ISSAQUAH – It’s crazy to think Nate Robinson is 30 now. The memories of his athletic exploits remain so fresh, so personal.
Most every Seattle sports fan has a favorite Nate moment, and they remember it in such vivid detail that you feel like you were there. In some tales, he sounds like he’s from another planet, a 5-foot-9 athlete who can jump cloud high, run cheetah fast and compete with mountain-man toughness.
He’s catching a lob from Curtis Allen against Arizona to re-energize Washington basketball. He’s intercepting a pass over 6-foot-6 Washington State wide receiver Mike Bush and later explaining, “Maybe he didn’t know I could jump.” He’s at Rainier Beach High School breaking the state record in the 110-meter hurdles, or returning a kickoff for a touchdown during an upset of O’Dea, or leaping over a center for a tip-dunk.
Some of Robinson’s highlights date back 13 years, but they seem timeless, just as Robinson seems like he’s from another time, a specimen from the future.
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But he’s 30 now, considered by many the true age of adulthood. He’s a proud father of three children: Nahmier (9), Ny’ale (7) and Navyi (4). He’s a nine-year NBA veteran who has earned $22.4 million.
Robinson, one of the best all-around athletes in Washington state history, celebrated his 30th birthday on May 31 by flying family and friends to Los Angeles, renting a house and hosting a party with guests such as rappers Drake, The Game and Fabolous and R&B stars Ne-Yo and Brandy.
“I really don’t do the party thing, but you’ve got to throw a party for your Dirty 30,” Robinson said, smiling.
For all he’s accomplished, Robinson is still a big kid. You can’t steal his childlike enthusiasm. Some have tried. Many have mistaken his playfulness for harmful, frivolous conduct. It has led to a transient time in the NBA, with Robinson playing for six teams in nine years, including five teams in the past six seasons. But Robinson refuses to change.
“I’m just having fun,” Robinson said. “I’ve never let them control who I am. I’m going to be me, regardless of anything. If they don’t like it, they don’t like it.”
If you take the time to understand what’s behind the behavior — a genuine family man, a fierce competitor, a caring teammate, and, yes, a winner — you realize why Robinson has had a remarkable nine-year career in what he still considers his second-best sport.
Robinson has written a book with author Jon Finkel about his career. “Heart Over Height” is an honest, reflective tale of the first phase of Robinson’s athletic life. But he’s not finished yet.
“I feel young,” Robinson said. “I still feel like I’m 21 years old. That’s the good thing.”
Dirty 30 carries significance. Little Nate, the wunderkind, the son of former Huskies star running back Jacque Robinson, is officially a man. But one thing’s certain: He’ll continue to be an adult his own way.
He’ll be his own man.
Robinson stars on one healthy leg, for now. He walks into an Issaquah physical therapy center on an early Friday morning and immediately changes the energy in the room.
He jokes with the entire staff. As a therapist prepares his surgically repaired left knee for a rigorous 90-minute session, Robinson speaks in his typical, rapid-fire fashion. He’s amid a conversation about loving “Brooke and Jubal in the Morning” on Movin’ 92.5 FM. Then he’s telling funny stories about his children. In spirit, he’s bouncing around as if on a basketball court.
You almost forget that Robinson is attempting to overcome the greatest physical challenge of his sports career. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Jan. 29, and for the past five months, the intense, high-flying NBA guard hasn’t been able to compete against anyone other than himself.
But don’t feel sorry for Robinson. He’ll turn that pity into laughter.
“I’m just having fun, man,” said Robinson, the former Rainier Beach High School and University of Washington star. “The rehab is hard enough, especially the mental part. It’s a grind, but why make it out to be even harder than what it is? Why take it too seriously? I don’t live my life like that. My trainers do a great job. How I look at it, it’s like a slingshot. They’re just pulling me back, getting me ready for when it’s time to fly. That time will come.
“And when it does, it’s going to be fun.”
The injury has given Robinson an opportunity to assess his career. The 2005 first-round NBA draft pick has averaged 11.4 points and 3.0 assists over nine seasons. He’s the only three-time dunk champion in league history. Not bad for a football player.
Robinson has only focused on basketball for 11 years. He came to the University of Washington as a football star who “played basketball for fun,” he said. But he left football after his freshman season and devoted himself full time to hoops.
“Nobody really doubted me playing football, making it to the NFL,” Robinson said. “I was like, ‘I know I can do that.’ In my mind, I wanted to know, for sure, for myself, that I could play in the NBA. And so I decided to stop playing football. When Washington fired coach (Rick) Neuheisel (in June 2003), it made my decision easier. I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to go play basketball and see where this carries me and how far this takes me. If it doesn’t work, I can always go back to playing football.’ ”
It’s a decision that’s easy to gloss over 11 years later, but Washington men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar is still amazed. He challenges everyone to think back to 2003, remember how crazy the choice seemed and view Robinson’s basketball success from that angle.
“It’s incredible,” Romar said. “There were a small, select few who thought he would be where he is now. The criticism for him leaving football was heavy. It was, ‘You’re crazy. You’re not going to have a life after college in basketball.’ Very few thought he would make it. He’s had a phenomenal career. And he would tell you, ‘I’m not done yet.’ ”
Rainier Beach boys basketball coach Mike Bethea is impressed with how much his former player has grown.
“He’s matured,” Bethea said. “He’s still the same ol’ Nate, but he’s a family man. This young man is all about his kids. Early on in his career, he was just like any typical NBA guy.”
For those who truly know Robinson, the transformation has been impressive. He has grown from a free spirit on the court to a player who doesn’t mind playing point guard. He can be the lead guard on a playoff team, as he showed during his remarkable 2012-2013 season in Chicago. He can also handle it when people like former New York Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni bench him for his silliness. D’Antoni once sat Robinson for 14 straight games during the 2009-10 season because he didn’t think Robinson took the game seriously. Then, on Jan. 1, 2010, D’Antoni put him in a game against the Atlanta Hawks. Robinson wound up scoring 41 points in 38 minutes.
As impressive as the scoring outburst was, the reason for it explains Robinson the best. Instead of moping about being in the doghouse, Robinson took it as a challenge to show professionalism. He kept himself ready for the opportunity.
“I decided I’m not going to give up,” Robinson said. “I’m not going to let him win. I’m going to go out of my way to say good morning to him every day. I’m going to be here before everybody. I’m going to stay late. I’m going to work out before the game. I’m going to bust my butt. I’m just going to stay ready. He’s going to need me. When he calls my number, I’m going to be ready, and it’s going to be just like I never left.”
Romar went through a feeling-out process with Robinson. He remembers realizing that, to get the best of Robinson, you have to let him play to the brink of recklessness.
“When Nate is almost completely out of control, he’s at his best,” Romar said. “When he’s at his highest level of risk, he’s at his best. That’s when the highlights come. That’s when he fills the arena with his energy.”
Robinson doesn’t see that changing when he returns from injury. The Denver Nuggets will get back a motivated player who still has some prime years left.
“Something is going to happen, and it’s magical and positive,” Robinson said. “I see that, and I believe it.”
Robinson will never lose his childlike enthusiasm. Nor should he. Look at how far it has taken him.
“The kid in Nate will always be there,” Romar said. “He’ll be 90 years old, and he’ll still be a kid. But you see much more purpose in him now. He has a vision.”
Thirty is the infamous age in which we think athletes slow down. Not Robinson. Perhaps one day, everyone will understand what he’s trying to prove.
Forever young can be a good thing.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277