Jimmy Robinson, longtime Minnesota basketball referee and the first Black official to work a high school state tournament game, died Monday at his home in Roseville. He was 88.
Robinson began his career as an official in 1956 and worked his way from high school games to Division II and III. He became one of the first Black officials to work in the Big Ten Conference, where he worked games from 1971 until a knee injury ended his career in 1987.
A St. Paul native who graduated from Mechanic Arts High School in 1951, Robinson made state history when he was selected to work the boys’ basketball state tournament in 1971. He worked the next two tournaments as well.
In a 2018 interview with Charles Hallman of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the state’s oldest Black-owned newspaper, Robinson recalled that his first state tournament game “was not the prettiest.”
One of the teams, Minneapolis Central, had primarily Black players, leading some fans to expect one-sided officiating from Robinson.
“Just about every call I made, whether it was [for] Central or against Central, I got heat from both coaches,” Robinson told Hallman.
Longtime friend Frank White said Robinson was “extremely proud’’ of his groundbreaking work as a Black official, in part because one of his mentors was Jimmy Lee, a well-known Black official from St. Paul who worked district and region games across the state but “never got to work a state tournament because of the color of his skin,’’ White said. “I know he was proud that was a piece of his legacy.’’
Since 1991, Robinson was the state coordinator of basketball officials for the Minnesota State High School League, where he also served as a board member from 1988 to 1992. He crisscrossed the state at officials clinics and remained a familiar face courtside at basketball games.
During four yearly clinics, Robinson and others in their party would meet afterward for dinner at a local restaurant. Robinson always picked up the check for the group of 10 to 12 people, White said. He later learned that Robinson, executive director of the Loft Teen Center in St. Paul since 1967, never sought reimbursement.
“Jim has mentored, trained, and evaluated officials from every corner of the state,’’ said Lisa Lissimore, high school league associate director. “He leaves behind a trail of excellence that invites us all to follow.”
In 2017 he took over as president of the Mr. Basketball Committee, a group that recognizes a top senior boys’ player every year. As part of his duties Robinson, a longtime member of the group, would attend games regularly, not only to watch players but also visit with people who knew him and offer informal feedback and pointers to game officials.
Robinson usually sat in the front row so he wouldn’t have to climb stairs with his bad knees, game companion and committee secretary David Hedberg said. Visits from well-wishers were so commonplace that Hedberg would keep track of the number of hugs Robinson received. After one game Hedberg asked him how many and Robinson replied maybe three or four.
“It was 27,’’ Hedberg said. “And I’m pretty sure I missed a few."
The Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association tweeted Tuesday, “His contributions to the game in service and mentoring officials will be everlasting.’’
Robinson’s accomplishments earned him induction into multiple halls of fame, including his selection earlier this year into the Minnesota High School Basketball Hall of Fame. He also was honored by the NCAA with its Living Legacy Award.
Details on services for Robinson were not immediately available.