A Cliffhanger

Cliff Robinson, the Portland Trail Blazers' superb sixth man, has quelled doubts about his skills, but skeptics still ask about his head
February 22, 1993

Come the 1989 NBA draft, the word on Cliff Robinson was not good. The word was that Robinson, then a senior at Connecticut, was the biggest dog since Sgt. McGruff. A hound. The general managers, the scouts, they all agreed that he was talented. But sometimes these drafts become word-driven. And word was, this kid belonged on a leash.

The word plunged Robinson, a lean, 6'10" forward-center, right down through the first round of the draft. It was amazing, if you hadn't heard the word. Here was a guy who could run and jump, who could block shots, who could fill the rim. He ranked third in the Big East conference in scoring during his senior year. And defense? He always drew the league's big guns—Derrick Coleman, Jerome Lane, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Charles Smith—and he had shown he could handle them. He was, in that year's unremarkable pool of talent, a top- 10 guy, for sure. The NBA even invited him to New York, where the selecting would be done, for some draft-day fun.

But general managers, whose suspicions about Robinson's attitude had been fueled by their scouts, used their first-round picks on guys named Michael Smith and Kenny Payne and Jeff Sanders and Byron Irvin (none of whom, just for the record, are now in the NBA). Robinson, having not heard the word, couldn't figure this out. Pick by pick he became more baffled. Finally, when the Detroit Pistons chose Kenny Battle of Illinois as the 27th and final pick of the opening round, Robinson stormed out of draft headquarters at Madison Square Garden and returned to his hotel room. It was one thing to be mystified, quite another to be humiliated.

Nothing personal, though; just the word. "There were a lot of things we just had to guess at," says Donnie Walsh, general manager of the Indiana Pacers. "With Cliff we questioned the way he wanted to play, how hard he'd want to work, how physical he'd be willing to get. We questioned his intensity." It was just business.

Robinson, on his way back to the hotel, learned from a passerby that he had been picked by the Iran Blazers, the 36th player chosen overall—but well after no-hopers like Dyron Nix and Frank Kornet and Jeff Martin and even someone named Pat Durham had been selected.

Now in his fourth pro season, Robinson is the Blazers' second-leading scorer (18.8 points per game at the end of last week), their second-best rebounder (7.0) and possibly their best defender, even with Buck Williams around. He may be the hardest-working player in Portland—again, even with Williams around. And he has not missed a game in his pro career; that's 291 games through Sunday. The league that didn't want him will almost surely honor him at season's end with its Sixth Man Award for being the game's best player off the bench.

"So," says Walsh, "everyone was wrong." Was it something Robinson did? Something he said? Something the scouts thought they knew that nobody else did? Robinson's college coach, Jim Calhoun, remembers the scouts descending on the Connecticut campus, appraising the kid, becoming, to Calhoun's mind, overly particular. As Calhoun recalls it, one day a scout told him that Robinson couldn't go to his left or some such nonsense. Calhoun is not a man easily driven speechless. But that one slackened his jaw.

"To me," Calhoun says, "it was a no-brainer. He runs, jumps and shoots. I didn't know he'd become this good, but I knew he'd be in the NBA 10 years. I didn't understand this intrigue, this mystery thing they had about Cliff. To ask me what kind of prospect he was? Whoa!"

Looking back, as he often has, Calhoun wonders if people somehow forgot the way Robinson had led UConn, which had won a total of 19 games during Robinson's first two seasons, to 20 wins and the NIT championship in his junior season. Maybe they remembered, instead, that the Huskies won just 18 games in Robinson's senior season and failed to reach the NCAAs. "People locally blamed him for not taking us to the next level," says Calhoun. "Maybe they thought he wasn't a leader and that he wouldn't take responsibility."

People locally, maybe. But scouts? "Well, there was his demeanor," Calhoun says. "Cliff had a look about him that was not always Chevy Chase. I love the guy, he was totally loyal to me, and we still talk. Talked to him the other day. So I can't say anything negative about him. I won't. But that scowl.... I once told him he didn't have to look like Peter Pan out there, but Darth Vader?"

About that scowl: Robinson says he developed his drop-dead mug when he was a kid growing up in Buffalo. The older kids would try to "punk me off." The scowl, coming from this string bean, was supposed to show that he meant business. Who knew it would end up costing him money instead?

