Since she could walk, senior Leslie Robinson has loved basketball. Now, she will be able to turn a lifelong passion into a professional career.
Leslie Robinson’s dreams came true when she was drafted into the WNBA on April 12 by the New York Liberty with the 34th overall pick. Robinson is the first woman to be drafted from Princeton and only the second from the Ivy League.
“I am bursting with pride and all of Tiger nation is so excited to support her through this next chapter,” head coach Courtney Banghart said in an interview. “She’s a proven winner, a gifted leader, the quintessential teammate … she’s earned this.”
Robinson’s passion for the game started early. It is unsurprising considering her father — Craig Robinson ’83 — is an Ivy League legend; he won Ivy League Player of the Year twice during his four years with the Tigers and currently is the fourth-highest scorer in team history. Having been a collegiate basketball coach and now a part of the player development staff with the New York Knicks, basketball remains an integral part of Craig Robinson’s life. This has transcended to Leslie’s older brother playing basketball throughout his life and, of course, to Leslie.
“I’ve always wanted to play this game for as long as I can,” she said. “I love what I have gotten from it and the person it has helped me become, win or lose. I’ve gained so many friends and they have become my family.”
Eight years ago, this fairy tale almost didn’t happen. In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Robinson explained that her desire to play collegiate basketball didn’t really start until her freshman year of high school when she decided to play basketball instead of focusing on softball. Her decision paid off when in 2014 she began her career as a basketball star for the Tigers.
That chapter has been nothing less than incredible. From experiencing a 30–0 season as a freshman to becoming the first woman to record a triple-double in program history to winning two Ivy League championships, Robinson has become one of the most decorated players in Princeton basketball history. Robinson also finished in the top 10 in program history in career games played and holds the sixth most assists in a single season in program history, with 129. Despite her individual accolades, Robinson perhaps shined most when it came to motivating and leading her teammates.
“Playing with Leslie has been amazing. She is one of the greatest teammates that I have ever had,” said fellow senior Kenya Holland. “She is a great leader, extremely passionate, and humble.”
Other teammates concurred.
“Leslie is an amazing leader and her passion for the game is what makes her stand out,” said Tia Weledji ’18. When asked about her favorite memory with Robinson, she said that senior night was unforgettable.
“Our class has always been close, but that night, we felt extra close and sharing that moment with them and sharing all of our accomplishments was extremely special,” Weledji said.
On the night of the WNBA draft, Leslie was multitasking. Not only was she in the middle of the draft, but she also had to make one last on-court appearance for the Tigers: playing for her team during the 2018 Princeton Campus Rec dodgeball tournament. Between dodgeball games, Robinson would run back to watch the draft.
“I really wanted to watch it because my brother was there, and I also knew some girls that I played AAU with who were getting drafted,” Robinson said, at the time unaware that her own dreams were about to come true.
“I got a call from my agent and he congratulated me, and I was really confused, and he said, ‘You got drafted! Go celebrate!’” Robinson recounted, with a big smile. Robinson said that she walked into the room just in time to see her name on the TV and told everyone to look. She was crying from happiness.
Robinson said her brothers, stepmom, and dad were watching. She called her mom as soon as she got picked. “I just wasn’t expecting it,” she said. “It was a lot of phone calls and texts and excitement all at once.”
Sharing this moment with her family was extremely special for Robinson, especially with her father. “Having a basketball coach as a father and the relationship that we have has allowed me to become a better player because I am always looking for feedback and ways to improve my game,” she said. “He also taught me that in life, you can’t always succeed, and you can’t always win, but it is the failures and the losses that help you learn. I think that is the most important thing I will take away from that.”
Another person not expecting the call was Leslie’s dad. “I thought she was mistaken,” Craig Robinson laughingly recounted in a phone call he received from Leslie’s mother. “I don’t know how to explain what I was feeling,” Craig Robinson said. “It was happy, excited, and surprised all at once. The only one that truly thought that Leslie was going to get drafted was her eight-year-old brother. I am so proud of her.”
“Playing professionally was always a natural instinct in me,” said Leslie Robinson. “Because of the type of player that I am, I know that as long as my body is going to allow me to keep playing, I’m going to. If I can, why not.”
Robinson is the first woman to be drafted into the WNBA from the Ivy League in almost 30 years, a signal that may be indicating the growing competitiveness of women’s sports in the Ivy League. Being the first woman from Princeton basketball to be drafted into the WNBA, Robinson has also created a new dynamic in Princeton women’s basketball, one that allows incoming players to see a professional basketball career not as a far-fetched fantasy but an attainable reality.
“I think I am laying out the carpet for [the program and the athletes] and this is just the tip of it,” she explained. “The current players have so much talent and this shows them what they can accomplish. I am excited that I was able to be another stepping stone for Princeton and Ivy League women’s basketball. I hope to see my accomplishments draw more recruits for Princeton and that we are more respected in the league.”
Robinson’s teammates agreed, with Weledji noting that “Leslie has set a path for other women in the program to follow and an achievable goal for them to strive to attain.”
When asked about her favorite moment as a Tiger, Robinson struggled to narrow it down to a single moment.
Instead, she said that “getting to see her college basketball experience start and end in a very similar way” was amazing.
“It has come full circle and it is really special,” she continued. “We were able to finish as Ivy champs and we were able to play in the tournament as tournament champions too. The way that we ended our senior year was exactly what we wanted and our team dynamic and performance is something that I will always remember and cherish.”
“Sometimes, the world gets it right,” Banghart said. “This time — with Leslie being drafted — the world certainly got it right.”