Nate Robinson Battles Inner Demons in Quest for NBA Return

Nate the player vs. Nate the personality: Can he ever reconcile the two and get back to the NBA?
photo of Mirin FaderMirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorPHOTOGRAPHY BY HOLLY ANDRESJune 18, 2018

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.”

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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.” 

A few hours after breakfast, Robinson works out at Seattle University with Chris Hyppa, his skills development coach. Pounding two balls for five excruciating minutes, Robinson’s hands burn. He drills four threes in a row but misses the fifth. “Come on, Nate!” Robinson screams at himself.

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Hyppa has him cross over, go between the legs, cross over again. Pull-up. It’s young Allen Iverson’s iconic crossover on Michael Jordan in ‘97. Robinson used to practice that move over and over on courts a short drive away, in Rainier Beach, where he grew up. A.I. was his favorite—the one who gave him the belief he could thrive at his size.

It makes sense Robinson is back in Seattle nowadays. In a way, he’s starting over, though he is getting older as the league is getting younger. “I just need a chance,” he says. He’ll play in the BIG3 and the Drew League in hopes of securing an NBA training camp invite. (Robinson last played for an American pro team with the G League’s Delaware 87ers in 2017).

“I don’t think [the NBA] is out of the question,” Gentry says. “He’s such a unique player in what he brings to the table that I don’t think the doors are closed for him at all.”

Rivers isn’t ruling out the possibility either, if Robinson can accept whatever role he’s given. “He’s too athletic, he’s too determined,” Rivers says. “I wouldn’t bet against him.”

But he’ll have to prove he’s matured first. 

The first time Robinson touched an NBA basketball, in his debut against the Celtics in 2005, was on a quick steal. He wasn’t thinking about who was in front of him, behind him or next to him. He charged toward the basket, hungry to eat up as much hardwood as possible. He recklessly flung the ball off the backboard, failing to complete the dunk or draw a foul. The ball rolled off of his head and out of bounds.

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During the timeout, his teammates sarcastically asked him if he knew who his coach was. They were referring to Larry Brown: the legendary coach who preached making the extra pass, taking the best shot. Fancy was forbidden. Robinson shook his head and told his teammates, “Nope.”

“I didn’t care,” he says. “I just wanted to be on SportsCenter, and I wanted all my friends back home to know I was in the league.”

Once, after a blowout loss that same year, during one of the most dysfunctional seasons in Knicks history, Robinson and teammate Eddy Curry clogged the shower drains with towels. Players, already in a foul mood, couldn’t shower.

“Part of [his] personality is, he’s a clown. And he just doesn’t stop. He can’t turn it off. He almost can’t be serious,” says a veteran assistant coach who has worked with Robinson. “And so as much as you love him…that is also what kills him.”

Sometimes Knicks teammate Malik Rose would ask him mid-game: “What are you watching? Basketball’s like a boat. You don’t wanna rock the boat. You gotta watch the currents, figure out what’s needed in the front, the back.” Robinson would smile: “Shit, I see Vince Carter windmilling!”

“I was a kid in a candy store looking at all the pieces of candy that was ever made,” Robinson says now. “You gotta imagine what that’s like. ‘Oh my God, Now and Laters! Snickers! Oh shit, it’s Kobe Bryant!' … I was just a kid.”

But he was determined and scrappy and eager to prove his worth.

In his rookie season with the Knicks, the 76ers were warming up in Madison Square Garden when Iverson walked by him. Robinson grinned like he just found $20 in his pocket.

“I’m about to lock him up, bro! I’m gonna bust his ass!” Robinson told Rose, squealing. Robinson dropped 17 and nailed the game-winning three over his hero in overtime.

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This type of never-back-down mentality won over a number of teammates throughout his career.

“He’d go to war for you. He’d go through a brick wall for you,” says Carlos Boozer, former Chicago teammate and close friend.

He’d jump and clap and scream when his teammates scored. He’d bake them cupcakes and bring his mother, Renee Busch’s, delicious spaghetti (he says she put her soul into it). If there were nine conversations going on the team bus, Robinson would be at the center of four, living up to his mother’s childhood nickname for him: Play-thaniel.

“How can you not love him? He’s small, he’s funny, and he’s good,” Rose says. “Everyone loved Nate.”

