Pistons’ Glenn Robinson III Finds Health, Happiness—and a Future—in Gardening
LOS ANGELES -- Glenn Robinson III could be doing a million other things with his free time on a Friday, especially in LA.
The 25-year-old 2017 Slam Dunk champ could be chilling at the posh Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills, where the Detroit Pistons are staying between games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers. He could be perusing boutique clothing stores on Fairfax and Melrose Avenue in the heart of the city, looking for items to add to a closet already filled with Aime Leon Dore and Represent.
If Glenn were so inclined to indulge his inner hoops history (his father, Glenn Jr., was the No. 1 pick in the 1994 NBA draft) and rekindle his Indiana ties (he grew up in Gary), he could pay his respects to the John Wooden statue—or check out the legendary coach’s living room—on campus at UCLA. But he already got a taste of it at Pistons practice, inside the gym where the Wizard of Westwood had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton run wind sprints once upon a time.
Instead, Glenn is taking time to stop and smell the roses, literally and otherwise, at the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden at UCLA, indulging his love of nature and fascination with humanity’s ability to live in harmony with and benefit from other forms of plant and animal life.
“That's what the people don't know yet,” he tells CloseUp360 in mid-January.
While NBA players are more health-conscious than ever with their diets, few (if any) are willing—and perhaps none are as eager—to bring their food from garden to table quite like Glenn.
“People want the actual plant or they want the vegetables,” he says. “But I think the unique thing about me is that I actually enjoy growing it, and a lot of people don't want to do that part of it. It takes a little bit of work.”
Glenn Robinson III takes a closer look at flowers inside the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden at UCLA. (Josh Martin)
Glenn’s interest in agriculture first sprouted in his family’s backyard in Indiana. His grandmother, Carolyn Caldwell, tended to a garden there, where she taught little Glenn how to grow everything from lettuce and cabbage to cantaloupe, cucumbers, bell peppers and tomatoes. Watermelon, though, made for a particularly tasty family treat.
“We would just sit down and eat them on a patio together on a cool summer evening,” he recalls.
But Glenn didn’t just study his grandmother as she planted seeds. She had him rake the soil, water the crops and, most importantly, keep critters and pests away from the fruits of their labor.
“It started off as a chore, like something that I just had to go do, go out in the garden everyday,” he says, “and it kind of turned into something that I actually enjoy.”
The same happened when Glenn joined his grandmother out fishing. She taught him the entire process of fashioning a meal out of catfish and crappies—from catching and cleaning the fish to cooking and serving them to family.
“If I had the option, I would probably choose to fish like every day, all day,” he says. “I just love it.”
That joy shines through at the Botanical Garden, where Glenn catches a glimpse of what appears to be a large carp swimming through a small stream.
“Man, you see that one?” he asks, interrupting his own story about his home garden.
Glenn spots a fish in a stream inside the Botanical Garden. (Josh Martin)
Glenn’s interest in the natural world carried into the classroom, and spawned big visions beyond the basketball court.
“Growing up, I just wanted to be a scientist,” he says. “I was one of those guys who wanted to be an astronaut, go to space or something like that.”
Though those aspirations never got off the ground, Glenn was able to bring his hoop dreams to life. He starred at Lake Central High School in St. John, Indiana, and earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he teamed up with fellow NBA sons Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jon Horford—along with Trey Burke, the 2012-13 national player of the year and No. 9 overall pick in the 2013 draft. As a freshman, Glenn helped the Wolverines reach the 2013 Final Four and scored 12 points in an 82-76 loss to Louisville in the NCAA championship game.
While in Ann Arbor, Glenn opted to study business over science. Still, he stayed engaged with that latter part of his brain through wide-ranging conversations about scientific theories with his friend Nick Burlage, who studied nuclear engineering at UM.
Basketball, though, brought Glenn’s time as a Wolverine to an end early. Following his sophomore season, he declared for the 2014 NBA draft, and wound up as the No. 40 overall pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The move to Minneapolis, to begin his professional career, afforded Glenn the opportunity to put those gardening lessons from his grandmother into action on his own. With the demands of life as an NBA rookie and the bitter winter of Minnesota both bearing down on him, he decided to start small, with tomatoes and bell peppers.
“I had those on my balcony in my condo,” he says.
