Nate Robinson, Little King

How an effervescent “small guy from Seattle” became basketball royalty in the Big Apple.

On a Monday afternoon in mid-March, the New York Knicks had scheduled a photo op for Nate Robinson, the team’s pint-sized guard who has steadily become its brightest star, in front of an 80-foot billboard the team was unveiling to hype Robinson’s February victory in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Alyson Furch, a Knicks PR official, directed the crowd, parrying reporters’ requests for interviews with Robinson while tapping away on a BlackBerry and periodically announcing “Nate’s e.t.a.” The media scrum tensely awaiting Robinson signaled that the 24-year-old Seattle native had become a legitimate celebrity on the world’s biggest stage.

A few TV cameramen sprinted down the street. What just happened? Did they have lookouts? Was Robinson there? A handful of photojournalists followed them, then returned to the pack. False alarm—Mötley Crüe was taping an interview in the studios of Fuse, a cable network owned by Cablevision, the Knicks’ parent company. The Crüe, who attracted their own, smaller media sideshow, had left through a side door, and reporters dashed off to catch them. This explained the crowd of balding, 40-something men holding 12″ LPs of Mötley Crüe’s Theatre of Pain, who until now had seemed to be waiting in the street to see Nate Robinson.

Furch received a call saying Robinson was close, so the reporters decamped to the corner outside Macy’s department store. Robinson would be dropped off on 33rd Street and walk one block to meet the crowd and pose in front of his billboard. Ten minutes passed, and suddenly Robinson was standing on the corner. Would New Yorkers, famous for their indifference to celebrities, pay him any mind?

“Nate Robinson!” called a voice from inside a McDonald’s. Another guy backpedaled in front of Robinson, snapping cell-phone pictures. Robinson hardly noticed the attention because he was looking across the street for his mother, Renee Busch, who had flown in from Seattle to witness her son’s newfound stardom. “Mom!” Robinson yelled, and pointed to the northeast corner of 34th Street and Seventh Avenue, where the cameras were waiting.

At the light, Robinson stood next to a heavyset teenage girl whose jaw dropped upon seeing him. “That’s my boo right there,” she said emphatically. A chorus of Caribbean men around the corner spotted him and shouted in near unison, “Robinson! Turn around, boy!”

When he reached the cameras, the crowd swelled to more than 100 onlookers. Shutters clicked madly. A sidewalk evangelist stood behind Robinson, proselytizing while waving her Bible: “Thank you, Jesus! God bless you!” A Knicks employee tried to convince Robinson to climb a streetlight for the cameras, but Robinson demurred. After two minutes, Knicks officials whisked him down the street and into Madison Square Garden.

The crowd dissolved while a few stragglers stared at Robinson’s 80-foot likeness. “Dude is the truth,” said one of the last onlookers.

The billboard shows Robinson dressed in the green Knicks uniform and the kryptonite-green Nikes he wore at the NBA slam-dunk contest, where Robinson defeated Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard, the league’s reigning dunk champion and self-styled “Superman.” The billboard pays homage to Robinson’s winning dunk, with his feet splayed wide, a basketball cocked in his right hand, and his mouth a gaping “O.”

In the contest, Robinson struck this pose to jump over the 6’11” Howard. On the billboard, the phrase “LEAPS TALL CENTERS” is between Robinson’s legs instead of Howard’s massive frame. There’s a hint of surprise in Robinson’s eyes, as if the camera had caught him at the moment he cleared Howard and saw the rim approaching. The look says “Am I really doing this? Am I really on this billboard, looming over midtown Manhattan?”

The billboard pays tribute to the unbridled joy of playing basketball. That sense of fun, even more than Robinson’s mammoth vertical leap, is the hallmark of his game. On the court, Robinson never stops yapping, laughing, or gunning. He attempts nearly impossible moves to feel the freedom and sheer pleasure of hanging, twisting, and contorting to make a shot—or just to see if he can pull them off. Often it turns out he can, but even when Robinson crashes to the ground and loses the ball, he peels himself off the floor and hustles back into the play with a stifled grin. At least he tried.

“Some people get caught up in making this a job and not fun,” explains Robinson. “I feel like every time I play basketball I’m just floating. Different guys, they let the fun get away. It’s like Peter Pan—if you lose the fun, you can’t fly. I will never lose my joy, so I will always be able to fly.”

Robinson describes himself as a “small guy from Seattle,” and factually there’s nothing wrong with that statement. Standing 5’9″ in shoes, he’s nearly a foot shorter than the average NBA player, and he grew up down the street from Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School, where he played as a teenager. But Robinson’s self-description is a bit like Barack Obama calling himself a “skinny guy from Hawaii”—those four words leave out some marquee facts.

In Robinson’s case, the glaring omissions start with his athletic gifts. His vertical leap is nearly four feet high. Combined with his uncanny musculature—up close, the bulging knots in Robinson’s forearms and biceps appear to stretch his skin to the point of bursting—he seems to be part grasshopper, part pit bull, and part man.

