Syracuse • Robert Whaley is still 6-foot-10. But that’s about the only thing that has stayed the same for the man who was once one of America’s best high school basketball players.
He used to be listed at 260 pounds, but is now far from his playing weight. He moves slower than he did nine years ago when he appeared in 23 games for the Utah Jazz. Today, he’s an assistant coach for Utah Elite, a talented AAU program made up primarily of fifth-graders.
The money is gone. The fame — fleeting at its peak — is an afterthought. Whaley is no longer in the NBA. But he’s also no longer in jail, no longer on the wrong side of the law, no longer consistently in the wrong place at the worst times.
Basketball is over for Robert Whaley as a player. But it is obvious the game is still a big part of who he is.
It was all on display during a recent, warm spring night at the Syracuse Community Center in northern Utah, where he tutored youngsters on the subtleties of the pick-and-roll and other basketball nuances. Knowing he used to play in the league, the kids all listened intently.
Robert Whaley is now far from the limelight, but he has never been more at peace with himself. For all the basketball talent he squandered, it is a game he still loves.
“I take full responsibility for everything that’s happened to me,” Whaley said. “Some of the stuff that’s happened is because of who I was. I understand that’s how it goes. But I tried to cheat life and that didn’t work out for me. When you try every way, the only way is to fly right. I’m married now, and I have a good support system around me. I look at coaching and I feel like I’ve found my calling.”
Hitting rock bottom • Whaley’s journey to become a productive member of society stands in stark contrast to the disastrous road he was once headed down.
He was a poster child for those who claim young basketball stars are handed too much, too soon. You know, the entitled players whom NBA veterans rail against when reminiscing upon the old days of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson running the NBA.
Whaley was once the top-rated high school center in the country, Michigan’s Mr. Basketball as a senior at Benton Harbor High. He always had great size and great girth. Unlike big men in his weight class, however, Whaley moved stunningly well for a man of his stature. Always aggressive, he tried to dunk whenever possible. If he couldn’t do that, he had a slew of post moves he could counter with.
He was recruited by every school in the country, finally settling on Missouri.
But that’s when the trouble began. He never played for the Tigers, owing to a rape charge that was tossed out because of mistrial. He tried to get his college basketball career back on track in junior college, then signed with Cincinnati and the Bearcats’ famed coach, Bob Huggins.
But that lasted only a year. On the move again, Whaley put up big numbers for Walsh College, an NAIA school. The Jazz thought enough of him to spend a second-round draft pick, and he made the team.
“We really liked Robert,” said former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. “We liked him as a person, we thought he was a good kid. We really liked him as a player. He had the talent to play in the NBA. It’s unfortunate that it didn’t work out with us.”
A highly publicized incident in Park City doomed Whaley, who got into a brawl with some Denver Nuggets fans with then Jazz rookie point guard Deron Williams by his side. He compounded his troubles by giving police a fake name at the scene and lying to the Jazz about a cut on his right hand that he suffered in the brawl. He was soon traded to the Toronto Raptors and subsequently released. He never got another shot at the NBA.
“Everything happened for a reason,” Whaley said. “I will always take responsibility for what’s happened. I never had a father figure to tell me what to do and what not to do. I was pushed through school because I could play basketball, and I think that hurt me.”
Whaley played overseas for a few years, and he spent a season in the NBA Development League with the Los Angeles D-fenders. But trouble continued to follow him. In this instance, a marijuana possession arrest earned him a parole violation and landed him in jail for two years.
That was rock bottom for Robert Whaley. The climb back up started then and there.
Turning it around • After his release, Whaley returned to Utah, determined to settle down and leave his past behind. He soon met Ronnie Ross, a former point guard at Utah State who was coaching his son Jordan and his AAU program.
Ross kept telling Whaley to come to practice, come help and sit on the bench during games. The two became friends right away. Whaley’s past became irrelevant. So, in October, Whaley finally went to a practice. He’s been with the team ever since.
On this day, Whaley leads a drill where he misses a free throw that morphs into a fast break on the other end. Except he has trouble missing the free throw, his shooting touch still very much evident. After one make, he laughs along with the kids. He’s very much in his element, very much at ease. Finally, he misses. The players take the rebound and race up the floor. The ball finds a shooter in the corner.
“It’s a humbling experience to have it all and have it be taken away,” Ross said. “But Robert is such a good person. When you get to know him, it’s like you can’t believe it’s the same person who had all of those problems. He’s been great with the kids. They look up to him, and they know that he’s been in the NBA and at the top. He’s been where they want to go, and they listen to him.”
Ross was more than willing to give Whaley a chance. He told his players he had been in trouble in the past, without being too specific. He also told them that everyone is entitled to a do-over in life.
“I never want to judge what another man has gone through,” Ross said. “I just know that Robert has been great when he’s been with us. He’s set a great example for the kids.”
For Whaley, it’s about giving back. It’s about being a good father — his son Robert Jr. plays on the team. It’s about working hard.
He now has a steady job working at a local Marriott, he’s married and settled down. Whaley’s even writing a book, on education. He doesn’t make the hundreds of thousands of dollars he used to as an NBA player, but he’s perfectly fine with it. At age 32, Whaley feels like he’s finally winning at the game of basketball, and in the game of life.
“I feel like I’ve found my platform,” he said. “I’m blessed to be around this group of kids. They are great players and disciplined kids. I feel like I’m in a great situation.”
About Robert Whaley
• Originally from Benton Harbor, Michigan
• Was ranked as the top center in the country coming out of high school
• Played 23 games for the Utah Jazz in 2005
• Was traded to the Toronto Raptors, where his NBA career ended
• Faced a series of legal issues during and after his playing days
• Is an assistant coach with the Utah Elite AAU program