When Glenn signed his first multi-year contract with the Indiana Pacers, his home state team, in the summer of 2015, he upgraded to a house with a backyard, where he could really flex his green thumb. Soon, his tomatoes and bell peppers were joined by a variety of herbs—sage, basil and cilantro included—along with broccoli and a selection of leafy greens.
The added space brought Glenn back to his younger days, tilling the soil and staving off invasive species. That brought the young swingman another modicum of comfort so close to home.
“Every morning, just waking up when the sun was coming up and getting to water my plants, I thought that was very therapeutic,” he says. “Me and my dog, [Jules], would just go outside first thing in the morning, have my coffee and just listen to the birds, try to shoo away the squirrels that would come in my garden.”
Those crops came in extra handy once Glenn hired Josh Stoneking, the former executive chef for the Indianapolis Colts, to cook his meals, often using ingredients grown and freshly picked from the garden.
“It was crazy because I would just grow it and he would come and pick it in the mornings,” Glenn says, “and put it in my omelets and breakfast in the morning, and just cook with it.”
Though he’s had his fair share of gardening successes, not everything Glenn’s planted has panned out as planned. At times, the demands of the NBA season have delayed the sewing of certain seeds and, alas, downgraded the resulting produce.
Last year, those concerns took their toll on his blueberries and strawberries—the latter he likes to pick and eat right out of the ground.
“Those are two of my favorite fruits to grow, so I'm on that this year,” he says.
But those failures were more sad than distressing, and ultimately left Glenn with lessons learned. As he strides through the cacti section of the Botanical Garden, he’s reminded of perhaps his scariest mishap with a homegrown plant.
When Glenn’s horticultural hobby comes up in conversation within the confines of his NBA locker room, the talk typically turns to aloe vera. The succulent—which can be found in everything from gels and creams to juices and drinks—is widely known for its healing properties.
“Aloe vera is a huge thing because everyone knows how it could help you with cuts and things of that nature,” he says.
But aloe vera isn’t effective for every condition or every person, as he learned first-hand. One time, Glenn spotted eczema on the skin of his infant daughter, Ariana. So he cut off a piece of the aloe vera plant he had at home and rubbed it on the affected area.
Rather than clear away the eczema, it turned her skin black.
“I was freaking out,” he recalls.
Fortunately, all little “Rari” needed was a quick bath to wash away the discoloration.
“But I was so scared,” he says. “I thought I was a scientist at that moment, doing something special.”
That incident aside, Glenn’s daughter has taken well to whatever he’s given her from his garden.
“Right now, she's at the stage where she loves to eat anything,” he says.
For Glenn, Ariana’s open palate is an opportunity to teach her healthy eating habits, just as his dad once did for him and his younger brother, Gelen.
“We went to [my dad’s] house in the summers, we’re eating grilled chicken breast and vegetables and things of that nature,” Glenn says. “So he taught us at a young age how to eat right, how to take care of your body.”
While with the Pacers, Glenn passed those teachings along to the younger generation in the Indianapolis community. Last April, he was named the Anthem Health Champion for his efforts to help combat childhood obesity.
“For people to actually learn how to grow their own stuff and grow vegetables, fruits and get the feeling of doing it for themselves, but also it's going to affect your body and health in a positive way, I think it's definitely important,” he says.
Last July, Glenn visited with then-12-year-old Austin King, otherwise known on YouTube as “The Young Urban Gardener.” Austin’s community garden on the eastside of Indianapolis—which he’d nurtured as a source of food for the less fortunate—had been trampled and torn up while he was away.
So before Glenn moved to Detroit, after signing with the Pistons as a free agent last summer, he surprised Austin with a visit to the community garden. As much as Austin, a Pacers fan, enjoyed meeting one of his heroes, Glenn came away with much more than karmic satisfaction. Austin sent his new friend off to the Motor City with a half dozen eggs, a pineapple plant, an avocado tree sapling, and tips to help with his broccoli and strawberries.
“He definitely taught me a lot about what I could do to better my garden,” Glenn says.
Nobody has shared more gardening wisdom with Glenn than his grandmother—and she’s still sharing it to this day.
“I call her all the time with questions, “How do I plant this?’ or ‘How much dirt?’, ‘How much soil?’” he says. “So she definitely loves helping me out.”
