glenn] started to take basketball more seriously, we sat down and discussed this. I have always said that getting your degree comes first, basketball second.''
Student athletes mentored
Sue Aufderheide, the academic services coordinator at Purdue, is responsible for providing tutors, mentors, and academic workshops to student athletes. All athletes must take a minimum of 12 hours per semester and must pass 18 hours of courses during the school year, according to NCAA rules. There are also grade checks three times per semester, when feedback from professors on class attendance and performance is passed along to coaches.
Coach Keady says that if any of his players miss class, they hear from him. ``Every day, we hit academics in some fashion,'' he says. ``It's important to take care of business. Having responsibility is a big key in the educational process.'' Even with a strong media spotlight on them? Even with the pressure of a national ranking?
``We are making our players understand that it's a privilege to have this opportunity to be exposed to the media, but by the same token, you can't be distracted from your studies,'' Keady says.
Robinson grew up in Gary, an hour and 15 minutes away from Purdue. He attended Roosevelt High, where he shared most national player-of-the-year honors with Chris Webber.
``He is very private person,'' Keady says. ``But he is a big-hearted competitor, and he wants his teammates to do well. He's just enjoyable to be around.''
Coach Keady shelters Robinson from national and local media as much as he can. Robinson gets more than three interview requests every day, and Keady takes the unusual step of fielding all such requests personally. He limits all interviews to a maximum of 15 minutes.
Teleconferences are planned so that more media requests can be accommodated at once.
Meanwhile, Robinson's mother is keeping a scrapbook for her son. ``I keep up with what is read and said about Glenn,'' she says. ``Whatever he decides - to stay in school or turn pro early - I'll support his decision.''