Robinson may always have been a breathtaking dunker and scorer, but until this season, his fourth in the NBA since leaving the University of Washington in 2005, the attention he received tended to be negative. Robinson joined the Knicks during one of the worst three-year stretches in the franchise’s history. The team’s .320 winning percentage between 2005 and 2008 doesn’t convey the depths to which the Knicks sunk in a period marred by former coach and general manager Isiah Thomas’ sexual-harassment trial; a near-brawl with the Denver Nuggets in 2006 that earned players on both teams, Robinson included, lengthy suspensions; and a running feud between guard Stephon Marbury and the entire Knicks organization. The team became a symbol of all that was wrong with the NBA, and Robinson, its tiny, hot-dogging reserve who tried to throw alley-oops to himself off the backboard and found outlandish new ways to celebrate every time he scored, was the rodeo clown whose antics stoked the ire of fed-up fans and incredulous writers.

Michael Wilbon, the Washington Post columnist and ESPN host, called Robinson a “troublemaking little fool” for his role as hype man in the Knicks-Nuggets rumble. And before this season, many Knicks fans disliked Robinson, according to Mike Kurylo, who runs the Web site “Early on in Nate’s career, a lot of people hated him,” Kurylo says. “When you’re a 20-minute-per-game guy and you’re showboating, people are like, ‘Whatever.'”

But when Mike D’Antoni arrived to coach the Knicks for the 2008-2009 season, he brought a free-flowing offense that encouraged players to look for easy baskets and quick, open three-pointers. And Robinson, with D’Antoni’s blessing, has received the playing time to put his freakish talent to good use. For the most part, Robinson hasn’t let D’Antoni down: He’s the Knicks’ second-leading scorer, averaging 18 points per game, and a candidate for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Furthermore, he’s established himself as an elite streak scorer, a player so quick and strong that no defender can stay in front of him, and one whose combination of hang time, body control, and shooting touch allows him to drive into a thicket of 7-footers and finish.

But Robinson’s behavior hasn’t changed. When he’s hot, he becomes a gallery of tacky celebrations, from crotch-grabbing to jersey-popping to kissing his flexed bicep. Now that he’s playing well, however, what in past seasons was considered tasteless chest-thumping now qualifies as infectious joie de vivre.

And, like an NBA version of the famous Scarface maxim: First Nate had the hops, then Nate got the minutes, now Nate gets the fame. Since February’s dunk contest—when Robinson threw on a green Knicks jersey and lime-green Nikes, called himself KryptoNate, and dethroned Howard—Robinson has been one of the NBA’s hottest players. His jersey is among the league’s best sellers, ranked just behind those of worldwide stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. In February, the buzz around Robinson earned him an invitation to The Late Show with David Letterman, where he re-enacted his KryptoNate dunk over stage manager Biff Henderson. In the third week of March, with the unveiling of Robinson’s billboard, Nike’s release of his lime-green KryptoNate sneakers, and the Knicks’ playoff chances looking bright, Robinson’s moment seemed to have arrived.

Whenever he plays, Robinson looks like he’s having twice as much fun as everyone else. On February 23, in a game against the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden, the enjoyment factor grew exponentially because his favorite actor, Will Ferrell, sat courtside.

Robinson is no casual Ferrell fan. He has mastered the actor’s oeuvre, and cites early duds like Superstar with the same enthusiasm as he does later classics like Anchorman. He can perform entire scenes from Step Brothers, but, as Robinson says in reference to Ferrell’s character in Talladega Nights, “that Ricky Bobby really put me over the edge. Every time I saw him, all I could think about is every character that he’s been. I know almost every line like I rehearsed the movie with him.” In fact, Robinson has internalized Ferrell’s NASCAR spoof to the point that he ends post-game interviews with “shake ‘n’ bake”—Ricky Bobby’s signature phrase.

Robinson played one of the best games of his career in front of Ferrell, scoring 41 points in a 123-119 win, and engaged his idol in the most memorable player-celebrity high jinks the Garden has seen since Reggie Miller and Spike Lee’s rancorous feud in the 1994 playoffs. After burying a three-pointer while being knocked down by Pacer Stephen Graham, Robinson bounced to his feet and walked to Ferrell for a fist bump, then drilled a free throw to complete the play. Later in the quarter, after draining a three from the corner, Robinson sprinted up the sideline for another hand slap with Ferrell before finding his man on defense. After the win, as a token of his appreciation, Robinson handed Ferrell the autographed green jersey he’d worn during the dunk contest.

Weeks after Ferrell’s visit, Robinson was still giddy. “That game, I knew I gotta play probably my best game of my NBA career,” he told me. “I got a picture on my phone— my screen saver—of me and him shaking and baking. That was like my ultimate highlight since I’ve been in the NBA.”

This total lack of self-consciousness—Robinson’s comfort level in his own silly skin—might be his most endearing trait, and it’s finally winning over fans and critics. “After 10 years of losing, it’s nice to have a guy who enjoys himself on the court,” says Seth Rosenthal, a Skidmore College student who runs the Knicks blog Posting and Toasting, which takes its name from a phrase used by Walt Frazier, the former Knicks great who’s now a television analyst for the team.