"Just because I had a mean look," he laments, recalling the shame and consequences of that draft. (The No. 10 pick in the '89 draft, Pooh Richardson, signed a four-year, $2.7 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves; Robinson got a non-guaranteed two-year deal for $750,000.) It's hard to believe that a guy drops like a rock in the draft just because he'll give you the death-ray stare—Charles Barkley is Mr. Sunshine?—but Robinson's on-court demeanor did invite suspicion.

"Guys get bad raps," says Portland teammate Clyde Drexler, "and it follows them forever." Williams, who also joined the Blazers in 1989 after being acquired from the New Jersey Nets, says that the word on Robinson reached beyond scouts and was persuasive among players. "I was apprehensive," Williams says.

"I'm not saying he was a perfect kid," says Calhoun. "You know, things weren't perfect for him growing up. But he is a maturing kid. All I know is, I got to UConn after his sophomore year. They'd had four straight losing seasons, and people wondered if we belonged in the Big East. He's coming off a funny freshman year, didn't do much. But I see he's immensely talented. I take him aside and say, 'Promise me one thing. Stay with me.' Not every kid in that situation stays. If people were judging the book by its cover, they were judging a book that wasn't written yet."

Robinson harbors no bitterness. In fact, despite the embarrassment of the draft, Robinson spent a half hour that day, after he had been selected, talking to the Connecticut press. "I was steamed at first," Robinson admits, "but I was O.K. by the time I got to the hotel."

Though reliving that day now does not even inspire Robinson to scowl, it's not as if he has completely let go of the episode. "Oh, I remember my little draft," he says lightly. And he remembers every player who was picked ahead of him. He knows exactly where they are, including the 14 guys who aren't in the NBA any longer.

Robinson was a gift to the Trail Blazers. Doubts about his work ethic were soon dismissed. Teammates saw past the scowl and began to appreciate him. "A nice guy," says Drexler, as if still surprised.

Robinson was a little immature, perhaps, a little overanxious—as if he wanted to prove a point and pronto. It's true: Coming off the bench, especially for a talented rookie from a high-profile program, can engender a sort of desperation. Robinson was of a mind that Portland should start him right then, ahead of Jerome Kersey, a five-year veteran. "I wanted to make something happen," Robinson says. In that first season the desperation was nearly comical at times. "I'd come off the bench, and I wouldn't go up and down the court twice before I'd shoot," he says. And they weren't always the best shots. (Better shot selection is a phrase you hear over and over when people talk of Robinson's improvement.) Not that anybody ever dressed him down for his scattershot style. "Nobody said anything, but I'd get these looks," Robinson says. "Last thing you want to see is Clyde sucking his teeth." That year Drexler nearly peeled the enamel right off.

Over the years, though, Robinson has come to grips with his role. He has started on only 22 occasions, almost always in an injury emergency, and he still hasn't shaken the sub's paranoia: How many minutes will I get? How many mistakes can I make? But he has given up on forcing a change in his status. "I look at the chemistry of those five guys starting, and I see what they do out there," he says of the Blazer regulars, who have led Portland to an average of 59.7 wins a season during Robinson's years with the team. "I can't argue about that."

Anyway, the Blazers use him plenty—around 30 minutes a game—and they use him wisely. Walsh says Robinson is so good off the bench because coach Rick Adelman can scope out the game in the early going and figure how to deploy Robinson for the best mismatch. Here's Robinson slipping on his signature black or red or white headband and going in for Kersey at small forward and overpowering a smaller player; or going in for Williams and presenting a stronger offensive threat at power forward; or even going in for center Kevin Duckworth and outquicking a bigger opponent. This season, until Drexler fully recovered from last September's knee surgery, Robinson was usually Portland's high scorer.

"This year he's got it figured out," says Drexler. "He's our best defensive big man off the ball and on the ball. Offensively, his potential is unlimited. He's a '90s-type player." So every dog does have his day?

"Let's put it this way," says Walsh. "He plays harder than some guys on that team who are making more money than he is." (Robinson is in the first year of a five-year, $9 million contract extension. He is reportedly the fifth-highest-paid Trail Blazer, behind Kersey, Duckworth, point guard Terry Porter and Williams.)

