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A hero accused

Court documents portray ex-NBA player Rumeal Robinson as a reckless overspender who resorted to swindling

Rumeal Robinson once lived in a waterfront condo (left) in Aventura, Fla. Rumeal Robinson once lived in a waterfront condo (left) in Aventura, Fla. (Amy Beth Bennett for The Boston Globe)
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / November 1, 2009

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MIAMI - To his attorney, former basketball star Rumeal Robinson is a big-thinking businessman who became trapped in the maelstrom of the real-estate collapse.

To Mike Jarvis, his former coach at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in Massachusetts, Robinson is one of the finest people he ever mentored.

But within stacks of court documents here, allegations of bank fraud are laced with details that paint a much different picture. In this portrait, Robinson emerges as a once-idolized sports star who recklessly indulged oversized appetites for easy money, fast women, expensive cars, and other South Beach pleasures that led to a breathtaking fall.

Now, according to his brother, the Cambridge hero who made millions of dollars in the National Basketball Association is living in budget motels far removed from the luxury waterfront condo where Robinson and his girlfriend, a stripper with a penchant for professional athletes, sought loans for a Jamaican resort that never materialized.

Robinson, 43, who the Globe reported last month was accused of swindling his mother out of her Cambridge home, is the latest in a string of former Boston-area athletes, including Antoine Walker of the Celtics and slugger Jack Clark of the Red Sox, who vaulted from tough times to incredible fortune before crushing debt sent them crashing back to earth.

“It’s a mess,’’ said Helen Ford, a safety worker for the Cambridge schools who adopted Robinson when he was a homeless 10-year-old. Ford, who said she was duped into signing over her home, was evicted this spring after the mortgage went into default.

Robinson faces federal charges of bank fraud in connection with hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans purportedly earmarked to develop the Jamaican resort. Instead, according to court documents, $100,000 allegedly was kicked back to the loan officer as Robinson, his girlfriend, and other acquaintances pursued a lavish lifestyle that was buoyed by a stream of loans obtained with little or no collateral.

“He had no income that I saw,’’ said Robinson’s brother, Donald Barrows, who lived in Miami from 2007 to early this year.

Barrows and his mother said they are dumbfounded that the quiet young man who led Cambridge to the state championship and propelled the University of Michigan to the national title in 1989 could deceive his family and descend into a spiral of financial ruin.

“Obviously, from what happened, he changed dramatically,’’ Barrows said.

Robinson could not be reached for comment. His lawyer, Hugo Rodriguez of Miami Beach, said Robinson will be “vindicated.’’

Signed by the Atlanta Hawks to a $4.29 million, four-year contract in 1990, Robinson enjoyed a parade in his honor in Cambridge and even saw the name of the street where he lived changed to Rumeal Robinson Place.

But if he were the humble hero in Cambridge, Robinson transformed into something quite different in Atlanta. There, Robinson would spend up to $20,000 a night at a strip club where he had an unlimited account, Barrows said. Robinson also would pay the girls to clean his house in the nude, according to the brother.

Although the big money dried up after Robinson retired from the NBA in 1997, the good times continued to roll. In civil depositions taken by an attorney for Community State Bank in Iowa, which is suing to recover its loans, Robinson was questioned about his stockpile of BMW and Mercedes automobiles; $20,000 motorcycles; expensive trips to Las Vegas; four-figure golf outings; an M16 rifle; tens of thousands of dollars in suits, shoes, and jewelry; $1,500 to pay off traffic tickets; and even $800 for cigars.

During a February 2007 deposition in Miami, Robinson testified that he was penniless.

“How much money do you have in your pocket today, Mr. Robinson?’’ asked Gary Lehman, an attorney for the bank.

“I have nothing in my pocket,’’ Robinson answered.

“How much money do you have to your name?’’

“I have none, no money.’’

“What are you going to do about dinner tonight?’’

“I don’t know. Prime minister of Cayman Islands came in, so maybe he’ll pay. I don’t know.’’

“How do you intend to pay for your hotel bill?’’

“Ask somebody for some money.’’

“Who?’’

“I got friends; everybody got friends.’’

Despite his plea of poverty, Robinson retained some trappings of the high life. Barrows recalled that, when they met in Miami in 2007, Robinson picked him up in a gleaming white Mercedes SL500 roadster.

“Fifteen minutes into the ride, he turned and asked if I had $20 for gas,’’ Barrows said. “I asked him, ‘How can you drive this car,’ but he assured me everything was going fine.’’

That night, Barrows sensed the opposite. The pair visited several strip clubs, a favored pastime of Robinson’s, but the veteran of the celebrity fast life nursed soft drinks for hours, the brother recalled.

“I didn’t see him give any of the girls any money,’’ Barrows said.

When Barrows left Miami in January, the brother said, Robinson was living in a motel with his girlfriend for $425 a week.

Robinson previously had named his girlfriend, Stephanie Hodge, as the $150,000 director of marketing for Megaladon Development, the company that Robinson created to pursue the Jamaica project. Hodge, who previously had dated former NBA player Chris Gatling, was questioned in a 2007 deposition about a total of $261,000 in loans she had received from Community State Bank.

“You didn’t own any assets, you didn’t have a degree, you really didn’t have a job other than sporadic dancing jobs,’’ Lehman said. “Under the criteria, you didn’t - meaning, you know, loan criteria - you didn’t qualify for the loan and yet you got a loan.’’

Hodge said she had little to no idea how the money was being used. “I’m a little bit in the dark,’’ she told the bank’s attorney.

“He doesn’t ask me questions, and I don’t ask him questions,’’ Hodge said in the deposition. “That’s how the relationship is.’’

Meanwhile, in Cambridge, Robinson’s boyhood home was sold three times beginning in 2003 - eventually for $1 million to the brother of Robinson’s girlfriend. According to the documents, $300,000 connected with the final purchase allegedly was used to invest in an unsuccessful energy project.

Robinson’s attorney said his client is simply another victim of the housing bust that has afflicted the country, particularly in South Florida.

“He’s a pretty involved businessman,’’ said Rodriguez. “I think they had lots of projects on the fire. And when things went south, he has been dramatically affected.’’

Rodriguez said the real target of the investigation is the loan officer, Brian Jermaine Williams. In a deposition, Robinson admitted that he wired $100,000 to Williams one day after receiving a $377,000 loan. However, he said, the $100,000 was simply for consulting fees in another matter.

“Mr. Williams is the banker,’’ Robinson said in the deposition. “I mean, I don’t hold him over a barrel telling him to give me money.’’

Where Rodriguez talks of a failure of business, Barrows talks of a failure to learn life lessons. Robinson, he said, was coddled because he was a sports prodigy.

“Everything was always handed to him on a silver platter,’’ Barrows said. “He never learned that you had to work hard for what you get. And if you do get something, you hold on to it.’’

In Cambridge, the attorney for Robinson’s mother is seeking to block any sale of her home. Property obtained through an alleged fraud, said attorney Dennis Benzan, should not be sold to satisfy creditors when an innocent victim has been evicted. Ford, who has moved to an apartment in Somerville, wants to return to her former home near Central Square.

The tumultuous saga, Benzan said, should serve as a cautionary tale for impressionable youths who dream of a professional career.

“For young, aspiring athletes,’’ Benzan said, “you’ve got to step back and take responsibility.’’