Naysayer: ISU’s Robbie “Cream Abdul-Jabbar” Avila Reveals The Secret To His Success

ISU’s superstar player took over social media this season; after getting one of the funniest nicknames from social media, he’s finally telling his story.

Indiana State basketball sophomore center sensation Robbie Avila is ready—ready to become a media darling, that is. And if all goes right, he can accomplish this feat right in his own backyard.

He and his Sycamores teammates sat and watched as this weekend’s season-ending tournaments brought five bid bandits—teams not scheduled to be in the NCAA tournament but who won their way in—leading the NCAA to burst their bubble on the Selection Sunday show. With a net ranking of 29, ISU became the lowest net ranked team to be left out of the NCAA tournament in the history of the tournament.

But from the ashes, the National Invitational Tournament rewarded ISU with a No. 1 seed and a home date at the Hulman Center in front of its raucous fans. Along with the Sycamores, Seton Hall, Wake Forest, and Villanova were chosen as top seeds in the 32-team tournament. The regular season Missouri Valley champs won’t travel far, with a home date against Southern Methodist University (20-12) March 20 at 7 p.m.

Avila, the Rec Specs–wearing, oft nicknamed superstar, has been a media sensation during the regular season. So it should follow that if the top-seeded ISU makes a run to the site of this year’s NIT semifinals and finals, he will get his chance to shine.

“Takes a bit of adjusting, but I think I can handle it,” says Avila. “Playing sports and making somebody’s day better is a reason I play, and if people get enjoyment out of my nickname that’s great.”

And why not? The 6-foot, 10-inch, 255-pound big man has accrued more nicknames in one year than Larry Legend in his years as a player: Cream Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Nerd, College Jokic, Steph Blurry, Robbie Buckets. But the one he answers to is Rob Wave, which is a play on the name of his favorite rapper, Rod Wave, whose most popular songs include “Thug Love,” “Proud of Me,” and “Long Journey.”

“That’s my favorite nickname of all of them. He’s my favorite artist,” Avila says. When asked to pinpoint his favorite song, the one he uses to get himself ready before a game, he gives the very diplomatic answer: “It’s hard for me to pick a favorite. There are so many good ones to choose from. I just can’t decide.”

One thing he will admit to is the superstitious ritual he observes before every game, which originated in high school. “During the National Anthem, I mumble the words under my breath and tap my fingers behind my back. I’ve been doing that for many years, but that’s about my only one.”

Avila was ranked the sixth-best high school player in the state of Illinois and the 54th best power forward in the country, according to 247Sports. He had offers from Appalachian State, Bradley, Loyola Chicago, Richmond, and Southern Illinois before he committed to ISU, wanted to play under Josh Schertz, now in his third year. Schertz was previously a Division II coach at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee.

“He’s done a lot for me,” Avila says, praising Schertz. “The game is changing for big men, and being able to do everything [he has taught me] has helped me to get [to] this point in my career. He’s helped me take my game to a whole new level. My basketball IQ has shot through the roof under him.”

Because Schertz has so much confidence in Avila, the offense starts and mostly ends with Avila. “It means a lot [to have the offense run through me]. That means he trusts me to make a lot of decisions on the court,” Avila says. “It’s not like I am going to shoot every time, but I use all my attributes—being able to shoot, pass, and rebound. I’m lovin’ the system and the way we play. My versatility as big man, my basketball IQ. I see the game a lot quicker than others, and I can react better.”

Avila is deceptively slow on the court, which he uses to his advantage. Not known for his speed or jumping ability, Avila is just a big man playing hoops and winning games, all in his signature Rec Specs, which he started wearing because of one too many wrestling matches with his older brother as a kid. Tired of paying for new glasses, his mother decided to go the indestructible route with the specs—which he is admittedly blind without. “No, I’ve never broken a pair. But this pair, the rubber is coming loose, so I had to glue it back together. These should last me this year, and I have a new pair coming. All black,” he says.

The current team is rivaled by only one other set of Sycamores players in the history of ISU hoops: the Larry Bird–led team of 1979. But at ISU, striving for second is the norm, and Avila is OK with that, for now. “[John] Wooden was the best coach to come out of here, and Larry Bird the best player. So coach Schertz, when he recruited me, said, ‘Come to ISU and go for the second spot.’” And so Avila did.

Avila describes himself and his teammates as a cohesive group, “a bunch of brothers I’ve grown up with this season. It’s like a family, and we all love each other.” And now that ISU has missed out on a bid for the Big Dance, Avila is ready for whatever. “We’ll play in the NIT, which is still a privilege to be in. If you look, there are over 300 teams not playing, so to be still playing in a tournament at this time of the year is an honor.”

After the NIT, what’s up for Avila next year? The transfer portal? “Not at all. I have not thought about that—not one bit,” he emphasizes, instead focusing on the team. He goes on to describe the incoming players. “Next year, we are returning all five starters, and some of the recruits are balling at the same high level now. This summer, we need to dive right in.”

As for himself, he adds, “My goals this summer: Get back at it. Take a little break. Try to have the same type of improvement I had from year one to year two.” If he is able to achieve that same kind of skills boost, his ultimate goal of having an NBA career will be within reach. “I must improve my athleticism. It will be an uphill battle at the next level for me. Need to work on that this summer.”

As he and his teammates prepare for the NIT and whatever’s beyond, there will be lots of Rod Wave music, for sure. Such is life on the bubble for a mid-major team with 28-5 record.