“Cool,” Robinson shouted back. “I’ll put it in the rotation.”
For the fan, nothing’s worse than when your team has bad management. Bad players, you can boo them, and eventually they leave. Bad management is a permanent burden, a guarantee of more bad players to come. This said, the problem with rooting for the Knicks recently has not been bad management but rather psycho management.
Verging from merely bonkers to outright certifiable, Knickerbocker nuttiness—a nearly unbroken succession of bad trades, bizarre signings ($30 million for Jerome James?), and sexual-harassment suits—lasted nearly a decade, but the grown-ups appear to be back in charge at the World’s Most Famous Arena, in the persons of president Donnie Walsh and coach Mike D’Antoni, who won over 200 games in four full seasons at Phoenix.
Walsh’s master plan has been to dump the team’s most profligate player contracts in order to get under the NBA’s salary cap by 2010, when a number of the league’s major stars, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade included, will be free agents. Maybe this works and maybe not, but either way the team will still have to persuade 19,763 benighted souls to pay Garden prices until the LeBron ship docks, which is where Nate Robinson comes in.
Most people think the star-making machinery that has turned Robinson into the pint-size face of the Knicks franchise geared up with his victory in this year’s slam-dunk contest. This is only partially true. Robinson also won the slam-dunk contest as a rookie in the 2006 All-Star Game, and all he got for his trouble was the disdain of the old-school Larry Brown, who stuck him on the “inactive list” for more than two weeks. Not that anyone watching N8 play then wouldn’t have been tempted to do the same thing. The future Krypto-Nate was an ADHD turnover machine, a shoot-first, pass-never model-train wreck. In the 2006–7 season, he racked up all of 90 assists in 1,356 minutes, a brutally anal-retentive figure for a presumed ballhandling guard. He also wasn’t the most fun dude to be around, getting chippy with a number of teammates as well as being suspended for ten games for his part in the Knicks’ December 2006 square-off with Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets.
“We’re face-to-face, and Yao’s jumping,” says Robinson. “Seven-six and off the floor! But I got up there.”
D’Antoni’s “shoot in seven seconds or less” offense has helped turn things around. “Nate was one of the reasons I was looking forward to coming here,” said D’Antoni the other day at the Knicks’ Westchester County training center. “We drafted him at Phoenix, and I was disappointed when he got traded to the Knicks. An energy guy like that who can shoot and drive like him, that’s the sort of player I knew could succeed in our system.”
The Nate-ness has really kicked in since the All-Star Game. On February 17, against the Spurs, Robinson went for 32, with four three-pointers and ten rebounds, no mean feat for someone more than a foot shorter than Tim Duncan. On February 20, against Toronto, it was 26 points, with seven assists. On the 23rd, he busted the bank with 41 against Indiana; two days later, it was 32 versus Orlando. And so it went, especially on the Knicks’ surprisingly successful early-March road trip, Robinson scoring 32 points in an exhausting win against Milwaukee, 30 more in a dramatic overtime victory in Detroit, and another 25 in Minnesota.
By the time the Knicks came home, people were talking playoffs. The team was only a game and a half out with sixteen more to go, and Nate Robinson, 80-foot billboard and all, was the rage of the league. Even LeBron, who’d dropped 52 on the Knicks the month before just to show them what they were missing, was impressed.
“Love him,” James said. “You know you’re going to get high energy and they’re going to compete every night.” Asked if he could see himself playing with N8, LeBron said, “Could be fun.”
Robinson, who’s never heard of Randy Newman or his song “Short People,” says he doesn’t get bored being asked about his size. “I like being short. Being short makes me me. There’s someone who’s been told to forget it because they’re not the right size, shape, or whatever; those are the people I play for. If I do something fantastic, drive through the tall trees, everyone goes, ‘Look at that!’ If I don’t, they say, ‘What can you expect, he’s short.’ ”
If there’s one theme to N8’s often cockeyed locker-room chatter, it is “showing people,” proving that he’s “not a sideshow but a real player in this league, like the other really good guys.” Then, Robinson says, “that’s probably why I talk so much, you might have noticed that.”