It was Legends Night, and the Knicks dutifully trotted out the old favorites: the hard-driving Richie Guerin, captain Willis Reed, Walt “Clyde” Frazier in his black leather suit, Bernard King, and the great Patrick Ewing—one star from each decade of the team’s deeply checkered history. It is a ritual here, genuflection before the numbers on the rafters, Monroe, DeBusschere, Bradley, and the rest, those fading memories that are supposed to make us forget the team hasn’t won for going on 36 years now. That’s likely why the Knicks offered no one from the current decade, unless you were expecting the exhumation of Stephon Marbury.
Even if Bernard, Patrick, and Willis left the Knicks with no small hard feelings, there was an obvious bond between these men and the fans, a deep reverence for the old club and its hallowed home court. When the Knicks are rotten, “it’s no fun, none at all,” said the once-unstoppable, now-sweating King, who only that morning had been briefly hospitalized for what he called “a precursor to a stroke.”
However, upon the mention of Nate Robinson, the Knicks’ undersize (listed at five foot nine, he seems closer to five-seven) backcourt dynamo, everyone suddenly got happy. “Nate! Nate the great!” said Frazier, breaking into a big smile. “If you ask me, Nate is the most impressive athlete in the league since Allen Iverson. He plays like he’s shot out of a rocket. A pocket rocket!” Willis, after pretending to look around on the floor to see if “little Nate” was down there somewhere, offered a more novel assessment of Robinson’s talents. “It sounds crazy, but he reminds me of Phil Jackson,” the Captain said, speaking of the gangly six-eight role player on the Knicks’ championship teams who went on to coach Jordan, Shaq, and Kobe. “When Phil came in with those arms all over the place, he completely changed the game defensively. Nate does the same thing on the offensive end. The man cannot be ignored.”
Amid the darkness of the season that’s about to end, N8, as he’s called by texters, has been a rare flash of light, a mini-comet across the bleak firmament. There have been little guys in the league before, the near-pygmy Muggsy Bogues, Earl Boykins, Michael Adams, Spud Webb, and the estimable five-nine Calvin Murphy, who backed down from no one. Useful players all, but none of them were athletes like Robinson. Everyone has their favorite N8 YouTube move, the incredible double-pump dunks, the way he literally jumps over people. But none of these feats quite matches the cosmic block on the seven-foot-six-inch Yao Ming in 2006.
“Yeah, the Yao one has to be in there,” said Robinson as he sat in the Knicks’ locker room slathering Vaseline on his surprisingly stumpy body. He’s built like one of those leg-churning fullbacks, though he was cornerback for part of college before giving himself over completely to basketball. That’s where “the jump” comes from: the legs, said Robinson, slapping his tree-trunk thighs, “that’s how I got up over Yao.” Robinson regards the block as his greatest moment, because “it was in a game, in the heat of competition. People think Yao was just standing there and I snuck up on him. That’s not right. Look at it. We’re face-to-face, and Yao’s jumping. He’s off the floor. Seven-six and off the floor! But I got up there.”
Tell N8 what the old Knicks have been saying about him and he gets all humble. These were tremendous compliments, he said. “Because, you know, I really look up to those guys.”
Only a few days before, Robinson was looking up at himself. The Garden had rounded up the usual press suspects for the unveiling of a huge new sign at 34th and Seventh, which Robinson, it was said, would be seeing for the first time. And there he came, ambling up Seventh Avenue with his entourage: his mom, his girlfriend, and his two sons, Nahmier, 4, and the 2-year-old Ny’ale. In his black, baggy athleticwear, the 24-year-old Robinson could have been anyone else, since it is only on the basketball court that a five-nine person looks like a Lilliputian.
“Check it out, Nate,” someone screamed. N8 turned to see what has become his official portrait: a joyously openmouthed flying man set against an infinite background of black, as if he were no longer hemmed in by the apex of his outlandish 46-inch vertical leap or gravity. “Damn,” Nate said, staring at himself writ so large above the midtown din.
“You’re like Godzilla up there, Zilla-Nate!” said a passerby, to which Robinson, a big monster-movie fan growing up in Oakland and Seattle, replied, “Right.” On TV, Clyde Frazier was mellifluously coining new Nate names, energy-intensive sobriquets like “Perc-Can-Nate” and “Caffeine-Nate.” “Zilla-Nate” fit in with that.