Buying Short

For years Nate Robinson was seen as little more than the Knicks' 5'9" slam-dunk novelty act. But after his recent string of 30-point games, height is no longer his defining measure
March 15, 2009

NAPOLEON GOT therefirst. Otherwise we'd be using the term Nate Robinson complex to characterize aman who compensates for his modest physical proportions with inflatedaggression and audacity. "Almost 5'9" in shoes," as he puts it,Robinson stands head and shoulders below the field; he is the shortest playerin the NBA, 10 inches shy of the average height of his colleagues. Yet there heis, blocking the shot of 7'6" Yao Ming, winning another slam dunk contest,boldly challenging larger defenders on drives to the basket and, routinely oflate, putting up 30 points a night. ¶ In what might be a credo for theundersized everywhere, the Knicks guard explains his philosophy: "If youtell me I can't do something, I ain't gonna listen. I don't care who you are,I'm gonna bring it. Being small lets you rise to the competition. People talkabout my height all the time, but honestly, I don't really feel smaller thananyone else." So there.

An antic, franticplayer who plays both guard spots, Robinson operates at a speed that can makethe other nine players on the floor appear almost arthritic. Already ashort-list candidate for the Sixth Man Award, Robinson was averaging acareer-best 17.6 points at week's end, and 26.2 over his last 10 games. Sincethe All-Star break, Robinson has been the sixth-most prolific scorer in theleague. "God gave me this body," Robinson says. "Now he wants me toblossom."

Robinson, 24,spent his first three seasons doubling as the Knicks' unofficial mascot. The21st pick out of Washington in 2005, he was an endearing, exuberant novelty actbut a figure of limited value in an actual game. Often he would storm downcourtor blow by his man and then—that complex kicking in—attempt a ridiculous movethat screamed look at me! A representative snapshot: Once, in his sophomoreseason, he went in for an uncontested layup against the Cavaliers butimpulsively bounced the ball high off the floor, attempting to turn the routineinto a spectacular dunk. He was called for traveling. And he was not exactlyfull of remorse afterward. "That," he explained with a shrug, "iswhy they call me Spontaneous Nate."

His great reprievecame last off-season when New York hired coach Mike D'Antoni, whose aggressiveoffensive philosophy accommodates players who might not operate under controlat all times—a departure from the team's previous coaches. "Larry Brownheld Nate back and doesn't like rookies or small guards," explainsRobinson's father, Jacque, who at 6-feet was a tailback at Washington and MVPof the 1982 Rose Bowl. "Isiah [Thomas] had Nate playing behind StephonMarbury and Jamal Crawford. When we heard D'Antoni was coming to New York andbringing that system from Phoenix, we were celebrating. Nate knew this wasgoing to be his year."

The Knicks were25--37 through Sunday and 3½ games out of their first playoff spot in fiveseasons. But already the "Isiah cloud" has lifted and some joy hasreturned to Madison Square Garden—thanks in no small part to Spontaneous Nate,who is pitch-perfect in this winter of discontent. For a few hours anyway, NewYorkers can stop worrying about their dwindling portfolios and precariousemployment and can indulge in a bit of escapism, cheering on an irrepressible69-inch scamp.

During a home winlast month over the Pacers, Robinson punctuated his 41 points by repeatedlyknocking knuckles with Will Ferrell, who was seated courtside. (Fair enough,since in interviews Robinson often blurts out "shake and bake," aphrase borrowed from Ferrell's Ricky Bobby character in Talladega Nights.)There was also the recent game in Philadelphia during which Robinson deflecteda pass out-of-bounds and then approached Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, whowas in the stands. "You know I used to be a defensive back in college?"the 180-pound Robinson cackled. (In 2002 he started six games, including theSun Bowl, at cornerback for the Huskies.)

If a fewhubris-driven misses or ill-advised passes are the cost of doing business,well, that's a small price to pay. "I've liked him for a long time,"says D'Antoni. "That athleticism, the way he can change a game, his bubblypersonality. Oh, sometimes he's exasperating and needs to be harnessed in theright way—he can get a shot anytime he wants, so he needs to know what a goodshot is. But he's getting more focused, and boy, he's been terrificlately."

