Nate Robinson Blasts Off

Photo: Marco Grob

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.

A few of Robinson's numerous tattoos.Photo: Marco Grob

“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.”

Photo: Marco Grob

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.”

Nate Robinson Blasts Off