With All-Star weekend fast approaching—game rosters were announced two days ago and the Saturday night festivities are just three weeks from today—we decided it would only be right to prepare for the Slam Dunk Contest by running some old SLAM features. So, over the next few weeks, we’ll run pieces on all five possible contestants. And what better way to kick it off then with this Lang-assisted first person account by two-time champ Nate Robinson from Streetball 5? Enjoy, and stay tuned for more as we help get you ready…
words Nate Robinson (as told to Lang Whitaker) Images Atiba Jefferson
There were just a few days left in the ’05-06 season when we got the call: Nate Robinson was playing pick-up ball over at The Cage on West 4th St. in Manhattan. Once the shock of hearing that an NBA player was playing streetball during the NBA season had worn off, it actually made sense. After all, Nate had arguably been the Knicks most exciting player all season, the 5-9 scorer who’d repeatedly electrified the Garden and won the Dunk Contest over All-Star Weekend. And if there was any current NBA player with a game suited for streetball, it had to be Nate.
This season, he averaged 10.1 points per game in about 20 minutes per night. But his true impact was probably better measured in things unrecorded: Garden fans chanting his name; his teammates pulling pranks on him in the locker room; his indefatigable belief in his own abilities.
A few days after this season ended, Nate was back at it, catching a pick-up game at Chelsea Piers in NYC with DJ Clue. And the next day, Nate rolled out to Red Hook, Brooklyn, for the SLAM presents Streetball cover shoot. He started out easy, but within an hour, he was throwing down dunks and trying to touch the sky. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from watching Nate Robinson over the last two seasons, it’s that you should never tell him there’s something he can’t do. Because he’ll take that challenge eight days a week.—LW
I started playing basketball in the fifth grade. I went to Rainier View Elementary in Seattle with Brandon Roy. Me and him were the best in our class, and we used to play kids two-on-five at recess. B-Roy was taller than everybody and I was regular height. We used to always beat them dudes. Then me and him played on the same league team and my dad was the coach. Me and B-Roy and a guy named Earl Knight, who was real big in Seattle at the time, we all played together and beat everybody, then all went separate ways—B-Roy went to play for The Click and I went to play for Seattle Blue.
Me and my friends, we would play outside, and then my mom and my dad put their money together and bought me and my brother a hoop so we could play outside my house. Every summer I would go to Oakland and play with my cousins—Pashen Bagsby, Charles Head, Jerome, Wade, all of ’em—we’d go to a park called Bushrod, where I grew up in North Oakland. That was where we played outside and that’s where I got my game at. My cousin Pashen, she taught me the game. That’s right, a girl taught me how to play ball. She used to wake up every morning at 6 a.m. and go ball, and I’d go out and play with her. She’d be outside doing drills, and I used to wake up and go with her. I was like, Yo, this is unbelievable, a girl working this hard. I’d go with her every summer to play ball and then she’d go play in her leagues and then we’d go to Mosswood, which is another popular park out there. We used to play for money. Everybody would put $5 in the hat and we’d play for that. We’d play to 16 and whoever made 8 first, we’d switch ends—it was almost like halftime. So that’s where I got my outside game from, playing with her in Oakland.
In Seattle we used to play outside at South Shore, which was across from my high school, Rainier Beach. And we played outside at Rainier Community Center, right down the street from my mom’s house. The great thing about it was we had these full-court dunkable baskets at this one park—they were maybe eight feet high. We used to go down there and play full-court dunkables and pretend we were in the NBA. I was always Iverson, Baron Davis or Steve Francis, which is kind of funny now that I’m playing with Steve on the Knicks. My little brother would be Stephon Marbury, a couple of guys would be Kobe. We had all the replica jerseys and everything. That used to be so much fun.
My dad [Jacque Robinson] was a running back at the University of Washington. He was the first person to win the Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl MVP, and nobody’s broke that record yet. My dad’s the only dad in the world to have that record. He used to put a football and basketball in my hands and he used to always tell me, “Always expect the greatest things out of yourself.” He used to call me Nate the Great and tell me that he knew I was going to be great. Every time I touched the football I didn’t think about getting yards, I just wanted to score, because that’s where my money was. When I was in little league, my dad used to be like, I’ll give you $10 a touchdown. And $10 was a lot of money back then. I used to try and score as many touchdowns as I could. I think the most I ever scored in a game was seven. And then in basketball he would put the ball in my hands, and my team, we wasn’t all great, but for some reason I could score, I was fast and I could shoot, so my dad said, “We need you to score for us to have a chance to win.” I was 12 years old, scoring 48, 43, just a lot of points, so that’s what I’m used to. I’d get guys involved and do everything, but first nature to me was putting the ball in the hole. My dad used to tell me that my left hand had to be just as good as my right, so I was always practicing with my left. My dad gave me my swag, because when I was 12 we used to play one-on-one and he would always beat me. He’d say, You’ll never be able to beat me. I used to follow everything he used to do. So he taught me the ropes and he polished my game, and he gave me the confidence to believe in myself.
If you had seen me play football, you’d probably be wondering, Why didn’t you keep playing football? Little league, I used to score like four touchdowns a game. It was crazy. It was fun for me, it was a challenge. In high school all my friends from little league football played together. My little brother, Anthony Stewart, he played with me. His nickname is Chicken, so Chicken played with me, and my other adopted brother Fred, he played with me. So we all played together and we all lived in the same house, and it was fun suiting up and going out to practice. I used to play cornerback, quarterback, handle punt and kick returns, and kick field goals. Yeah, I was the field goal kicker in high school—the longest I made was probably a 30-yarder.
