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Nate Robinson Blasts Off

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A drama major at Washington, where he once workshopped Of Mice and Men (“I played the little guy,” he reports), Robinson might be talking too much these days. “Nate may be little, but his mouth is big,” says Clyde Frazier. Already the recipient of a team-high twelve technical fouls this season, Robinson has been known to argue a foul call for a whole quarter or more, pleading his case to anyone willing to listen, ushers included. “He’s one of those earmuff guys, all right,” says one referee. D’Antoni, his patience worn thin, especially after Robinson recently squared off with Hornets star Chris Paul, has taken to benching his star backcourt guy, “until he calms down.”

“I’m trying to shut up, at least a little bit,” Robinson confesses. In this, N8, the oldest of seven children, is trying to follow the advice of his father, Jacque, himself a star running back at Washington (winning MVP honors at both the 1982 Rose Bowl and the 1985 Orange Bowl). “My dad tells me to remember how you got where you are,” says Robinson. It was Jacque Robinson who convinced his precocious son to give up football and stay with basketball. “He said, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you different, basketball is what you’re built for. It is what God wants you to do.’ ”

For Robinson, it is very simple: If it’s a miracle that a five-nine guy can block the shot of a seven-six guy, then who makes miracles in this universe?

“Ball, God, and my family, that’s pretty much it for me,” says N8, whose passions are amply documented by the “twenty or so” tattoos he’s collected since age 13. He’s got the names of his mom and dad, the names of his kids, the names of some friends. He’s also got a set of “angel wings” across the shoulders and halfway down his back. As to why athletes, especially NBA players, get so many tattoos, Robinson says, “You’re only here for a while, it’s a good way to pay tribute with something that sticks.” Asked which tattoo is his favorite, he hesitates. Then, pointing to a leg, he says, “Well, I like this one down here. It’s brand-new.”

It is a large cross with the words GAME TIME below.

“That’s not ‘game time,’ ” Robinson corrects. “It’s G.A.M.E. Time … God Asks for Me Every Time.”

As it happened, the night after we spoke, the Knicks wound up getting blown out by 26 points by the Nets, their worst home-court defeat of the season. Robinson scored only two points in the first half, prompting D’Antoni to say, “He was in a fog.” Two nights later, against the rotten Sacramento Kings, it was even uglier. In a 15-0 hole to start the game, the Knicks lost by 27. “Something broke,” D’Antoni said of the game. Amid assertions in the Daily News that his recent celebrity might be detracting from his play, Robinson managed nineteen points in 40 minutes, about 39 of which were garbage time.

That was about it for the Knicks’ playoff hopes circa 2008–9. Losing at home to crappy teams was depressing enough, but it also pointed up problems with Donnie Walsh’s master plan, especially in terms of Robinson and his frontcourt running mate, David Lee. Most of the current Knicks are clearly in the rental category, itinerant pros bound for the next town. Robinson and Lee, however, could be “real Knicks,” players to plug in around the superstar to come. This had caused talk, since both Robinson and Lee were nearing free agency and would likely ask for large contracts that would throw the team’s salary-cap machinations out of whack. The question was, should these guys be kept?

On that, Robinson was surprisingly businesslike. “I love it here, the fans, everything,” said N8, who’d almost been dealt to the Kings earlier in the year. “But what will be will be. My mother says everything comes to an end. I think it would be smart to keep me and David, though.”

You wonder. A week earlier, D’Antoni had been asked how, if he were on the other sideline, he’d try to exploit Robinson’s size. “It’s pretty easy,” D’Antoni said, with his best West Virginia smile. “You run him through screens, you post him up.” The Nets did just that, picking Robinson at every turn. His man, sub Keyon Dooling, was open all night, scoring seventeen points. The same low-to-the-ground bullishness that makes him a force on offense made him vulnerable on the other end. He was bouncing off the screens like a Ping-Pong ball in a centrifuge.

Fact is, both Robinson and Lee are sixth men on a team of seventh and eighth men. Sitting glumly in the stands prior to the Sacramento disaster, Walsh did not object when it was suggested that all his team really needed was a point guard and a big man. “Well, you could say that about every team,” he replied.

Whatever happens, said N8, a little man in a big man’s game, what matters is understanding that every day he gets to play the game he loves is a blessing. Asked what he’d do if one morning he woke up to find he was no longer Krypto-Nate, Robinson leaned back. “You mean, no NBA, no Knicks, like anyone else?” The concept seemed to have never occurred to him before that moment.

“Well,” he said, “I’d probably go out that morning and get a job in construction. I used to dream about that, when I was a kid. You know, get up in the morning, lunch pail, a normal working guy. If that’s how it was, it would suit me fine.”


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