Mike Robbins’ apartment bedroom looks more like an artist’s studio than a place to sleep.
He has blank canvases in one corner of the room, a section of a wall for unfinished canvases and another section for finished canvases.
He also an easel and two desks, one with paint and another with sketchbooks and notebooks.
“My bed is the thing that just looks like it doesn’t belong,” Robbins said.
When Robbins, now a senior guard on scholarship, joined the Owls as a sophomore walk-on for the 2014-15 season, he painted every day, except for when the team traveled, and he continued to do so last season.
He only had 18 career minutes entering this season but knew he’d have a chance for more playing time. Sophomore guard Trey Lowe was redshirting the season, senior guard Josh Brown was recovering from an Achilles tendon injury and freshman guards Quinton Rose and Alani Moore II didn’t have any college experience. He wanted to be entirely focused on basketball
Robbins didn’t paint at all in the fall semester. He wasn’t himself. He picked up the brush again during winter break and said he felt less stressed and more free on the basketball court.
Robbins’ best scoring game came before winter break on Dec. 10 when he scored a career-high eight points against DePaul University, but he had a career-high three assists in 14 minutes against Central Florida on Dec. 31.
“I think the balance of both of them is what keeps me at my best on the court,” he said.
Robbins and his older brother Greg both played basketball at Lower Merion High School. Mike had a three-year varsity career, which included leading the Aces in scoring in the 2012 state championship.
When former Owls assistant coach Dwayne Killings told Robbins he had to switch from the No. 11 he wore in his first season, Robbins chose No. 22, the number Greg wore in high school and his four years at the University of Richmond and the number his dad Carl wore when he played at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1960s.
Unlike Greg, who graduated as Lower Merion’s second all-time leading scorer behind 18-time NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant, Mike wasn’t signed out of high school.
St. John’s University in Queens, New York was the only school Robbins applied to out of high school and only because he received an email that allowed him to apply without writing an essay, he said. He spent one semester there, sharing a room with his best friend, but wasn’t sure what he wanted to pursue academically.
He returned to Philadelphia to take a semester off, then he took classes at the Community College of Philadelphia in Summer and Fall 2013 before enrolling at Temple in Spring 2014.
Before he tried out for the basketball team in the following semester, Robbins worked the night shift at a hookah bar near Villanova’s campus in Spring and Summer 2014. From about 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. he prepared hookahs and cleaned the bathrooms.
“I kind of felt normal when I was working there, like I wasn’t anybody special,” Robbins said. “And then once I made the team, it was like I was living the dream.”
Robbins loved to draw in middle school, but decided he wanted to paint when he made the Owls’ roster.
“I went from not playing basketball to being a Division I athlete,” he said. “I kind of felt like anything was possible in all aspects of my life. … I said, ‘Why not go to the next level?’ Because I felt like painting was the ultimate proof that you’re an artist. So I wanted to take my drawings from my notebooks onto canvases and see if I could really be an artist as well.”
Robbins is an accounting major and said he’ll likely get an accounting job and paint on the side once he graduates. He said he wants to turn his paintings into a source of income between season’s end and graduation.
He has plenty of family members to ask for help when he needs it. Two of his cousins are artists, one in fibers and knitting and the other in painting, illustration and graphic design, and his half sister Trilby is a painter.
But he leans on his 30-year-old sister Lindsay, who learned how to weave at the Philadelphia Guild of Handweavers and is a 2012 printmaking alumna of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She was working at the Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn, New York until she moved back to West Philadelphia last month. She now teaches after-school sewing classes at Butcher’s Sew Shop in Center City.
Lindsay is Mike’s “professor,” who answers his technical questions like how to make earth-toned browns and helps with the perspective on figures in his work, like a person’s hand. She said Mike doesn’t ask much about subject matter, which often includes Black identity that comes from being mixed race.
Mike Robbins the painter is “more vulnerable” and “in tune with his surroundings,” while Mike Robbins the basketball player is “a jock” who is “likable,” “sociable” and “does what he’s supposed to do.” Both coexist within the same person.
“I’m like so impressed that he’s been able to find the balance between the both and still make time for things that mean the most to him, which is like going home and painting after he’s been practicing forever and lifting weights and all that,” Lindsay said. “It’s kind of crazy that he’s able to find that balance but he does completely.”
Evan Easterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.