Ailene Voisin: Stanford’s Robbie Lemons still has basketball in his blood years after starring at Country Day

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

None of this is brain surgery. Robbie Lemons abandoned his plan to become a neurosurgeon for a couple of reasons. With his parents already practicing physicians in Carmichael, he figured three would be a crowd in the operating room. He also enjoys the math, analytics and psychology of his economics courses. But the overriding factor was the simplest one: Basketball is still in his blood.

As his Stanford Cardinal prepares to play New Mexico on Friday in an NCAA Tournament opener in St. Louis, Lemons is hoping for the best – an extended run in the Big Dance – and then planning to parlay his Stanford degree and his role as a Cardinal reserve into a globe-trotting, wage-earning hoops adventure.

Spain. Italy. France. Asia. He knows a guy pretty well, he says, grinning, who earns beaucoup bucks in Korea.

“The one thing I missed out on because summers were spent working out and playing the AAU circuit was getting to be an exchange student,” Lemons said in a lounge inside Maples Pavilion the other day. “Absolutely, I would love to play overseas and get to see more of the world.”

For anyone wondering what happened to the pride of Sacramento Country Day High School, the 6-foot-3 standout who averaged 35 points and was the nation’s second-leading scorer (small-schools division) during his senior season, let’s just say he took the scenic route back to his basketball roots. He swapped one prestigious, pricey academic institution for another, temporarily, if willingly, tempering his once-lofty individual aspirations.

Lemons is one of those gym rats who would pay to play. Fixated on attending Stanford since he began attending summer youth basketball camps in Palo Alto, he rebuffed scholarship offers and basketball inducements from other colleges, enrolled at The Farm, and with his parents taking care of their only child’s room, board and tuition, he was a non-scholarship “walk-on” for three of his four seasons.

“I had one scholarship left before Robbie’s junior year,” said Cardinal coach Johnny Dawkins, “and I wasn’t sure it would be available the next year. So I gave it to him as a way of thanking him for being a part of our program and helping us get to this point.”

Stanford reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008, and almost as significantly, the first time in Dawkins’ six seasons. Amid restless murmurings within the administration and an increasingly disgruntled fan base, a late-season rebound lifted the Cardinal into a tie for third in the Pacific-12 Conference and back on the NCAA map. If the timing was critical for the embattled coach, it capped an interesting, if understated, career for Lemons, who averaged 13 minutes in his final season.

That wasn’t exactly what he had in mind, of course, when he signed up for his first class. Though a thin beard frames his face and his once-spiked hair angles upward, then settles into a swirl of soft brown waves, his mature physique developed in his early teens because of a rigorous conditioning and training routine. He had hoped – dreamed, really – that his almost obsessive preparation and versatility would again distinguish him from his college peers, earning him significant playing time instead of spot starts and limited minutes.

“Robbie can play,” said Dave Ancrum, Lemons’ coach at Country Day, recalling his former star’s dominance as a playmaker and prolific scorer in transition, with lefty-righty drives and consistent mid-range jumpers. “He became a better defender than I thought, but I’m surprised they didn’t let him shoot more. He could make something out of nothing. I know it must have been killing him (not having the ball more).”

Yes. No. OK, maybe a little. Lemons, who is warm and engaging, with an almost continual smile, occasionally wonders if attending a larger high school would have better prepared him for the Pac-12.

“Going from Division V in high school to D-1 in college was a major transition, definitely,” he said. “I was used to having the ball in my hands, being a mid-range shooter. Here, I’ve had to develop my three-point shot and be more of an energy guy off the bench. Being away from home was another thing to deal with. I was kind of the man at Country Day, and then to come here and not play at all at first … but it forced me to grow up, and to toughen up.”

In a nod to Phil Jackson – the new New York Knicks president who coached Ancrum during their three years together with the Albany Patroons – Lemons also speaks favorably of the triangle offense that Dawkins installed late last season.

“It’s been very interesting,” Lemons said. “The first three years, coach was very defense-minded. This year, since we were required to put in a brand-new offense, I think there’s a really good balance. And now, I think we’re ready to win. We’ve been together four years. It’s not pressure, but more of a sense of urgency.”

So, no, no regrets. The kid from Country Day – the son of neurosurgeons VanBuren Lemons and Laura Anderson – makes his NCAA Tournament debut Friday, earns his degree in economics in a matter of weeks, and then plans to pursue opportunities in Spain, Italy, France, Asia; he’s not done with basketball … yet.

“I want to keep improving, keep learning, and then see what happens,” he said, smiling. “It’s everyone’s dream to play in the NBA.”