Carmen George

Hoop of hope: Boy’s love of basketball helps Fresno family heal

We all have them: things and activities that help us cope and remember people we love.

For the Robinson family, it’s the tapping of a drum, the strum of a ukulele, the dribble of a basketball that brings a 12-year-old boy with bright blonde hair and blue eyes back to life.

It’s been 12 years since Jeremy Robinson of Fresno died in a tragic car accident with his biological mother, but the parents who raised him, Randy and Raelene Robinson, can still see Jeremy before his beloved basketball hoop.

But that changed earlier this month, when someone stole it off the street outside their east-central Fresno home.

“None of us realized how attached to that backstop we were because you just don’t think about it,” Randy Robinson says. “We just didn’t realize it because it’s just a basketball hoop, you know. But then, when it was gone, it was suddenly like — hearts ripped out: ‘Oh my God, someone took Jeremy’s hoop.’”

After knocking on neighbors’ doors for clues, Randy Robinson reported the theft to the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office with little hope.

“At that point, I’d already written it off. It’s gone. You don’t get this kind of stuff back.”

Filling out a crime report online, he was surprised when he began to weep.

“I’m bawling and I’m like doing the man thing, right? I’m telling myself, ‘It’s just a basketball hoop, what the heck, come on.’”

His family was feeling the same pain. Raelene Robinson’s heart sunk when she found it missing the morning of July 11.

Determined to get it back, she made a massive laminated sign that she screwed into the side of a tipped-over table (with help from her father-in-law) that stood where the basketball hoop once was.

It read: “To the people who took our basketball hoop: To you it’s just a hoop, but to us it’s a precious memory of our son, Jeremy, who resides now in heaven. It gave us great joy and comfort to share this hoop with the neighborhood kids! We know that it’s unlikely we will get it back, but if you have a heart, please return it, no questions asked!”

Her husband just thought, “Well, it will be therapeutic for my wife to make a sign.”

But its effect went beyond therapy.

Amazingly, within two days, the hoop was back. The sign and a Facebook post sharing its message from Raelene Robinson touched a nerve in the community that caught the attention of ABC30, which helped spread the plea for the hoop’s safe return.

Late July 12, the Robinsons got a call from a neighbor: “I think your hoop is over at Norseman Elementary School.” Someone had dropped it off in the loading zone of the parking lot.

“I hugged it, I’m not going to lie,” Raelene Robinson says. “I hugged it in the road at Norseman.”

As an act of forgiveness, the Robinsons have a donated hoop they’d like to give to the person who took Jeremy’s hoop, but that person hasn’t come forward. In the meantime, they’re working to find a way to legally secure Jeremy’s hoop outside their home so it can return to the street without fear of being snatched up.

Jeremy’s hoop was back home for the 12th anniversary of his death on July 14, which meant a lot. The Robinsons invited friends and family to their home for a potluck and basketball playing to celebrate their son’s life.

Raelene Robinson played basketball with her 8-year-old great-niece, Nevaeh Keiser. It felt good. Like her husband and their two younger sons, she had enjoyed watching other neighborhood children use the hoop but hadn’t tried to shoot a basket in a long time.

“It was kind of hard to play on it,” she says. “Now, I think I’m ready. I can do it without it being a sad thing. It can be a happy thing now.”

Music is another way they remember Jeremy. By age 12, Jeremy played a number of instruments — predominately piano and percussion — thanks to his music teacher dad. Jeremy was learning to play the ukulele and was in the process of writing a song with the instrument shortly before he died.

His father would eventually finish the song for him, but not for a while.

Without realizing it, Randy Robinson had stopped playing music around their home. Then one night, months after Jeremy’s death, he sat back down at the piano and started to play.

“Raelene walked by and she started crying,” he says. “She said, ‘I was wondering when you were going to start doing that again.’”

It can still hurt — the Robinsons’ youngest son, Greg, calls these “Jeremy moments” — but the family has found a lot that’s helped them cope.

They went to group therapy sessions at Saint Agnes Medical Center and Raelene Robinson started attending a program called Celebrate Recovery through NorthPointe Community Church, which helped her overcome severe depression and see that we all have “a hurt or a habit or a hangup.”

Greg Robinson says, “Time teaches you how to deal with it but not how to heal.” The Robinsons have worked hard on healing, not just dealing — a process that began with accepting pain.

Of hundreds of sympathy cards the Robinsons received, the best of them, sitting on the top of the stack, came from Randy Robinson’s cousin in Colorado. On the front, it prefaces a list of common condolences with the words, “People are going to say this.” And inside: “The reality of this is, ‘It sucks.’”

“That hit me when I read that, because it was true,” Randy Robinson says. “The other cards are just feel-good, whatever you want to call it, but this one was true. People don’t need to offer advice, just be there.”

Fortunately, the Robinsons had lots of people who were present in their darkest hours, a time Raelene Robinson calls “floating on faith.” Their Christian faith — what was already hugely important to Jeremy by age 12 — was a big part of carrying them through.

Without his parents’ knowledge, Jeremy once walked to the home of a neighbor who was sick to ask if he had been baptized and “saved.”

When he was told, “Yes,” Jeremy said, “Phew, that’s a load off of my mind,” recalled Kelly Duncan, that neighbor’s daughter and a longtime family friend.

And that compassionate, sometimes “ornery” little boy was full of life, so much life. “There was a lot of energy there,” his dad recalled.

His mom added that he was an “old soul” and a bright light. The Robinsons do what they can to keep his energy and light glowing in their hearts.

Little things become big things in that journey. Things as simple as shooting a hoop or snuggling up to a pillow go a long way.

Jeremy’s mom still sleeps with Jeremy’s pillow and Greg Robinson, now 20, sleeps with Jeremy’s pillow case. He isn’t really sure why, but he thinks it has something to do with a favorite image of the brother he loves so much.

In that memory, he’s back in a bedroom with Jeremy, half-asleep on Christmas morning and nestled against his pillow, happy.

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge