Remember the Nate Robinson return game for the Knicks?
With no current New York Knicks basketball to talk about, there is an opportunity here to reflect on some historic moments in the franchise, especially those long forgotten or buried in the graveyard of bad memories. Much of the 2000's and 2010's Knicks fall under these buckets, but there were a few, sporadic, magical moments in this period as well.
Enter Nate Robinson, the electrifying, diminutive bench scorer who had one of the wildest journeys in the NBA. He never started more than 26 games in a season, yet was well-known in the zeitgeist as an explosive scorer and incredible leaper for only standing 5'9" tall. He took home a record three Slam Dunk Contest trophies, replaced an injured star to carry his team to a postseason series victory, won Summer League MVP, and then disappeared from the NBA as quickly as he showed up.
He also spent his first four-and-a-half seasons with the Knicks, capping his New York tenure with one of the more satisfying arcs of a decade of organizational buffoonery.
It's the 2009-10 season and the Knicks are bad. They're off a 2-9 start when they face the New Jersey Nets on the road. Robinson checks in for a six-minute stint in the first quarter, ending in this:
Head coach Mike D'Antoni, who, to put it delicately, has had his fair share of friction with bigger personalities in the league, was not happy. Six games later, he stopped giving Robinson any playing time after averaging 22 minutes a night.
Coaches will often pull players out of games or diminish their minutes to punish or teach them, but wholly yanking them out of the rotation for an extended period, especially when they are one of the best talents on your team, is something else entirely. Robinson last played on December 1st. He would not see the floor for the rest of the month. His agent demanded a trade. On a Christmas Day game at Madison Square Garden, the fans made their plea:
Finally, as the calendar flipped to 2010, D'Antoni relented. The Knicks played a road game against the Atlanta Hawks on the first day of the year, and Robinson checked in for his first NBA action in a month's time.
"When he called my name, I didn't hear,'' Robinson said. "Coach, he has that accent. He says 'Nate,' sometimes it sounds like 'David.' I just stood there. Guys were like, 'You're in.' I was like, 'Oh.' "
He went absolutely nuts.
Robinson has never been shy about his love for the game, and on this night his aura, his every step, every gather dribble oozed that love. His legs had more bounce. He got hype after every bucket, and they came in every which way possible. Pick-and-roll pull-ups, tip-ins, floaters over the backboard. It didn't matter which of Atlanta's many staunch defenders - Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford - was guarding him. He had 16 points entering the fourth quarter, and when the Knicks needed him most, he answered.
Robinson put up another 14 points in fourth, including New York's last eight, erasing a 13-point deficit to tie the game on a lay-up with 11 seconds to go. He then scored 11 of the Knicks' 13 points in overtime to secure the win. The final line? 41 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds on 18-24 shooting from the field.
The Knicks traded Robinson to the Boston Celtics for Bill (now Henry) Walker, Eddie House, JR Giddens and a second-round pick later that season. He's since returned to MSG to a welcome roar from the crowd, and gave fans a nostalgic display of his scoring ways playing for the BIG3.
Robinson's career in the blue-and-orange may remain but a footnote, highlighted only by his Dunk Contest victories and one ludicrous game-winner, in a never-ending rut of losing Knicks basketball. But on one cold Georgia night, he reminded us all about how much we love the game, how much we can't live without it, and that's worth remembering right now.