IN KEEPING withhis physique, Robinson suffers from a chronic case of arrested development.Knicks players and coaches uniformly use the term "big kid" to describehim. They're not kidding. Robinson lists his favorite book as The Cat in theHat and has a voracious appetite for cartoons. When he isn't playingbasketball, a video-game controller is all but surgically attached to hishands. Even his trademark crowd salute is a nod to the game Call of Duty: Worldat War. Last year Robinson was playing Madden online against teammate MardyCollins—since traded to the Clippers—and losing badly. Robinson paused thegame, drove 10 minutes to Collins's home, barged through the door and unpluggedCollins's console so the loss wouldn't count against his record. Then there wasthe time last summer when Robinson conducted an ESPN radio interview as heplayed on his Xbox, declaring that, in his backcourt role with the Knicks, hetries to "make it easy for other guys to score the football." Theshow's host, Max Kellerman, suggested, "Maybe you could pause thegame?"

Robinson lives inthe Westchester suburbs with his girlfriend, Sheena, and their sons, Nahmier,4, and Ny'ale, 2. "We play all the time, and I'm always the bad guy,"he says. "I'm the robber in cops-and-robbers, the tiger intigers-and-lions." And why is the tiger the bad guy? "Youknow—lion," Robinson says. "King of the jungle."

In conversationRobinson speaks at the pace of an auctioneer, gesticulating wildly and burstinginto laughter at the merest provocation. Shooting guard Larry Hughes, who cameto New York from the Bulls on Feb. 19, says, "I can already recognizeNate's laugh from the back of the plane."

The rest of thecountry got a fluorescent eyeful of Robinson during last month's All-Starweekend in Phoenix. In a stroke of sports-marketing genius, Robinson performedin the dunk contest clad in radioactive shades of green—shoes, elbowsleeve—along with the uniform the Knicks wear when they play on St. Patrick'sDay. Krypto-Nate was intended to counteract Magic center Dwight Howard, theself-styled Superman who was the event's defending champ. (Robinson had won in2006.) With the 6'11" Howard, who had donned a cape, gamely playing along,Robinson, who can't come close to palming the ball, vaulted over Superman forthe clinching dunk.

Robinson returnedto New York with an enlarged profile. The roar of the Garden crowd thickenswhen he enters the game. If the city has embraced Robinson, he hugs back."Playing here is the best," he says. Nevertheless, he could have alimited number of nights left in his Manhattan run. Along with power forwardDavid Lee, Robinson will be a restricted free agent after this season. Payingbig money to keep both players could undercut the Knicks' chances of signing abona fide star (James, LeBron) in the 2010 off-season. Lee, New York's mostreliable player, is a good bet to re-sign. Multiple league executives predictthat a small-market team such as Memphis or Oklahoma City will be willing tooverpay for Robinson, who can not only score points but also draw fans.

Robinson knows thereality. But he reckons his best move is to make himself indispensable with hisplay for the rest of this season. Height be damned. "Being 5'9", Iwouldn't have it no other way," he says. "Guys on the team are like,'How good would you be if you were 6'8"?' But then I wouldn't be who Iam." Then, he turns uncharacteristically serious. "It's like CharlesDarwin's theory: survival of the fittest. I survive. If I were on Lost, I'd bethe last man standing. You know that, right?"

Players and coaches describe Robinson as a big kid.They're not kidding. He lists his favorite book as THE CAT IN THE HAT.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesHIGH-SPIRITED Robinson's exuberance comes through in his spectacular stuffs and his video-game-inspired salute. PHOTOCHRIS MCGRATH/GETTY IMAGES [Seecaption above] PHOTOCHRIS MCGRATH/GETTY IMAGESSLAP HAPPY As the Knicks struggle to end their playoff drought, Robinson spreads his good vibes throughout the Garden.

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