Of course, skepticism remains. That scowl and having another run-in here and there have sometimes reminded people of their old doubts. Three years ago, during the Blazers' opening-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks, Robinson decked a female police officer during a brawl outside a nightclub. (Robinson pleaded guilty to assault, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to one year's probation, a $250 fine and 50 hours community service.) There are always circumstances that can be explained away, but if this is the kind of incident that "could happen to anyone"—as Robinson has insisted—then why don't more players find themselves outside bars at three in the morning after playoff games? And then, Robinson was ticketed last year for speeding (110 mph)—though former teammate Ramon Ramos suffered severe brain damage in December 1989 in an automobile accident in which Ramos lost control while speeding. Is this really a quality guy?

"These are just shaving cuts," says Calhoun. "This is just the vigor of youth," says Drexler. This is disquieting.

There is a feeling among some people in Portland that Robinson has come a long way. There is a feeling among others that he hasn't come far enough, that he will ultimately betray the Blazers with some kind of foolishness. In December, columnist Dwight Jaynes of The Oregonian flew in the face of those touting a new Robinson, citing in his column Robinson's still incessant trash talking and complaining to refs, and likening him to an "unclaimed package in an airline luggage rack, one that ticks."

Every dog has his day, but then, he's still a dog, isn't he?

Robinson brought Jessica out to Portland last fall. Jessica is five. By some accounts, she is quite a handful. "She creates her own space," Robinson says with a sigh. She makes her own demands, takes her own time. "I swear, she can sit and write her name perfect for half an hour, and then, suddenly, she can't make a letter," he says. In other words, she's a child. Imagine Robinson, who ducked all those classes as a kid ("Don't worry, ma"), scratching his shaven head, fretting over Jessica's handwriting. Everyone should be at least a bit satisfied with this image.

Robinson's own experience with paternity is confused. His father left home when he was four and died when he was 10. His mother's remarriage when he was 13 did not produce a satisfactory replacement. "A lot of animosity," Robinson remembers. Although he remains close enough to his mother, Helena, that he still calls her almost daily—"He'll ask me how to cook something," she says, "and it goes from there"—Cliff was essentially deprived of anything resembling a nuclear family for his entire childhood.

So fatherhood was not something he understood all that well, except as a source of abandonment or disappointment—or, in the case of Jessica, as a reason to write a check. The girl's mother, he claims, dinged him for half his rookie salary, which he thought was way out of line. "I didn't mind paying money," he says. "I just thought this was too much."

In trying to get the child-support case reopened two years ago so his payments might be reduced, Robinson suffered the shock of his young lifetime. The blood tests, which are done as a matter of course in such proceedings, showed that he could not have been Jessica's father.

This was stunning. It was his out, of course. He was free and clear. Except that he would lie awake at night and wonder about Jessica. The girl's mother was still going it alone, back in his old neighborhood, and she had been burdened with two additional children. So he would lie awake, worried. What kind of life lay ahead for Jessica? Of course, it wasn't his problem. He liked Jessica, was crazy about her, in fact. But she did slow him down. No way it was his problem. The fact of the matter, and this is what kept him awake, was that it was Jessica's problem.

So, with the tenuous blessing of Jessica's mother, Cliff brought the little girl to Portland in October. Jessica lives with him and his sister, Alisa, herself a single parent and a basketball player for the AAU Portland Saints. This summer he plans to begin the process of legally adopting Jessica—taking her in the second round, you might say.

Getaway night in Portland: The players file into the Blazer locker room before a game with all their luggage, prepared for a trip to Los Angeles. Robinson is running late. Finally he appears, shrouded in an enormous overcoat. He is holding, in the crook of a long finger, a tiny hanger on which is Jessica's tiny jacket. He carefully places the hanger and jacket in his locker, the jacket looking like a toy next to his immense overcoat. The players bend over their laces and get ready for a basketball game. Strangely, nobody remarks on the sight of this huge Mr. Mom. It's as if those who know him agreed long ago: Everyone was wrong.

PHOTOBRIAN DRAKE PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLERobinson, an 18.8-point scorer, is not merely an offensive threat. PHOTOTOM TREICKBachelor Cliff is so smitten by five-year-old Jessica that he is giving fatherhood a shot.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)