I played basketball and football at the University of Washington, but I ended up choosing basketball because basketball is more of a challenge to me. I love basketball. I can go work out by myself, hit the gym by myself. Football’s harder because you need another person to work with. Football came easy for me. Not to be big-headed or cocky, but it just came so easy for me. I watched guys like Deion Sanders who had a swag, who knew that he was the best. He was like, If you kick it to me, it’s going to the house. If you throw it my way, I’m going to get an interception.
I approach basketball the same way: I know what I can do. There’s always going to be a guy in your way, so just go ahead and take it to him. You’ve got to be an assassin. That’s what I’m working on this year, just straight attacking, trying to do the right things. Learning how to make decisions at 100-percent, full-speed, all day, every day.
Basketball is my life, man. I love basketball to the point where you can’t really describe it with words, how much love it is. It’s me, it’s who I am. That’s what I bleed—if I cut myself, basketballs would probably come out. Some people do other things that make them happy, they go on vacations or whatever. I love playing basketball. If I’m in the gym, it’s my sanctuary. I take my son when I go shoot at the Knicks facility and I take his little hoop. He runs around and shoots and I shoot on the regular goal. That’s the great thing about basketball is that you can go to a gym, go outside on a beautiful day like today, and you can just play. I’ve been outside and guys will be like, Is that Nate Robinson out here? And they’ll be like, Nah, that’s not him. And I’m playing and they’re getting to know me, the person, off the court. That’s the greatest thing about playing streetball, just going out to a random park.
When I do go play at a random park, dudes definitely come at me extra hard. And I tell them, Don’t take it easy, go back and say, I did this on Nate Robinson, blah blah blah. It’s fun because I was in the same predicament as a kid growing up. I used to go to the park and play with all these guys. I remember I used to talk so much to Gary Payton, because him and Vin Baker sponsored our AAU team. I told Aaron Goodwin when I was in eighth grade that he was going to be my agent one day. It happened. I told Gary Payton, I’m gonna be playing against you in the League one day. And GP brushed me off, like, Whatever. But that happened, too. I looked up to him and Shawn Kemp. It’s cool coming from Seattle being the type of player that I am and the person that I am, with the friends that I have and my clique, Section 8.
I’ve been in the NBA for two seasons now, and it’s been crazy, but it’s been fun. Sometimes it gets overwhelming, because I still see myself as a regular person. Deep down inside, I’m just me. Some guys in the NBA probably wouldn’t do what I do. Like, I’ll go to Times Square and eat at the ESPN Zone, or I’ll go to this little pizza stand around there, and I gave the guy who works there tickets to a game once because he’d never been to a Knicks game. So I just go do little things, meet new people, make new friends. I told myself if I could play in the NBA and live anywhere, it would be New York City. And I got my wish.
My relationship with Isiah is similar to my relationship with my father, because he thinks of me the same way. That’s why Isiah’s so hard on me, and I tell him, Don’t change, keep being hard on me, because you’re going to bring the best out of me. It’s been great to go from a great father to a great coach who’s also like a father to me.
I’ve taken some criticism from people for trying to be too flashy on the court. When I’m playing basketball, it’s like I got a little devil on one shoulder and a little angel on one shoulder, and the devil’s like, “Go ahead and bounce it and throw it off the glass!” And the angel’s like, “Now, Nate, you know if you do this…” That’s how it is sometimes. Like Kobe said, it’s like Babe Ruth: You swing big. You might miss, but if you hit it, it’s going to be a home run. So you can’t hold back, man. Anything can happen. I can’t just sit here and say that I don’t see myself doing something crazy again. Those plays are in me and that makes me who I am. I love to try different things, things a guy 5-9 would never do. Guys like Spud Webb, they’d never bounce it off the glass to themselves during a game.
This is the way God intended me to play basketball. God blessed me with the charisma and talent and character that I have, and it’s hard to change the way I play because it’s first nature to me. When I play, I’m in a zone. I’m happy, because I don’t have to worry about nothing else in the world. It’s like a light comes on—I love to have fun, love to entertain the crowd, love to play hard, love to win. So when all that comes out, I guess it’s just a happy-go-lucky Nate. I just focus on trying to win the game and trying to make history, to do something spectacular so people will be talking about it forever. That’s what I try to do.
I did start focusing more on my midrange game the last 15 games of the season, and Isiah said I needed to do more of it. I see myself as being a great shooter because I work on it every day. I can score, I can shoot the ball real good. So in my head I’m like, Why should I go for a two when I could go for a three? You know what I mean? It can kind of bite you in the butt some times, but at the same time if you make three or four three-pointers, I mean…I’m trying to get in the Three-Point Contest next year, so hopefully that will happen. Would I do the Dunk Contest and Three-Point Contest on the same night? Yeah, heck yeah. Why not? And the Skills Challenge. I’d do it all, be the first guy to try and win all three. You feel me?
Next year there’s going to be more to come, more highlights and more fun things. Knocking down jumpers, getting guys the ball, adding the midrange. You’re going to see a whole, complete Nate Robinson, and I hope it’s going to be my breakout year. Hopefully everything goes right and I can stay injury free, but mostly I want to have fun. However it comes, whatever happens next season is meant to happen. God has it written in the book and that’s what I go by in life.