That’s even truer today, and not just because of the gardener that her grandson has become. When Glenn was a kid, she would join him out on the court, helping him with his hoops. But as he shot up to 6’6” and she grew older, that part of their bond naturally fell off.
“She can't do that anymore,” he says, “but she could help me garden, so we can stay connected.”
As for Glenn’s parents, they’re pleasantly surprised to see what began as busy work for their “Little Gardener” has since blossomed into a passion beyond basketball.
And though his mom, Shantelle Clay, may not care for all of his crops, there’s at least one that she enjoys from her son’s garden: cilantro.
“She loves Mexican food,” he says, “so she'll put it on tacos and things like that.”
“Big Dog,” meanwhile, appreciates that his boy has taken those lessons about healthy eating to heart—and then some.
“He loves the fact that I’m growing vegetables and learning how to do these things,” Glenn says.
Of all the thousands of plant varieties he peruses in the Botanical Garden, Glenn is most taken by towering thickets of bamboo. He marvels at their size and strength, and poses in front of them for photos on his phone.
“That's the one thing I have heard about bamboo—is that it's almost like indestructible,” he says.
The site of such impressive and sturdy grass reminds Glenn of a story he once heard. As he tells it, there was a man who spent a significant sum on a plot of land, where he then planted bamboo. A year after the planting, it hadn’t grown. Another year, still nothing.
“His wife was starting to get mad,” he says, “because he took all the money and went into this bamboo tree.”
Finally, after the fifth year, the bamboo started to grow. And not just grow, but shoot skyward.
“It was a story just about coming back every day, learning consistency, learning dedication, hard work and knowing that you'll be paid off,” he says.
That lesson came in handy during the fall of 2017. Amid an intrasquad scrimmage with the Pacers that October, Glenn injured a pair of ligaments in his left ankle. The resulting surgery—the first major physical setback of his life—delayed the start of his 2017-18 season until February 1, when he began a rehab assignment with the G League’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants, and pushed his NBA debut for that campaign back to February 23.
“It really gave me some time to reflect, and think about things and how to have that positive attitude,” he says.
It also gave Glenn ample time to peruse Amazon for ways to feed his gardening habit. Among the many things he ordered with his Prime account: a biOrb aquarium, which he’s stocked with enough algae to sustain six shrimp.
“It's pretty cool how you could see just stuff grow,” he says.
There’s no shortage of room for plant life in the backyard of Glenn’s new house in Detroit. He’s already spent time admiring the trees and the way in which their leaves create nutrients through photosynthesis.
His own plantings, though—and the implementation of Austin’s tips—will have to wait until the weather warms up in Michigan.
“I'ma wait for the season when it comes up to start that,” he says. “But hopefully, I get something out.”
Glenn’s plans for his land range from modest to grand. He wants to grow onions and potatoes so he can feed himself out of the ground, just as the characters did in Holes, one of his favorite movies.
In time, he hopes to teach his daughter how to garden, and be able to sustain himself off the produce of his own property.
“When I retire, I want about five acres of my own land, growing my own vegetables, my own house away from everybody,” he says. “That'll be cool. I want chickens. I want the whole thing.”
If his acreage expands beyond that, Glenn could envision using some of it to grow and sell corn. He’s already blended his passions for healthful food and business with his investment in KRa, a USDA certified organic sports drink that’s also backed by Portland Trail Blazers big man Meyers Leonard and former NBA All-Star Roy Hibbert. The company also donates a portion of its proceeds to sports programs for underserved youth through its KRa for Play initiative.
Glenn already supports March of Dimes and aims to start his own foundation someday. Among the causes he would champion: creating community gardens across the country, just like the one he helped Austin rebuild in Indianapolis.
“It inspired me to be, like, ‘Okay, if he's doing this just for his community and the people that he sees every day, me on a larger scale, I could really try to help out a lot of people and it can be used for good,’” he says.
As Glenn exits the Botanical Garden, he does so with enough time to still hit up some fashion spots in LA as he pleases. After a Saturday matinee against the Clippers, and a road-trip finale in Salt Lake City, he will return to Detroit with the Pistons—and with some additional enthusiasm for what his own garden could become once winter gives way to spring.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.