HELENA -- Dom Robinson nearly quit.
Stuck between jobs at Foot Locker and Club Sport in Tigard, Oregon, a few years ago, the small fiery guard contemplated his basketball future. He played hoops every day at the gym, harboring an idea in the back of his mind of once again pursuing college basketball, but two years at a junior college in northern Colorado left him ambivalent, stressed, mad.
It was, after all, the two years in Colorado that drove Robinson to living with his uncle, Richard Caoille, in Tigard. Caoille implored Robinson to continue playing. Robinson needed his guidance and Tigard to free him of distractions back home in Tacoma. He moved to Tigard with no college offers in hand, living in limbo.
His motivation to play nearly exhausted.
It took a major hit while in Colorado. He played a lot his sophomore year, understanding each game, each possession, had an impact of whether he would receive offers to play at the next level. Even after playing a lot of minutes, the guard’s 7.1 points and 3.2 assists per game didn’t catch coaches’ attention. He didn't stand out among a team full of talented players.
It became a major valley in his life.
Here was a guard who won a 4A state championship in Washington at Curtis High, became MVP of the tournament – a pinnacle in a young basketball career – who now couldn’t interest a single coach to take a flier on the kid. Five-feet-eight inches can dismay even the most cerebral of coaches, but to distress every one of them? Robinson was stung.
“That was a high in my life,” Robinson said of high school. “I went to my lowest in the junior college.”
Point guard is a trust position, an extension of the coaches’ vision and desires. The player with ball in his hands the most has to be able to execute plays, make good decisions and most of all have his coach’s and his team’s trust.
In Colorado, Robinson didn’t.
“Back then, I wanted to quit,” Robinson said. “I felt like I had weight on my shoulders.”
His momma didn’t raise a quitter, though. His mom, Carine, pushed him hard to work through adversity. Robinson more than once wanted to transfer out of Colorado. She said no.
“She’s not a fan of quitting,” Robinson said. “I have that mindset now, too.”
Concordia in Portland brought Robinson on campus for a workout during the year he spent in Oregon. An assistant coach from Tacoma gave his fellow hometown kid a shot. Robinson went through the workout, but walked away disenchanted. Concordia’s head coach never watched. The man who would make the decision on bringing Robinson on board wasn’t even in the building.
“I knew it wasn’t serious because he wasn’t there to watch me,” Robinson recalled.
His true path back to college basketball started with a dream, a phone call and a plane ticket to Dillon, Montana.
Montana Western has pulled talent from Tacoma, Washington, before. The school found Brandon Brown, who turned into an All-American while at Western and has since been playing professional basketball overseas since 2012. Even with an All-American player in Brown and other All-Americans in seven of the past eight seasons -- and likely more on the way in 2018 -- it’s a tough sell to bring hoopers to Dillon.
Brown knows that.
“Every year no matter how many banners or All-Americans or Frontier Conference championships, it hasn’t mattered,” Brown said recently over the phone during some downtime in Poland, where he’s playing professionally.
Brown stays up on what’s happening in Dillon, even from across the Atlantic. Though it was during his playing days at Western he realized the Bulldogs would need a point guard in the future. He knew Robinson through basketball in Tacoma and close family friends. He saw a potential fit.
Brown became the broker.
He called Robinson, heard his apathy toward recruiting.
Brown called Western coach Steve Keller, who he stays in close contact with, promising the coach that Robinson played larger than his size.
Brown told Robinson to book a ticket and that he’d have a chance to prove himself to Keller at an alumni game that spring.
Robinson arrived in Dillon and wowed. Keller remembers watching the talented scorer and offering him a scholarship five minutes after the game ended.
“He made everybody around him better,” Keller said. “Everybody wants to play with him. Sometimes your leading scorer, not everybody wants to play with him. Great attitude. Hard worker. Typically plays with a chip on your shoulder because you got overlooked because you were 5-foot-7.”
Robinson, who yearned for a coach’s patience and trust, felt he connected with Keller. All it took was a trip from Tigard to Dillon and the vouching of a peer.
Now, Robinson’s scored 17 points per game in one of the better conferences in the NAIA. He’s earned an All-American second team honor. He’s picked, prodded and puzzled defenses for close to two full seasons. In that same time frame, he’s scored over 1,000 points at Western. He’ll cap his Western career off by leading the Bulldogs into another NAIA tournament.
It’s a long ways to come from a guard who couldn’t earn the trust of a JUCO coach.
In Dillon, he felt trust right away. Keller must have seen something in him from the very beginning, he said. When Robinson brings energy, the Bulldogs match it.
“It just feels good to have somebody like him in my corner and even after this it’s going to be cool to have that connection with him,” Robinson said. “He’s such a good guy. He just wants you to succeed. That was what feels great.”
Keller thought about Brown. He thought about Robinson. If Brown were the best player to play at Western, Robinson was easily top five, Keller reasoned.
“For his size to average 17 or 18 points a game is in my mind pretty incredible,” Keller said. “He usually gets the other team’s best defender.”
And the fit in Dillon could not have been better.
“Everybody likes him,” Keller said. “We’re a small town. Everybody knows you. I think he’s a role model for the younger kids. Dom gets it -- gets it on floor and off the floor.”
All Robinson needed was a real opportunity.