PROVO, Utah BYU jersey No. 44 rolled open, hanging from the rafters of the Marriott Center on Saturday, Jan. 31, in recognition of the lofty heights achieved by a great woman basketball player at the school.
Nearly 2,000 fans cheered for Tina Gunn Robison as colorful, sparkling confetti fell from the slowly unfolding jersey on the opposite end of the court from Danny Ainge's No. 22, the only other jersey hanging in the Marriott Center.
Sister Robison became visibly emotional as she gazed up at the symbolic representation of what she had achieved on the basketball court below from 1977-80. Moments later, in a Church News interview, she continued to revel in the singular honor bestowed upon her.
But on a day when she was surrounded by family, friends and fans, she was extremely mindful of two people who weren't there, and it was evident that her life has come to mean far more than basketball stardom. She bubbled as she talked about her missionary sons 21-year-old Larry who is serving in the Haiti Port-Au-Prince Mission, and 19-year-old Justin who is serving in the Russia Rostov Mission. In fact, she was brighter talking about her family in general than about basketball. She and her husband, Scott, also have a daughter, Kate, who is a senior in high school, but is also taking classes at the University of Utah where she will play volleyball next season.
Sister Robison's expressions were right in line with what Bishop Larry Waite of the Syracuse 9th Ward, Syracuse Utah Stake, had earlier told the Church News about the longtime member of his ward. "Her greatest accomplishment is her children," he said. "She has been an incredible support for her children. In fact, it's a tribute to Scott and Tina, the way they support their children."
Sister Robison followed an intriguing path to BYU. Elaine Michaelis, BYU director of women's athletics, remembers a call she got in 1976 from a former student of hers, Roseann Benson, who was teaching at a Catholic high school in Florida.
"She asked me if I'd be interested in a 6-foot-3-inch high school basketball/volleyball player." Sister Michaelis got an 8-mm film of the young phenom playing one-on-one with a man who was the school's assistant basketball coach. "She was showing him exactly how to play," Sister Michaelis said. "She had a beautiful shot.
"Roseann asked (Tina's) parents if they'd be interested in Tina coming to a Mormon school." Bill and Katie Gunn responded positively and with her parents' support, Tina decided that's what she wanted to do. That, despite the fact she was heavily recruited, most notably by coach Pat Summit at the University of Tennessee, the powerhouse of women's collegiate basketball.
"(Coach Summit) didn't know I graduated early," Sister Robison said, "so she called my house after I was out here to school and talked to my dad. My dad just laughed and said, 'She's already at BYU playing.' She said, 'Oh, I guess I missed that one.' "
Sister Robison said the choice was made easier because BYU had established strong volleyball and basketball programs by then under coach Michaelis.
"My biggest thing was that I wanted a good academic opportunity, and I wanted to try volleyball and basketball at first before making a final decision on which one to stay with. This was the only school that offered that. And being as young as I was, that far from home, my parents were saying, 'Great environment. That will work for us.' "
Finishing her graduation requirements at mid-year, Tina traveled straight from high school to BYU and the Marriott Center hardwoods. As a 17-year-old freshman, she averaged 15 points per game the half season she played, demonstrating that she was the real deal.
She also played volleyball for coach Michaelis the following fall on a team that finished fourth in the nation. After that, she concentrated on basketball under a new coach, Courtney Leisman.
In the meantime, she was traveling down other paths. She was exposed to the gospel and said Church members were always a good example for her. Coach Leisman and his family shared information about the Church with her, but she said they were never pushy. She was baptized at the beginning of her senior year.
"If anybody was prepared for the gospel, I was," she said. "I had a great upbringing, a great Christian upbringing. Learning the doctrine and things, it just took some time."
Academically, she excelled and earned a degree in chemical engineering. She also met Scott Robison, who had recently returned from a mission to Oregon, and they were married when she graduated.
Although she was drafted in the first round by Milwaukee of the Women's Basketball League, she turned her life in another direction and never played basketball seriously again.
"I knew the end of my senior year was it. I wasn't going to be playing anymore," she said. "I didn't have an interest. I wanted to move on to other things in my life. I had the good fortune of being engaged to be married so I knew this whole new chapter was opening."
She used her degree to land a job that enabled her to put her husband through school. Then she spent 18 years raising her children, involved in their schools and in community service.
So was the course that led her back to the Marriott Center. For one day she was emotionally thrilled to see her No. 44 jersey (she also wore No. 32 and No. 45 at BYU, she noted) hanging to recognize who she is. She loved remembering her basketball experience as she stood with her husband, daughter, mother and her brother Tim on the court where she starred. She was honored there to be praised by Sister Michaelis, BYU Advancement Vice President Fred Skousen and coach Leisman. She was happy to have many members of her husband's family and several friends there to share the moment with her. In a brief speech, she gave thanks to coaches and teammates who helped make her BYU experience possible.
But afterwards, in the private interview, she declared, "I'm way more proud of my kids than anything I did. They're great kids. Scott and I, our choice was to just be with them and to enrich their lives as much as we could. . . . They came as great packages and we've had a blast."
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