Basketball has always been at the center of Crystal Robinson’s universe. The Atoka, Okla. native is a pioneer in opening up the sport to women at the professional level, being drafted into the WNBA in the organization’s early years and later making the switch to coaching. Now, she’s returned to her Oklahoma roots and is currently head women’s basketball coach at Murray State College in Tishomingo.

Robinson says her obsession with basketball came early and naturally.

“Both of my parents were college All-Americans at Murray State, where I’m coaching right now,” she says. “I can remember being five years old when my mom bought me a Nerf basketball goal. I fell in love with it. I tore that that thing up!”

Robinson first grabbed headlines at Atoka High School where she was named MVP at the inaugural women’s High School All-American game. She was nationally recruited by a number of colleges, but she stayed close to home and attended Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, Okla.

“The women’s team was one and 20 at the time. But it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Playing at Southeastern gave me a family. I can call on them at any time for guidance and support,” says Robinson.

Her skills helped turn the team around and earned her a spot in the NAIA Hall of Fame.

A surge in the popularity of women’s basketball following the 1996 Olympics afforded Robinson the chance to go pro with the formation of the American Basketball League (ABL). She was charter member of the league, playing for the Denver-based Colorado Xplosion. She was drafted in the eighth round, but Robinson says she had to prove herself in a league dominated by the top female players in the world.

“The coach knew I could play,” says Robinson. “But after drafting me, she pulled me to the side and said, ‘Crystal, I know you’re a great player, but your teammates are on a little bit different level and you might not get to play. I know you’ve been a star and I hope you can handle sitting on the bench well.’ I told her, ‘As long as they’re better than me, I’ll be their biggest cheerleader.’ I ended up being Rookie of the Year.”

The ABL abruptly went bankrupt in late 1998, and Robinson transitioned to the WNBA, going to the New York Liberty as the sixth overall draft selection. She played there for seven seasons before signing with the Washington Mystics in 2006. Robinson retired from play in 2007 and became an assistant coach for the Mystics. After two years of coaching at the pro level, Robinson knew she had found her niche for the next phase of her career, but she had no idea it would bring her back home to Oklahoma.

“What brought me back was my little cousin, Lashonda Green,” she says. “She plays for me now. When she was a sophomore at McAlester High, her coach quit suddenly. She was distraught, called me up and pushed me to take the job. I ended up doing it for her.”

After leading the Lady Buffaloes to a state championship, Robinson took the head coaching position at Murray State in 2009. Now firmly into her second act, Robinson feels she’s found a renewed purpose.

“The thing I like most about coaching has nothing to do with basketball,” she says. “At this level I have the opportunity to change a kid’s life and teach them that winning is not only what the score is at the end of the game. I teach them about winning in life by making the right decisions.”

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