Jackie: An American hero with SoCal roots
Robinson developed his spirit, resolve, talent as a child in Pasadena, student at UCLA
LOS ANGELES -- After the Los Angeles Lakers won the 1985 NBA title against the Celtics in Boston, chasing away decades of Boston Garden ghosts and goblins, superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's first thoughts and words reflected a devotion to his childhood hero and team of his dreams.
"This reminds me of when Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers, my team, finally beat the Yankees in the 1955 World Series," said Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's all-time scoring king and a six-time champion. "It's the same kind of feeling today for me."
Jack Roosevelt Robinson is an American hero of enduring historical impact and relevance. His April 15, 1947, smashing of the national pastime's racial barrier in Brooklyn will be celebrated across the sport on Tuesday, every player wearing his No. 42 in tribute.
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Robinson is an American story, but he's also a Southern California story. This is where the legendary figure began his journey, where that competitive spirit, resolve and high intelligence that would carry him through life and change a nation took root and formed.
He was born in Cairo, Ga., but Jackie's mother, Mallie Robinson, took her five kids west in search of a better life when Jackie was 16 months old. The family settled in Pasadena, about a dozen miles from downtown Los Angeles, and he was soon playing every sport he could with his big brothers.
Jackie's athletic star rose at Pasadena's John Muir High School. By the time he'd finished his two years at Pasadena City College, he was widely known for his remarkable athletic prowess.
He was recruited by a number of universities, and Oregon seemed to have the edge. Jackie's brother, Mack Robinson, was a track-and-field star there and a popular member of the student body. However, Jackie chose the University of Los Angeles because it was close to his brother Frank's family, after Frank was killed in a motorcycle accident in May 1939. Frank and Jackie were extremely close, and his advice and support filled a void with no biological father in Jackie's life.
Bill Spaulding, UCLA's director of athletics, was worried that Bruins coaches would fight over which sport Jackie should play, but Jackie said it would not be a problem. He'd play all four.
With only about 30 African American students on the UCLA campus at the time, Jackie retreated inside himself as he tried to come to grips with Frank's death. As a senior, he got what he considered the break of his life when he met Rachel Isum, a freshman, at the student union on campus.
Beautiful, compassionate and blessed with uncommon wisdom, she would become his wife, his rock, for the rest of his life. Jackie would recall his UCLA days fondly, more for Rachel coming into his life than anything he did athletically.
Ah, but what an athlete. Imagine one young man combining skills associated with the likes of Barry Sanders, Kobe Bryant, Robinson Cano and Carl Lewis.
That was Jackie Robinson when he arrived at UCLA.
On the football field, he led the nation, averaging 12 yards per carry for UCLA's undefeated Bruins in '39, and he was the country's most prolific punt returner in both seasons he played football.
Teammate Woody Strode recalls Robinson's impact in Gold Dust, his autobiography: "In those days, Jackie was famous as a football player. ... He had incredible speed coupled with elusiveness you had to see to believe. He could change direction better than any back I had ever seen. Stop on a dime: boom; full speed in the other direction. They didn't have to do a lot of blocking for him because he was so instinctive. He was shifty and quick and would just outmaneuver anybody."
After leaving UCLA, Robinson played professional football for teams in Los Angeles and Hawaii. The immense popularity of the National Football League was years in the future.
Jackie was the best all-around basketball player on the West Coast -- spectacular leaper, explosive scorer, shutdown defender -- and perhaps the best in the country. He led the Southern Division of the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring in both his UCLA seasons. This was before coach John Wooden's arrival, and even if the team didn't take flight, Jackie did.
With his extraordinary spring, Robinson, at 5-foot-11 1/2, was one of the first players to make the dunk a part of his arsenal. His fierceness and aggressive style formed the blueprint for the likes of Michael Jordan and Bryant.
Jackie played professional basketball in 1946 for the L.A. Red Devils, a franchise that sought membership in the National Basketball League, pre-dating the NBA. Two of Robinson's teammates were future Major League players Irv Noren and George Crowe.
Robinson, who left UCLA needing credits to graduate in order to assist his family financially, could likely have integrated and elevated professional football or basketball. He was that good. But it was baseball that got lucky, owing in large part to the combined courage of the men who became inseparably linked: Branch Rickey and Robinson.
An acrobatic infielder with the rare combination of power and blinding speed, Robinson became a very good baseball player -- but it was by all accounts his third-best sport. He refined his talents with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues and in one Minor League season at Montreal before his breakthrough in Brooklyn in 1947.
Along with his football, basketball and baseball talents, Robinson was a world-class long jumper, an elite-level tennis player and a swimmer who could handle a surfboard and a wave.
Baseball had one major advantage over football and basketball in those days: Its popularity as the national pastime dwarfed that of any other sport.
Robinson fully understood the stakes when he accepted Rickey's challenge to break down those racial barriers in 1947, absorbing all manner of verbal, emotional and physical abuse to clear the path for those who would follow.
It was a mountainous task, changing society with his bat, glove, legs and -- critically -- his ability to resist directly responding to racial taunts and threats. But Robinson never was one to back down from a challenge, as he framed the mission in the title of his autobiography: I Never Had It Made.
He was familiar with the task of breaking down barriers from his time at UCLA.
"He was the first athlete in UCLA history to letter in four sports in the same year," former UCLA Chancellor Norm Abrams said, "but it is his abiding dignity and unshakable conviction that we most appreciate and that made him a true champion. The entire Bruin family treasures his legacy."
UCLA athletes through the years, including Abdul-Jabbar, have pointed to Robinson's heritage and societal impact as factors in their decisions to attend UCLA.
With all due respect to all the other great ones, before and after Robinson, there never has been a more complete, more accomplished athlete than this man who made America stand up, take notice and applaud his courage, skill and will.
And it all started in Southern California.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.