Interview: Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama's Brother
Whenever trailblazers are trying to break through a ceiling into uncharted territory, they have to be prepared for pushback and challenges, and for it not be pretty.
[Black Star Interview]
Craig Robinson was born in Chicago on April 21, 1962, to Fraser and Marian Robinson and raised in a modest home where he had to share a room with his younger sister, Michelle. With help of devoted parents, who made major sacrifices on their behalf, both children were inspired to excel academically and were admitted to Princeton University.
At 6’6”, Craig was also a basketball phenom who was twice voted the Ivy League Player of the Year during his college tenure. This meant that Michelle grew up in the shadow of her protective big brother. But today, those roles are reversed with Craig in the shadow of his world famous sibling, since she’s now the First Lady of the United States.
After playing basketball professionally in Europe, he earned an MBA from the University of Chicago, and entered the world of finance where he enjoyed a meteoric rise until another dream beckoned, namely, to coaching. Craig spent two years as the head coach at Brown, where he spearheaded a revival of the school’s flagging program, winning more games in his first two years than any other head coach in the school’s basketball history before being named the Ivy League Basketball Coach of the Year. Currently, Craig, his kids and wife, Kelly, live in Oregon where he coaches Oregon State University’s men’s basketball team. Here, he discusses his autobiography, “A Game of Character,” and reflects about his career and about how his life has changed since his brother-in-law, Barack, became President.
BSN: How does it feel, as a two-time Ivy League Player of the Year, to find yourself suddenly overshadowed by your sister for the first time?
CR: It’s ironic, but it’s kind of fun for me. As I mentioned in the book, for most of her life, until just a few years ago, she was always known as Craig Robinson’s little sister. It’s much more fun being Michelle Obama’s big brother.
BSN: In reading the book, you emphasized the importance of both family and basketball in shaping your character. Which would you say played a bigger role?
CR: I’d say the split is really about 70% family, 30% basketball. The foundation I learned from my parents. It just so happened that my father was into athletics, so he often used sports to reiterate some of the lessons he had already taught me at home.
BSN: Children’s book author Irene Smalls’ asks, “How does it feel to be the First Lady's brother?” And, “Seeing politics up close and personal, do you have political aspirations of your own?”
CR: I’ll answer the second question first. I don’t have any political aspirations. I so much enjoy coaching. I feel so rewarded having the opportunity to help shape the lives of young people. As to how it feels to be the First Lady's brother, it’s really been an eye-opener for me to work on the Presidential campaign, and to get an insider’s view of Washington and politics. It was humbling and quite an honor to be able to go around the country and talk about my family. And to see the inner workings of the White House, just from my own inquisitive point of view, has been really interesting. It’s been almost all positive.
BSN: What did you think of the issue of the New Yorker Magazine that came out during the campaign with the cover suggesting that your sister and Barack were terrorists?
CR: It didn’t bother me, because I knew who my sister and brother-in-law were. While it might have been disturbing to some people, it really didn’t upset me. Whenever trailblazers are trying to break through a ceiling into uncharted territory, they have to be prepared for pushback and challenges, and for it not be pretty.
BSN: Have you ever read the book, “The Rage of a Privileged Class,” by Ellis Cose?
CR: I haven’t read the book, but I’m going to run out and try to find it. I certainly understand the point it sounds like he’s making. Having worked in corporate America, the only thing I can say is that growing up in our house Michelle and I were taught to do our best, to be content with that, and not to gauge our success by how much money we made. And we saw that ethic demonstrated every day, watching our father getting up and going to work, despite his being disabled, and my mom working so hard, too. My parents’ prevailing mantra was self-confidence. They taught us not to let anybody else define us, and to not worry about what other people thought. What that does is instill the confidence and determination that you need to compete when things are so much against you.
BSN: It makes me think of PBS anchorwoman Gwen Ifill’s memoir, where she recounted being greeted on the first day of work at a Boston newspaper by a note on her desk which read, “Nigger go home!”
CR: You have to have the type of personality that doesn’t care about that sort of intimidation. It helps to feel in every fiber of your being that, “I’m here to do something that I’d love to do. And if you think this is going to scare me away, then you don’t know who I am.”
BSN: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks, “How has the family dynamic changed since your mother and sister moved to the White House?” Also, “Are all family events now at your sister's?”
CR: No, all family events are not at my sister's, although things obviously have changed a little. Now, it’s a bit of a logistical nightmare to get together, but I still talk to my mother and sister at least once a week. And the things we speak about haven’t changed. It’s family stuff: parenting, the kids, and how they’re doing.
BSN: Bernadette has a couple of follow-ups. “Do you have Secret Service following you around all the time?” And, “How often each week do people reach out to you just to get to Barack?”
CR: I can’t comment about our security. As for the second question, people reach out to me incessantly to get through to Barack. Because I’m a coach, my contact information is easily accessible, and people write, call and send things to me constantly.
BSN: Hot Rod Williams wants to know, who was best player you ever played against? Having read the book, I’d guess your answer is gonna be Michael Jordan.
CR: Right. That was in a summer league game.
BSN: FSU grad Laz Lyles would like to know your thoughts about the Gulf oil spill.
CR: Well, my thoughts are that this is an awful tragedy that sounds like it could have been avoided. My heart just goes out to the families of the people who lost their lives, and to the people of the Gulf who are going to feel the effects of it for years to come.
BSN: Yale grad Tommy Russell wants to know if you think your brother-in-law is doing enough in response to the crisis in the Gulf.
CR: That’s a loaded question that I’d prefer not to answer.
BSN: Reverend Florine Thompson says, “I read that your mother refers to you as Philosopher-in-Chief. This being the case, what is the wisest quote that you are known for in the family?”
CR: I don’t know that I’ve been quoted yet.
BSN: She also asks, when life seems most challenging, who gets you through those difficult times?
CR: I would have to say my family, specifically, my wife, my mom and my kids.
BSN: What was the last book you read?
CR: John Adams by David McCullough.
BSN: What are you listening to on your iPod?
CR: I listen to a little bit of everything: hip-hop, R&B, reggae and jazz. And I’ll even tune-in to a Top-40 station on the radio.
BSN: What was it like sharing a room with Michelle as a child?
CR: It was a lot of fun. We were very close. My parents never pitted us against each other, so it was a really easygoing childhood. Because she became First Lady, people want me to say that I predicted it back then. But I didn’t.
BSN: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
CR: That my dad could have lived to see all the stuff that’s going on for us right now.
BSN: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
CR: Krispy Kreme donuts. They’re a real test of willpower.
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