Not everyone. 

Robinson didn’t know who he was anymore. He blinked, staring at his reflection in a bathroom mirror. “What are you doing here?” he asked himself out loud, waiting for an answer. He had walked out of his therapy session, confused as to why he was there.

He had always been sure of himself up to that point. He was Nate the Great (his father, Jacque, called him that). Short Lord (Kevin Garnett called him that). But coaches kept telling him he needed to change, and he didn’t understand how to do that. He felt lost. Confused. Profoundly sad. He felt so weighed down he didn’t tell his teammates and friends that he had been going to therapy at first. Not even his close friend Boozer.

This was during the 2012-13 season, when he carried Chicago to a triple-overtime Game 4 victory against Brooklyn. He was miraculous in the open floor, scoring 34 points off the bench, including 23 in the fourth, one shy of Jordan’s franchise playoff record. Robinson fantasized about retiring in Chicago, but he says tensions with coach Tom Thibodeau escalated privately, as Robinson’s focus and maturity were once again issues. (Thibodeau did not respond to attempts through Timberwolves PR to reach him about this statement.)

Robinson’s sadness deepened. The devil and the angel hounded from within.

“The NBA gave me my depression,” Robinson says. “I’ve never been a depressed person in my life.”

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The solution seemed easy to others: just be quiet. Just be serious. Stop distracting teammates. There’s a time and place for fun and jokes. But Nate was convinced Nate the Player and Nate the Personality were inseparable; their link necessary, even, for him to play at a high level. “That’s his gift and his curse,” says Hyppa.

While in therapy, Robinson questioned himself and God. He wondered if he should have pursued football instead. He opened up about struggles few knew about, like the time, he said, Brown allegedly referred to him daily as “the little shit.” On another occasion, Robinson came into Brown’s office, crying, telling his coach to stop demeaning him. Ten minutes later, in front of the team, Brown called Robinson “the little shit” again and shared that he had cried.

(When asked about the nature of these interactions, Brown said: "I don't have any recollection. I don't, I don't know … I don't know what I called him, to be honest with you. If I did that, shame on me. I would feel terrible about that. That's not who I am, but I don't want to dispute Nate.”)

In therapy, Nate was trying to figure out what he was doing wrong. “I was trying to change,” Robinson says. “Nobody would ever know the real struggles that I had to fight to try to be somebody that I wasn’t. … That was the hardest thing in my career. Not basketball, not working out. Not my children.

“But the hardest thing in my whole life, of my 34 years in existence on earth, was dealing with 11 years in the NBA of trying to be somebody that [NBA coaches] want me to be.”

After talking it out in therapy, Nate tried to shift his habits. With the Celtics, Robinson followed the advice of his teammate, Ray Allen, who recommended a disciplined routine of self-maintenance and reflection. The two would run three miles together before practice, and Robinson began keeping a journal. That helped him get his feelings out and reflect on his shortcomings.

The regimen continued when Robinson went to the Bulls. On team trips, he began sitting at the front of the plane so he couldn’t be tempted to crack jokes. He’d show up an hour early to meetings. He’d stay an hour after practice to get up shots. “He wanted people to know he was dependable. He was trying to grow as a man,” Boozer says. “He always came prepared.”

But Robinson bounced to three more teams, including the injury-ridden Pelicans. “He tried like crazy to do everything we asked him to do,” Gentry says.

Now he finds himself on the outside looking in. Again. With something to prove. Maybe his introspection will pay off. Maybe it won’t. Maybe he will change enough to alter his course. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he is right on time, or maybe he is out of time. “He has to change [his personality] a little bit,” says former Sonic Gary Payton, a close friend of Robinson’s. “You don’t have to change for people all the way, but you have to change if you want to be in the situation because that’s just the rules in this world.”

Robinson says current NBA players, though, are held to different standards. He says they’re celebrated for things he would have been criticized for, like Lonzo Ball rapping and dancing and Boban Marjanovic riding around Staples Center in a go-kart. He says players are lauded for playing Fortnite, though he was called unfocused because he stayed up playing Madden until 2 a.m.

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“In my room!” he exclaims. “Ask people, was I late the next morning, though? Ask them, was I not ready to play the next day?”

He swears he’d still be in the league if he were 6’5”.

