On his 50th birthday, remembering UVM hoops legend Kevin Roberson

University of Vermont star Kevin Roberson is given a jersey on senior night at Patrick Gym.

On the night the University of Vermont retired Kevin Roberson’s No. 33 jersey, the once-undersized, under-recruited forward from Buffalo, New York, roared one last time in front of 3,000 Catamount fans. 

With Vermont clinging to a six-point lead in the final minutes against Hartford, Roberson launched over Vin Baker, a future NBA All-Star, for a defensive rebound to kickstart a transition. Then with 59 seconds to play, Roberson rose in the lane for a signature dunk, emphatically dusting Baker’s Hawks in the regular-season finale.

The UVM legend had tallied 11 of his 16 points and nine of his 16 rebounds in the second half. Vintage Roberson.

“A lion sleeps 18 hours a day, but when they wake up they are still king of the jungle,” former UVM coach Tom Brennan recalled this week, referencing one of his favorite lines to describe Roberson.

Three days later, the 6-foot-7 Roberson was named the 1991-92 league player of the year over Baker in the North Atlantic Conference, the precursor to the America East.

“I think when him and Vin used to go at each other, Kevin would be, his stats would be off the chart. He would be matching the intensity — he took it up another level,” said Matt Johnson, Roberson’s former teammate. “I think he knew he had to because of who we were playing. But in games like that you could see he was a step above everybody else.”

When Roberson and his sister were killed in a car crash in Buffalo by a drunk driver on May 8, 1993, stunning the UVM community and the region, the conference named its MVP award after Roberson. Vermont inducted him into its athletic hall of fame the same year of his death.

“There are tears in my eyes right now as I’m talking to you,” Brennan said. “To this minute, I miss him terribly.”

On what would have been Roberson’s 50th birthday — Oct. 25 — Brennan and former teammates Johnson and Kenny White spoke with the Free Press on Roberson’s legacy and impact, 27 years after his death.

“Kevin had the right stuff.  I think we all feel the same way,” White said.

‘Just a big, big smile’

White grew up on Staten Island with two brothers. He said he found a third when he arrived in Burlington: The skinny kid from Buffalo named Kevin Roberson.

“Kevin was raised the right way,” White said. “He had his act together the first day I met him.

“He was a welcoming guy, a friendly guy. It wasn’t like he was a basketball player and didn’t have time for you — he had time for everybody. Just a big, big smile.”

Kevin Roberson died tragically in 1993 when a drunk driver killed him and his sister in their hometown of Buffalo, New York.

Johnson, the former BFA-St. Albans star who arrived at UVM a year ahead of Roberson, remembered a teammate who blocked him “too many times to count” in practice. But that was the loudest part about UVM’s swatter extraordinaire, who appeared to manage hoops and his electrical engineering major with ease.   

“He was quiet but had a real dry sense of humor … observational humor,” said Johnson, who won league MVP honors the year before Roberson. “He was not a stressed guy.”

“As he became the talk of the town, he almost seemed like he didn’t feel comfortable with it because he didn’t like to have people make a big deal about him,” Johnson said. “He’d just as soon talk about the time Kenny White scored 75 in high school than anything he accomplished.”

The outpouring of support after Roberson’s heart-wrenching death spoke to just how much the UVM star had endeared himself to those who knew him, even from afar.

University of Vermont star Kevin Roberson signs autographs by the bench in Patrick Gymnasium.

A bus load of UVM players — past and present — traveled to Buffalo for the funeral service. Brennan, White and Johnson, as well as teammates Craig Gaffin and T.J. Whitaker, were pallbearers.

“It was so profound and so sad and so joyous at the same time,” Brennan said.

The day after the service in Roberson’s hometown, which drew an audience of 1,500 mourners, most of them Black, another 1,500 people gathered for a memorial in Patrick Gym. That crowd, Brennan estimated at the time, was about 95% white.                         

“You look at the impact and effect he had on people. He was the color of love, that’s who he was,” Brennan said.

And everyone knew what they had lost — those closest to him most of all.

“There’s just a bond of how we would be now at 50,” White said. ‘All the experiences we would have had from 23 years of age and on. There was a friendship and it died early.

“I think of him every day.”

The star who made Vermont

When UVM took on No. 1 Northeastern in the NAC semifinals in 1990, the Catamounts hadn’t defeated the Huskies outside Burlington since 1921.

Behind five players in double figures, UVM upset Northeastern 76-62 for the program’s first trip to the conference title game. 

