Nate Robinson’s eyes are hooked to the TV. It’s 9 a.m. and he’s too dialed in to sip his special concoction of orange juice mixed with lemonade. Sitting in a booth at the Skillet Diner in Seattle in late May, he’s watching highlights from Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals from the night before: Houston bombing 27 straight attempts from three, Chris Paul sitting out with a hamstring injury.
“I’m sorry, I’m playing WOUNDED!” Robinson exclaims, referring to Paul not playing. “They can’t get a bucket, and there’s a bucket-getter right here!” He squeezes an imaginary ball between his palms, tighter and tighter, like it’s the ruby slipper that will magically transport him through the screen and back into the NBA.
It would not be the first time Robinson defied time and space. Crafting an 11-year NBA career at 5’9,” 180 pounds in a league of giants, he once leaped sky-high to miraculously swat the shot of Yao Ming, the 7’6” former center. He won the Slam Dunk Contest three times and dropped three 40-point games. “Pound for pound, he is one of the best athletes I’ve ever been around,” says Doc Rivers, who coached him with the Celtics. “It’s rare when a guy that is small also has power.”
Robinson was the living, breathing, “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” lever teams would pull to inject energy when in a jam.
“He played with passion. He came to play every night,” says Hall of Fame guard Clyde Drexler.
But Robinson’s overflowing personality also irritated NBA coaches. Some found him disruptive and immature, especially during his early years in the league.
He exasperated Knicks coaches Larry Brown and Mike D’Antoni. He once shot at the wrong basket against the Nets. He went flying into the crowd while fighting with JR Smith in the Knicks-Nuggets brawl. Sometimes he’d imitate his coaches behind their backs during practice, according to former teammate Malik Rose. He could be a liability on defense when forced to switch on screens. D’Antoni benched him for a month for his antics.
Robinson was the exclamation point and the run-on sentence; the behind-the-back dime when a simple chest pass would have sufficed.
“He was a hell of a talent. I don’t know if he maximized the talent level that he had,” says Alvin Gentry, who coached him with the Pelicans. “The guy pretty much won seven, eight games by himself when he was with Chicago. He had that ability. I don’t know if he took it seriously all the time.”
Robinson, now 34, shakes his head when hearing things like that. He’s suited up for New York, Chicago, Boston, Denver, Golden State, Oklahoma City, New Orleans and the Los Angeles Clippers, and memories of coaches telling him to tone himself down all blur into one.
“They misinterpreted how I was,” he says. But later, a part of him softens. “I will take my cake and say I was immature.”
Robinson is both unapologetic and repentant. And his ability to return to the NBA—what he hopes for and works toward—hinges considerably on whether or not he can find peace within those two sides to him, something he could not do while still in the NBA.
“I’m a Gemini. Geminis have split personalities. Good, bad,” he says. “I feel that within myself. I look at myself, my imperfections that I see in the mirror. … I feel like it’s two separate people that live within one.”
The devil and the angel. The devil says, “Dunk over someone and make the crowd roar.” The angel says, “Pull it back out and reset the offense.” The devil says, “Belt out ‘yo mama’ jokes that’ll have teammates howling.” The angel says, “Pipe down, Coach is speaking.”
“It’s like Spider-Man, that Venom. I never wanted that Venom outfit to just consume me,” he says. “I wanted to be Spider-Man. I wanted to be positive. I never wanted that dark side to come out because I know what that dark side could do.”