And he believes he can still outplay elite guards, having played in Israel and Venezuela the last two years. “I played 19 minutes, had 18 points; name somebody on a team that can do that. I’ll wait,” he says. “There’s not one person in the NBA right now that can come off the bench and do what I do. Everybody else that can do that are starters: Kemba Walker, John Wall, and I gave all them work. Chris Paul, him too. Steph Curry, you too. Kyrie Irving, you too. Isaiah Thomas, you too.”

Robinson says sometimes he visualizes himself running up the court with a throng of naysayers pulling the tail of his jersey. He leaps toward the basket, but the weight of the crowd still threatens to pull him to the ground.

But the hardest part is recognizing he also pulled himself down. And he might be the only one who can lift himself back up.

“I live by Peter Pan,” he says. “You can’t fly without happy thoughts. If you are going to continue to be left in the dumps, you will never be able to fly.

“You have the right to change your life if you don’t like it.”

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The life Robinson lives now is much different. He was in Seattle mostly during the summer offseasons, when it’s sunnier than the usual Seattle gloom. Now that he’s not in the league, he can be here with his sons—Nahmier, (13) Nyale (11) and Nasir (2)—and daughter, Nayvi (8), through the mostly rainy months. And he loves it.

Sometimes he visits his daughter at recess and brings her favorite: chicken nuggets and tater tots. Then the two hoop. Other times he drives his kids to Portland just to go to Voodoo Doughnut for the Fruity Pebble and Cap’n Crunch doughnuts. “You bring that pink box home? Man, their eyes light up,” he says.

He attends his son’s AAU games and brings them to his 6 a.m. workouts to teach them work ethic, like his parents taught him. His mother hustled three jobs and still works as a custodian. His father, who played football at the University of Washington and won Orange Bowl and Rose Bowl MVPs, made him run sprints right after his games. Young Robinson could barely breathe, drenched in sweat, but he couldn’t make excuses.

“Nate pushes his kids to the max,” says Roy Hunter, his good friend. “He’s very passionate about making sure they’re on track.”

Once, when his son Nahmier was 45 minutes late to football practice, Robinson made him (and Nyale) run on the track in front of all the parents and kids for the duration of practice. If they got tired, he told his sons they could jog, but they could not walk, and they definitely could not stop. By the end, little Nyale was huffing, crying, barely able to stand up. But he and his brother both finished. They straightened their backs as they looked their father in the eye afterward.

“You can’t let your coaches or your teammates down,” Robinson told his sons. “They’re devoted to you, and you have to be devoted to them.” 

Players plotting a comeback are often said to be “waiting.” Waiting for that next call. Waiting for that next camp invite. Waiting for that next 10-day contract. But no bone in Robinson’s body could wait. If he couldn’t hoop in America, he’d hoop in Venezuela.

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He was on alert at all times last season while helping Guaros de Lara to a 2017 Liga Profesional de Baloncesto championship. Violence and death marred the streets as people protested against the government of President Nicolas Maduro. Food was scarce. Sometimes the team couldn’t practice.

Games were physical, too. “People were fouling me, tripping me. One dude would hit me in the nuts, try to dig his hands in my ass,” Robinson says. “They’d do anything, anything, to get me out the game.”

Once, on an open fast break with no defenders in sight, Robinson was surprised when a player on the opposing team rose from the bench and ran onto the hardwood to stop the break. Yes, a sixth player jumped in. He caught Robinson from behind. SMACK! Robinson fell.

His first instinct was to fight back. “Bro, it would be fisticuffs back in America!” But he paused and thought, God is testing my maturity. If he reacted, authorities could seize his passport. He might not make it home to his kids. He probably wouldn’t get a second crack at the NBA.

Instead, he did what he has always done: score, fly, agitate, dazzle. He dropped 20.

“Dr. Seuss, he says: ‘You gotta be you. There’s nobody youer than you.’ Trust me. I love that: ‘There’s nobody youer than you.’ Why be anybody else?” Robinson says. “That’s how I live. That’s how I play my game. I’m gonna be me. I don’t know how to play and be anybody else other than Nate Robinson.”


Howard Beck contributed reporting. 

Mirin Fader is a Writer-At-Large for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.comSI.com, SLAM Magazine and SBNation.com. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.