And Roberson, a sophomore, was at the center of it all. He collected 11 points, 11 rebounds, tied a conference tourney record with seven blocks and threw down a memorable putback dunk over multiple Northeastern defenders that would serve as a warning shot for the rest of the league.

“That was like, this isn’t Vermont of yesteryear,” White said.

Kevin Roberson rises for a jump shot during a game with the University of Vermont.

Catamounts radio analyst Walter Baumann, the former St. Michael’s coach, said no player from UVM had done that to Northeastern before, according to Free Press archives.

“He would do that kind of stuff every now and then,” said White, the team’s efficient point guard. “Coach Brennan would say Roberson would have these take-your-breath-away moments every game and every practice.”

Brennan can still vividly picture Roberson’s dunk vs. Northeastern.

“It was one of those things when he did it, I just put my chest out a little further thinking, ‘This was really something to watch,'” Brennan said.

“Nobody ever dunked for us, we didn’t dunk from like ’86 to ’90.”

But Roberson wasn’t defined by just his highlight-reel flushes. He was the complete package.

Versatile with wiry strength and skill, Roberson bounded up and down the court. He could advance the ball, swat shots at nearly the same rate as Shaquille O’Neal, and was automatic on the low block.

“I say this all the time, if anyone saw him play he would be hard to forget,” White said. “Just his game, no one had seen a guy like that at Vermont.

“He had a little bit of a lot.”

As a junior, Roberson averaged 14.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.7 blocks a game. He made the all-conference first team as Johnson picked up player-of-the-year honors.

“He easily could’ve gotten it. Without a doubt,” Johnson said of the POY award. “The only reason I was able to do anything was because he was so good, because teams paid attention to him, because he created opportunities with the other guys that wouldn’t have existed if he was not on the floor.”

Kevin Roberson throws down a dunk at Patrick Gym.

As a senior, Roberson went to another level, averaging 17.6 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks a game — all while playing the most minutes of any Catamount and without fouling out once in 28 games.

“Perhaps people didn’t know at the time the extent of what he was doing because we don’t have the social media presence that’s out there now,” Johnson said. “I’d give anything to see some of his stuff on Instagram, some of the highlights he had throughout his career.”

When he graduated, Roberson was the program’s all-time leader in career rebounds and blocks, second in scoring, second in games played and third in field goals. His 409 total blocks ranked him third all-time behind Alonzo Mourning and O’Neal through 1992.

UVM also shrugged off its dormant status during Roberson’s era. From 6-21 in 1988-89 to back-to-back winning seasons in Roberson’s final two years, this group of players changed the culture and attitude.

“He just gave our program a vibe. Roberson was really the first to do that,” Brennan said. “You talk about a Vermont basketball player or Vermont basketball, this is what it took. It took hard work and that team was all like that.

“There was never a time after that when we weren’t competitive. It all started with those guys.”

Roberson’s unmatched drive

Vermont was the only Division I school to give Roberson a shot. Assistant coach Mike Cordovano thought Roberson, 6-foot-4 at the time, could turn into a good wing player.

On Roberson’s visit to UVM, his first time on a plane, Brennan had his doubts.

“This is your big surprise? This guy?” Brennan recalled saying to Cordovano. “He told me we are recruiting him on his potential.”

Roberson grew three inches by the time he arrived in Burlington. As a freshman, he took his lumps and got knocked down in practice daily, but coaches saw improvement and a commitment. Simply put, Roberson’s drive was relentless, his pursuit of greatness without a peer.

Kevin Roberson seen in action for the University of Vermont men's basketball team.

“He started getting better from the day he got here until he was the last cut at the Charlotte Hornets’ training camp,” Brennan said. “By junior year, he was doing the beating up.”

White: “He was a strength coach away, a nutritionist away from playing in the NBA.”

After watching his development up close and hearing how tryouts went for the Hornets, Johnson thought Roberson had a good chance for an NBA career, maybe in the mold of a “Dennis Rodman-type player.”

“I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility he could’ve done those same things,” Johnson said.

A recent sport for Catamount fans, in debating the pantheon of program greats, has been comparing Roberson to another ultra-athletic forward who had an out-sized impact: Marqus Blakely.

“I certainly think when they left you could make the debate that either one of them was a better player,” Johnson said.

“I hate the comparison game. But without comparing who’s better or whatever, from where Kevin started to where he ended, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who developed as much as he did over the course of four years.”

Contact Alex Abrami at aabrami@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @aabrami5.

Contact Austin Danforth at edanforth@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @eadanforth.