Starks learns hard work from family, grandmother

Ahmad Starks is quiet. He always has been.

The senior guard for the Illinois men’s basketball team has never been much of a talker. For the most part, he lets his actions speak for themselves, both on the court and off.

His quiet, cautious personality comes from his grandmother, Marzola Robinson. Starks lived in a house with his parents and Robinson, his paternal grandmother, since he was 5 years old. Over the past 18 years, Robinson has become more than just a grandmother to him.

“(She) was another mother for him,” Ahmad’s father Donzell Starks said. “(They were) extremely close.”

As Ahmad grew, his personality began to resemble Robinson’s. Donzell remembers his grandmother as a strong and independent single parent.

She worked at Oscar Meyer for more than 40 years to provide for her family. According to Donzell, Robinson was always an attentive listener and observer.

On the court Ahmad exhibits a lot of the same characteristics. As he bounds up the floor with the ball in hand, he often looks ahead, scanning the defense for areas to create a shot for himself or others. He doesn’t speak much while on the court. Taking a shot here, making a pass there — whatever the team needs.

Head coach John Groce has said he wants Ahmad to be less cautious with the ball. He wants his point guard to have more turnovers if it means he’s making more plays.

His cautious on-court approach may very well come from a combination of Robinson’s personality and the values that Donzell instilled in Ahmad from an early age. Ahmad has a tattoo on his arm that reads, “only the strong survive,” a motto Donzell taught his son.

“I’ve always suggested to Ahmad that the guy who does the most talking is not necessarily the strongest in the room,” Donzell said. “You have two ears and one mouth.”


As Donzell and Ahmad’s mother, Alisa, balanced full-time jobs while trying to start their own movie theater chain, Robinson looked after Ahmad.

Robinson would wake Ahmad up at 7:30 every morning to get him ready for school. At eight, she would drive Ahmad to school so Donzell and Alisia could get to work on time.

In the afternoon, Robinson would pick Ahmad up from school. She would always bring him a snack, which made seeing her after class one of his favorite things.

The movie theater business worked out for Donzell and Alisa, and eventually, running Inner City Entertainment became their work. Robinson continued to care for Ahmad for as many as 12 hours a day.

The two were almost inseparable, playing board games, going to Chuck E. Cheese’s, and reading together to pass the time.

Robinson loves her family. Her love was the reason she opened up around them. She could laugh and talk for hours on end. It was also the reason she worked so hard to raise Donzell on her own, and years later, help raise Ahmad. 

Robinson passed that work ethic on to Ahmad.

Just as she worked hard to look after him, he put in work on the court. He picked up basketball at age 3 and excelled from the beginning. Donzell said Ahmad became a student of the game and continued to progress through AAU and high school ball.

Around Ahmad’s junior year of high school, Robinson was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

She began to forget. Sometimes she couldn’t remember what day it was or where she had left something in the house.

After years of hard work, Ahmad chose to play college basketball at Oregon State. Although he wouldn’t be able to get home often to see his family, he decided the Beavers were the right fit and made the 2,200-mile journey to Oregon State.

While with the Beavers, Ahmad took his game to another level. In 97 games, he averaged 10.2 points per game, broke Oregon State’s record for 3-point field goals with 185, and shot 39.5 percent from three as a junior.

But by Ahmad’s junior year, Robinson’s condition had worsened.

Robinson, who had cherished time with her family, began to forget family members like Donzell. When Ahmad came home for Christmas break during his junior year, she didn’t remember who he was.

Ahmad broke down and cried.

He worried about the woman who had helped mold him into the young man he had become.

Ahmad came home again for spring break that year and sat down with his parents to discuss the possibility of transferring. He knew Illinois was an option.

Sitting in his apartment in Oregon on May 28, 2013, he sent out a three-letter tweet announcing his decision. It read: “ILL.”

After deciding to transfer closer to home, Ahmad applied for a hardship waiver from the NCAA. As part of the process, he wrote an essay detailing why he thought his circumstances should allow him to play immediately.

Ahmad focused on the fact that his grandmother had been extremely influential in raising him and that he wanted to be closer to home and to her.

“He missed his grandmother,” Donzell said. “To see her deteriorate like that was really bothersome for him.”

The hardship waiver was denied.

The reason? The NCAA, in part, didn’t think Robinson had raised him.

“They didn’t consider her close enough,” Donzell said.

Ahmad used the year he was forced to sit out to work on his game. Over the past summer, he made 13,000 shots and continued to get stronger.

“I definitely feel it helped: upper body, lower body,” Ahmad said. “I’ve gotten better conditioned. Learned the system.”

Ahmad continued to work diligently through the fall. Then the unexpected happened. 

Senior point guard Tracy Abrams went down with a season-ending ACL tear and Starks jumped to starting point guard on the depth chart.


Ahmad sits in a conference room of the Hyatt Regency O’Hare. Dressed in a white button down shirt, black tie and black pants, he answers questions from reporters about the upcoming season.

He has never been to a media day before.

The media day is just another first he’s had to deal with after Abrams’ injury, but Ahmad seems to be handling it well. He even jokes with reporters about whether he likes being dressed up.

“A little bit,” he said. “I kinda like this attire. I need to do more of this.”

While some would find it hard to be thrust into the starting role, the lessons he learned from his family about commitment and hard work seem to be paying off.

He even sounds reassured when talking about how Abrams’ injury has changed things for him.

“With Tracy or without Tracy, my role on the court would be the same,” Ahmad said. “The big difference is that I have to help try and replace Tracy’s vocal leadership.”

Time will tell if Ahmad is able to fill Tracy’s vocal void on the floor. Just as Robinson began to open up around family, Ahmad has a chance to do the same as the season progresses.

If the Illini want to compete for an NCAA tournament appearance, which would be Ahmad’s first, they will need him to break away from his quiet nature and become a vocal leader.

“It’s not totally my personality and not totally what I’ve been used to, but it’s something I would have to do any way,” Ahmad said. “It just has to happen.”

Nicholas is a junior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @IlliniSportsGuy.