EAST LANSING, Mich. — There in ink, on Rob Wilson’s upper left arm, are four words the senior swingman for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team decided to have emblazoned on his body about seven years ago.
Love for the game.
Separating the first half of the phrase from the second part is a large cross that has four basketballs in it.
Some players in Wilson’s shoes might have searched the yellow pages for a tattoo removal service by this point. But while Wilson had hoped for a bigger role during his final season with the Badgers, his love for the game hasn’t faded.
The tattoo isn’t going anywhere.
“Forever,” he said. “It’s always going to be strong love for basketball. That’s part of my life. I don’t think I’ll ever give it up.”
Because he prefers to keep to himself and is a role player, Wilson is rarely requested for interviews. But after a practice earlier this week, he sat in a chair in the Kohl Center media room and politely answered questions for five minutes even though part of the time was spent reliving a bad experience.
It’s not a stretch to say his career trajectory changed in the span of a few minutes during a 64-61 loss at Michigan State on Jan. 11, 2011. A pair of costly mistakes by Wilson helped turn what would have been a huge road win for the Badgers into a gut-wrenching defeat.
To recap: Jordan Taylor made two free throws to give UW a 53-44 lead with 2 minutes, 37 seconds remaining in regulation.
A lot of things went wrong for the Badgers over the next few minutes, but Wilson’s mistakes were magnified. The Badgers still had a six-point lead with 1:35 left when he decided to take the ball to the basket on a fast break instead of holding back and taking some time off the clock. His ill-advised shot was blocked by Michigan State’s Draymond Green, who grabbed the rebound.
The Spartans had cut their deficit to 53-50 when Wilson stepped on the baseline after taking an inbounds pass,
resulting in a turnover with
60 seconds left. Michigan State tied the game on Korie Lucious’ 3-pointer with 48 seconds left — the Milwaukee native shot it over Wilson — and went on to win in overtime.
Wilson didn’t play in the extra session and he didn’t leave the bench in nine of the final
18 games of his junior season.
A little over 13 months later, Wilson and the No. 15 Badgers (19-6, 8-4 Big Ten) return to the Breslin Center for a key game tonight against No. 7 Michigan State (20-5, 9-3).
“I forgot all about that one,” Wilson said. “I don’t think about it anymore. I learned from it and put it in the past. Now I’m looking forward.”
What did Wilson learn?
“You’ve got to take care of the ball better,” Wilson said. “Just make better decisions.”
On a mission
Wilson has played in every game this season, but he’s averaging just 9.1 minutes, 2.3 points and 1.2 rebounds per game.
He hasn’t played more than
15 minutes in a game all season and hasn’t played more than eight since a game against Nebraska on Jan. 15.
To Wilson’s credit, he hasn’t let basketball define his time at UW.
The Cleveland native is on track to graduate in May with a degree in community and nonprofit leadership from UW’s School of Human Ecology.
Wilson wants to get involved with at-risk children and perhaps open a Boys & Girls Club.
“Had a ball in his hands since he first started walking,” said Deborah Wilson, Rob’s mother. “I know he wants to play more. But he’s kept working for his degree. He loves basketball, but he’s really focused on getting a degree and his education. That’s a good thing.”
Wilson was in grade school when his parents divorced. From that point, his mother raised him and his two older sisters on her own while working a full-time job. To keep Rob busy while she worked, she enrolled him in after-school programs.
“I think that kind of opened his eyes,” Deborah Wilson said. “He saw how it is when he was coming up, and now he wants to give back and have somewhere for children to go and someone to talk to.”
Rob Wilson calls his mother “my rock.” Deborah Wilson, a preschool teacher for 20-plus years who now balances school and work as she tries to earn a degree at a community college in the Cleveland area, calls her son “my idol.”
“I always call him trying to get motivation,” she said. “I’m like, ‘I’m ready to give up.’ And he motivates me to hang in there and go get my degree.”
Wilson’s teammates and coaches admire the way he’s handled a difficult situation.
“Rob’s done a great job,” UW assistant coach Lamont Paris said. “It’s not an easy position for him to be in.
“You’re going to be frustrated at times. If you’re a competitor and you work hard every single day, you want to play minutes. So there’s going to be some level of frustration. But what you can’t do is be a cancer to the team, which Rob has never done.
“He’s the first guy to help somebody, to point something out in the game that he sees, or pick a guy up off the floor, clap and cheer for a guy. And then when he gets out there, he tries to play his behind off and do what we ask him to do. It’s a hard situation, but he’s handled it well.”
Taylor, one of Wilson’s best friends on the team, agrees with Paris.
“He comes to practice every day and plays hard and tries to give whatever he can give, even when things aren’t going his way,” Taylor said. “He’s always positive, trying to help guys on the team.”
Wilson used the word “salivating” before the season began to describe how hungry he was to earn the minutes that became available when several key players from last year’s team exhausted their eligibility.
It hasn’t worked out as Wilson had hoped, but he’s not ready to give up the fight for a bigger role.
“I love this game so much that even if I’m not getting what I want, I’m going to still go out there and try and get it,” Wilson said. “I’ll show up every day in practice, go as hard as I can and try to make good of the minutes that I get out there.”
Wilson looks back at that game 13 months ago at the Breslin Center as one of many learning experiences he has had during his four years at UW.
“I don’t have one regret since I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ve loved my experience and I’ve learned so much from it.”