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Remembering the Lion

by Tom Brennan

It was my birthday, May 2, 1993, and Kevin Roberson was among a group of friends who had gone out to dinner with me to celebrate. When we were leaving the restaurant, I remember looking at Kevin and thinking how proud I was of that guy. How proud I was to have had a part in bringing him here, seeing what he’d done and would continue to do. Forget what he does in basketball, I thought, he’s just such a special person to so many people. I didn’t know, of course, that it would be the last time I’d see him.

Six days later we got the call that Kevin and his sister Michelle had been killed in an accident with a drunk driver. Hard to believe that sad day will be ten years in the past this spring. I’m amazed at his presence here still. He’s with us in this gym, on this campus, and in this town in so many ways.

We show every recruit we bring in a videotape of Kevin. If you come here, this is what you’re shooting for. If you can get anywhere close to this, then you’re going to have a fine, fine time at UVM. And we’re not just talking about blocking shots and making baskets. We’re talking about dignity and humility and determination and leadership.

Tough to say what gave Kevin more of a beating early on during his UVM days, Joe Calavita’s elbows or the engineering curriculum. Joe was our senior center, and he outweighed Kevin by easily a hundred pounds. It was a long time before Kevin made it through a full practice. He’d get hit, go to the bench and ice up, when the ice melted he’d come back on the court, get hit and start the cycle all over again. But he kept coming back.

Same thing with engineering. Kevin was determined to be an engineer, just like he was determined to play in the NBA and there was never any wavering in that. I remember him coming in here and opening his engineering textbooks on my desk, shaking his head and saying, “TB, look at this. Look at this.” Often he didn’t have one-tenth of a grade point more than he needed to have, but, you know what, he did it and he would have been a great engineer because he worked so hard.

Kevin put that same work ethic into his basketball. Kenny White, Kevin’s roommate, deserves a lot of credit for that. Kenny just raised the standard as far as what was acceptable for the work level of a University of Vermont basketball player and other guys bought into that. Kenny, Kevin, Matt Johnson, Rahim Huland El, and the Tarrant brothers, those guys all stood out as very hard workers.

Kevin was a hard worker, but he needed to be convinced that it was worthwhile. He never wanted to be on the road any more than he had to, for instance. A lot of coaching mentality is that you are going to war. You travel the day before the game, you hunker down, you have a meal, you go see a movie like Gladiator, and the next day you’re ready to go.

But Kevin liked to sleep in his own bed. He’d say, “Look, I’ve got these four engineering projects I’ve got to do. You know I’m going to run through the wall for you, TB, but really, there ain’t no need for us to go down there tonight.”

It got to the point where we stayed home when he wanted to stay home. He wanted to go, we went. When you know a guy’s going to give you fifteen points and fifteen rebounds, you listen to him.

Freshman year, Kevin was nothing. Sophomore year, he really started to come on. Junior year, he was the man. I remember we had a game at St. Mike’s that season where he was really laboring around for most of it. He really didn’t get much done in the game, then all of a sudden, the last five or ten minutes of the game, Kevin just dominated, a take- your-breath-away type of performance.

I remember saying to the media after the game, “Lions may sleep eighteen hours a day, but when they wake up they’re still king of the jungle.”

After that, Kevin was always known as “The Lion” on our team. And it made sense, I think, because he really had great dignity. He was like royalty, always reminded me of that. Every year he just kept getting better and more dominating, but he never lost his carriage, his dignity.

He just had a good sense of who he was and what he was trying to do.

My first impression of Kevin had been how quiet and introspective he was. The more I got to know him, I saw that as one of his greatest qualities. He was a fabulous listener. He just had a way about him of listening, then saying something that not only made you laugh, but made you understand that he got it. He’d make a quick little joke, but it had some poignancy, a little message in it. He just got it, he got it from right away.

It was that kind of grace that allowed him to cross boundaries, to handle being a black student on a mostly white campus. At his funeral in Buffalo, there were 2,000 people there and 1,900 of them were black. And then we came back here and we had a memorial service and there were 1,500 people and 1,450 of them were white. I remember when I spoke at his funeral, I said that Kevin was the color of love.

We’ve got a mission statement for our basketball program that says we want to bring people here who are going to make the community better, make the university better, and make our team better. Kevin far and away did all of those things, and you can’t ask any more of a person than that. Lion, we miss you, man.

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