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Ms. Robinson's Neighborhood

Journalists are milling outside the Liberty locker room on a steamy July night, waiting for Coach Richie Adubato to come out and tell them how his squad pulled off the 61-56 victory over the Orlando Miracle. It's not long before a handful of daily reporters—young white guys cutting their sports-writing teeth on the women's league—preen by joking about what they just know the cliché-prone Adubato will say. "It's gonna be, 'Crystal came through for us in the clutch,' " says one. "Not quite," corrects another. "More like: 'You got to hand it to

Crystal. She was our go-to player and she delivered.' " And the rest of the gang chimes in with their own variations on the theme: "Crystal really stepped up." "Crystal buried the open shots." "Crystal caught fire just when we needed her."

Only a few weeks before, the city's sports writers couldn't have picked Crystal Robinson out of a group of grandmothers. Indeed, the first time the 25-year-old, 5-10 forward appeared in a game photo in the Times, the caption identified her as teammate Kym Hampton. But by mid July, Robinson's consistent off-the-bench, in-the-clutch, out-of-this-world three-point jumpers had thrust her into the spotlight. Garden spectators who hadn't mustered so much as a polite clap for Robinson in the early part of the season have begun to roar whenever she subs into the game. And the famed fans of section 112 promise that soon they'll add a "Crystal Sparkles" banner to their flapping sheets painted with slogans like "Kym Rules the Rym," "Suuuuuuuuuu," and "Teresa Rocks." Guys sitting behind the visitors' baseline have taken to shouting, "C'mon, Crystal! Give us some three!"

Frequently, she obliges. Like on July 1, when, in the last six minutes, she went five-for-five from three-point range in what had been a squeaker against the Phoenix Mercury. Or on July 18 in OT against the Utah Starzz, when she sparked an 11-0 run by hitting a three from the right baseline, helping the team to a desperately needed 88-82 win. Or even in the heartbreaker in Los Angeles on July 24, where the Sparks put the Liberty down 75-72 in OT despite Robinson's 23 points, 21 from downtown.

"She's doing just what we brought her here for," says Liberty GM Carol Blazejowski, who had predicted great results when the team tapped Robinson as its first-round (sixth over all) draft choice this year. "She's going to be an all-star. She should have been one this year." Compare her three-point percentage (.459) to two-time MVP Cynthia Cooper's (.344). Or for that matter, to Allan Houston's (.407).

"I'm just competitive," says Robinson with an impish shrug, by way of explanation. "Competition drives me. I have a three-year-old nephew and if he wants to race me to the icebox, I can't let him win."

Still, Robinson didn't find her groove right away. She joined the Liberty bench under the label—and salary—of "rookie" after three years as a high-scoring starter on the Colorado Xplosion of the ABL. There, she was a repeat all-star, and "top first-year pro" of '96–'97. Adjusting to the WNBA's smaller ball was hard enough—"At first it was hard to catch it and turn and shoot"—but the intangibles were even tougher. "I'm playing a totally different role than in the ABL," she says. "I'm coming off the bench now and it took a while to realize that that didn't mean I wasn't expected to step up and be a scorer."

Nowadays, with the help of her teammates, she is. "Spoon has eyes in the back of her head and she can always find me," Robinson says of the team's flashy point-guard Teresa Weather spoon. And Spoon returns the compliment: "We believe the ball's going in every time it leaves Crystal's hands. In the clutch, we believe in her." But it took time to build such trust. After a practice session in early June, Robinson allowed that she felt awkward among the close-knit squad. "People are friendly and they mean it," she said then, "but it feels like I'm not completely part of the group yet. I hope I can find a way to fit into the chemistry."

Hitting the big shots certainly didn't hurt. And neither did saving her aggressiveness for games; off the court, Robinson remained easygoing, and gradually her boisterousness burst through. A month ago, teammates described her as quiet and laid-back. Now, says Kym Hampton, "She's a practical joker. If you're wearing something tight she'll come up and warn you: 'Girl, you better not sit down!"' And one day when the team was riding up a glass elevator in a hotel somewhere on the road, backup point guard Becky Hammon suddenly found her pants at her ankles—Robinson had yanked them down. "Crystal is a joker," guard Coquese Washington sums up. "She's a nut."

"It's true," says Robinson flashing a grin. "But on the court I mean business."  

Robinson figures she learned to thrive on pressure because of the responsibility she carried growing up in Stringtown, Oklahoma (pop. 400), as the second of five children. Both of her parents worked (and both had played basketball at Murray State), so Robinson had to look after her younger siblings. (Her older brother escaped such duties by dint of his gender and because, she says, "he was a hoodlum." Currently he is in jail, a matter she doesn't like to discuss other than to say that he provided a powerful negative example.)

Robinson, on the other hand, has embraced the role of positive example, hoping to counteract the "dream stealers in this world" by working with kids. Signed by Reebok during her ABL seasons, Robinson was a featured speaker at its programs, a skill the WNBA has yet to pick up on. Last summer Robinson visited a Shoshone reservation in Wyoming to encourage young Native Americans. (One of Robinson's great-grandparents was Cherokee.) "Our government has them in a position where they think they're getting the world when they're really getting nothing," she says, her voice rising. "They live in such poverty."

It's a condition Robinson well remembers, and she credits basketball—and all the coaches and parental figures who helped her—with lifting her out of it. Robinson was around 10 when she started playing hoops with local kids, shooting the ball through an old bicycle wheel rim they had nailed to a tree after knocking out the spokes. It was the boys who taught her the instantaneous jumper that remains her trademark today: "They were so much taller I had to learn to get my shot off quick or they'd block it."

When Robinson entered high school, the family moved to Atoka, Oklahoma, so she could play on the basketball team. Though larger—pop. 4000, "with three stoplights and a Wal mart"—the town didn't promise much opportunity beyond that. "There's not many black people there," she explains. Commenting on the way the town's money remains in the hands of a few white families, she adds, "You can't make more than minimum wage. I needed to get an education and make something of myself."

Robinson is so committed to the idea that one must leave an environment of poverty and narrow horizons in order to build a good life that she promised her sister Brandi she'd buy her a car if she went to school away from home. Brandi currently studies and plays basketball at Southwest Missouri State—and drives an Eagle Talon, courtesy of her big sister.

For her own part, though heavily recruited by colleges across the country, Robinson chose (after an unsatisfying quarter at basketball power Louisiana Tech) to study close to home at Southeastern Oklahoma State, majoring in health and physical education and minoring in history. On the court she ruled absolutely, once scoring 65 points in a single game. Robinson also played on the tennis team—a game she says she would have pursued professionally if she'd started younger: "It's such a precision sport," she explains, "and I'm a perfectionist."

Such a perfectionist that she's always the first to criticize herself—but in a modest, measured way that keeps her role as a member of a team in focus. On Sunday against Orlando, she scored only three points, hitting one for nine, yet was happy enough with the result. "I'd score just three points any time if we win," she says.

That she was off her roll on Sunday didn't disturb her coach, either. It just changed his postgame script a little. Said Adubato, pointing out something that may not have been obvious for a while, "She's human, like everyone else."


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