An endless debate continues between Isabella Robles and her dad, Bobby.
It's about how young she was when she first picked up a basketball. Robles remembers being eight but her dad swears she was five. Regardless, she can not remember life without a basketball in her hand nor without her dad being on the court to prepare her and sister Mercedes for the next level.
“My dad coached us until high school and when coaching me, we worked together very well on the court,” Robles said.
During high school hoops, dad’s role changed to training, cheering and keeping the refs in check.
“I remember there was a physical game and it looked like the other team was trying to hurt me and my dad started yelling, ‘We’re not playing football, this is a basketball game,’” Robles said.
The hours in the gym butting heads during one-on-one sessions with dad paid off when Robles was recruited to play in college.
Seasons of Change
Robles realized early on, following an ankle injury that cost her a season in high school that she didn’t want to pursue a Division I opportunity. During her time off, she pondered her next move.
“It made me realize I love basketball but that I don’t want to commit my whole life to it and that’s what going D1 would’ve required,” Robles said.
While playing at Orangewood Academy — a Seventh-Day-Adventist private school — Robles realized she could have it all when Paul Starkebaum recruited her and several teammates to play at Walla Walla University. He was then the Wolves’ coach and now serves as athletics director.
“I get to play basketball, get an education and continue my religion — the whole package,” Robles said.
The dramatic change in weather from mild Orange County, California to Walla Walla, Washington’s four fairly extreme seasons — coupled with a quieter environment — proved enjoyable for Robles. The distance from home — seven hours with a layover in Seattle — became challenging. She was used to being surrounded by family at every game, but now her parents had only been able to attend a few college games.
“I didn’t get to go home often until this past year when I was working more and able to afford the flights,” Robles said.
(Photos by William Frohne)
The Toughest Choice
After a successful freshman year came to a halt due to Covid, the Wolves next season was shut down, leading to a massive void. Though the team practiced regularly, it weighed on them mentally and physically. Before the Wolves took the court again, Walla Walla welcomed new head coach Tony Nakashima in June of 2021.
Robles prepared during the summer for her return to the court but days before classes began, a life-changing phone call summoned her to the hospital.
“I was texting back and forth with my mom and she seemed fine, then I started getting phone calls that she was in the emergency room,” Robles said.
Robles headed to the hospital to find her mom, Helen Medina, unable to speak or make eye contact. She was also malnutritioned due to difficulty in eating and had been at the hospital multiple times over the course of a few months for IV’s to get nutrition.
Two years prior, Robles’ mother was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a rare genetic disorder that causes the progressive degeneration of brain cells. Its symptoms vary widely depending on which parts of the brain are attacked. Huntington’s is genetically inherited affecting 50 percent of children whose parents are afflicted by the gene. Robles was diagnosed shortly after her mother.
“She was in the ER for three days and she could recognize who was there but couldn’t speak, then overnight she slipped into a coma,” Robles said.
Helen was transferred to the ICU for a week when the medical team approached Robles and her sister with news: she was brain dead and nothing more could be done. Since Robles' parents were divorced, the young sisters, barely out of their teens, were faced with the decision to either place their mom in a nursing home, a permanent vegetative state or discontinue life support.
“We knew our mom wouldn’t want that at all, that it’s basically like torturing someone just to have their presence so we decided to discontinue life support,” Robles said.
With the reassurance of her five siblings and encouragement from her close friend, Madison Brown, and long-term boyfriend and rock, Branden Naté, Robles decided to return to school following her mother’s service.
“There were many nights I’d just cry uncontrollably and I don’t think I’ve processed it fully,” Robles said.
She knew her mom would want her to return to college, finish her nursing degree and continue on the court.
“I just lost my mom but I had to be here for my team, do school and work and I was very busy which helped me not to think about it constantly,” Robles said.
Surviving as a Pack
As the new semester began and the Wolves prepared for the season, Robles was ready to release her loss on the court. But before pre-season play commenced, multiple players quit and the program dwindled to a roster of eight. Robles felt frustrated as she understood basketball is just a game but after losing her mother, she realized her team was depending on her and the commitment to them had to be bigger than her loss.
“It’s difficult for me, I’ve been committed to basketball my whole life and I’ve had a little less empathy this year when people have quit for personal reasons because my mom just passed away,” Robles said.
Early on, Nakashima recognized he would have to adjust the plans he originally set.
“My original goal was to play faster and be a man defense team with some zone but due to our lack of size and numbers, we had to primarily become a zone team,” Nakashima said.
A few games into season, another player left due to injury. The Wolves became a pack of just seven, and occasionally less during a few bouts of covid. As they battled opponents loaded with subs, fought through full-court presses, foul trouble and the inability to utilize time-outs for more than water and rest, the coach Nakashima appreciated the attitude of Robles and her teammates as they endured a tough 2-27 season.
“As a team we got closer but playing with only five or six was incredibly tough on our bodies and spirit because we know we’re good enough to compete better than we’re playing and win more games,” Robles said.
Nakashima stayed positive, realizing the grit his Wolves had and how they had bought into the program and each other.
“To their credit, this team has been steady and never gave up. They continued to improve, ending the season averaging 55 points per game which was up from mid-January’s average of 51,” Nakashima said.
Robles also took on a new role as the tallest player on the team at 5-foot-10. Typically she had played power forward but the Wolves lacked a true center, so she battled on the boards and on defense against 6-footers, averaging 6.9 rebounds per game. Not only can Robles post-up the defense, she can shoot, which opened lanes for the guard heavy Wolves.
“Offensively, I try to take advantage of her skill set where posts are guarding her and she can shoot the three so it creates a mismatch on the offensive side,” Nakashima said.
Nakashima is now busy recruiting to add players to the roster for next season and feels confident a few more pieces will make a huge difference for next.
“This team I had, they stuck with it, battling every game and I want to reward them with showing them we can win,” he said.
Leader of the Pack
Working a part-time job at the university’s fitness center and being full-time Director of Intramurals, while balancing basketball and achieving good grades in nursing school is no easy feat. Coupled with the loss of her mother and lack of teammates, Robles had every reason to let it all go, but something deep inside kept her going.
Robles' ability to not only stay through the storm but succeed while doing it comes from a quality she knows her mom instilled in her. Her dad, a former athlete, taught her the game she loves but her mom, never an athlete, taught her grit.
“I feel like she gave me this perseverance I had to push through and get through this,” Robles said.
Robles reflects on her mom’s tough life prior to becoming a mom, how she found herself homeless at 16 and worked through everything, became a nurse and put her children as a priority over herself.
“She made sure we came first, even when she was down in the dumps. I think honestly a lot of my perseverance comes from my mom and that ‘she’s going to get it done no matter what mentality,’” Robles said.
Teammates and coach alike recognize the resilience in Robles, her decision to stay mirroring the loyalty of a wolf in a pack.
“Bella shows great character despite the hardships that follow her, a strong individual who is valuable to our basketball team,” teammate Paulina Quintana Castro said.
Robles can often be found running from setting up intramurals to practice, then back to intramurals to break things down and then off to finish homework, sometimes going without sleep. Early morning desk shifts at the gym provide some study time. Robles has learned time management as a key role in her success.
“She’s balancing things very well and she’s also a really good student,” Nakashima said. “All the credit to her. She puts in the work.”
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