Frazier, who calls games like he’s holding a thesaurus in one hand and a rhyming dictionary in the other, seems inspired to new heights of grandiloquence by Robinson’s diminutive stature and electrifying play. “Walt’s favorite word is ‘Lilliputian,'” Rosenthal says, “and it’s pretty much reserved for Nate.” Even Wilbon, a long-time Robinson critic, changed his tune after the Ferrell game. “It’s getting harder for me to get annoyed by Nate Robinson when he keeps doing charming things,” Wilbon said the following day on ESPN.

It’s no wonder that Robinson, with his pranks, posturing, and ear-to-ear smile, feels a kinship with Ferrell, a comedian famous for portraying mischievous man-children with big hearts. In fact, it’s hard to watch Robinson without thinking of him as a 12-year-old trapped in the body of a professional athlete. When a video surfaced on YouTube of Robinson sliding from side to side during a pregame dance routine, it looked like a hip-hop remix of the scene in Big when Tom Hanks dances “Chopsticks” on the piano at FAO Schwarz. (Robinson’s ability to inspire 1980s movie references is also without parallel. To watch him take over a game—a little guy dunking and raining three-pointers like a man possessed—is like witnessing a real-life re-enactment of the game scenes from Teen Wolf). Knicks forward Quentin Richardson, recalling the time Robinson almost missed a flight because he was buying Ex-Lax to spike the milk in teammate Eddy Curry’s cereal, called Robinson the little brother he never had. “Sometimes you’ll be ready to wring his throat,” Richardson added, “and the next second he’ll have you cracking up laughing.”

Robinson says he inherited his energy from his mother, who still lives in Seattle. “She hates dull moments,” he says. “She’s always gotta be moving, always gotta be doing something, so I think I get it from her.”

At the billboard unveiling and sneaker release, Renee Busch was next to Robinson, wearing a pink two-piece sweatsuit, a Bluetooth earpiece, and a massive, cheesy grin. After she left New York, the Knicks went on a six-game losing streak. Robinson was still putting points on the board, but he shot poorly during the swoon. The Knicks, who were a game and a half out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot before losing to the New Jersey Nets on March 18, were five-and-a-half games back one week later after an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Robinson turned his ankle in that game, and for both the Knicks and their freshly-minted superstar, the season seemed headed for an unhappy ending. The bad news, however, hardly fazed Busch, who embarked upon a two-hour telephonic tour of the Robinson family psyche.

Talking to Busch is like trying to guard Robinson. She skitters from topic to topic faster than any pen or mind could follow. Each new subject is like a change in direction on the court, and her patter is full of stutter-steps, crossovers, and spins. She starts with a story about the Knicks players, who call her “Ma Dukes,” taking her to dinner last September and buying her a table full of mojitos. She believes she and Nate were both blessed with their hands—”It seems like I went pro braiding when he went pro basketball,” she says. (She and her sister own the Seattle salon Braids 4 Dayz, and have plans to open a second shop in Tacoma.)

Backtracking to her son, Busch says it “made my whole year” to see people lined up on 125th Street to buy Robinson’s shoes, which reminded her of how the family used to scrape together money to buy Air Jordans. Next comes a story about the time the 4th-grade Nate convinced his brother, Anthony “Chicken” Stewart, to climb down their chimney when they returned from school one day to find the front door locked.

She circles back to the salon business and the intricacies of negotiating with Asian wholesalers—”You need a front, and she got to be Asian too”—then weaves in a story about a Washington Huskies fan who recognized her on an airplane. Most of all, Ma Dukes is proud of her “little black millionaire,” who doesn’t seem to know how wealthy he is, or, in a contract year, how much richer he’ll be next season. “He holds his hand tight like he only got two dollars in it,” she says.

Rainier Beach coach Mike Bethea first heard about Robinson in a similar stream-of-consciousness marathon with Busch. The two are longtime friends, and Bethea remembers when, in 1996 or 1997, Busch began telling him about her son (by former Husky running back Jacque Robinson), who was 5’5″ in junior high and could dunk volleyballs. “When you heard these stories,” Bethea says, “you didn’t believe anything they were telling you.”

At Robinson’s first practice, he announced to Bethea his intention to guard Jamal Crawford, then one of the best guards in the country, every day in practice. “I looked at Jamal, and Jamal kind of looked at me the same way,” Bethea says. “Like, who is this little bitty guy?” Bethea assented, hoping that Crawford would hand Robinson his “first lesson in humility.”

Indeed, Crawford buried several jumpers in a row over Robinson’s defense. But Robinson’s reaction wasn’t what anyone expected. As Crawford lit him up, Robinson burst out laughing. He was having the time of his life. (Crawford and Robinson would end up reuniting in the NBA as teammates for four years in New York, where Crawford played before being traded earlier this season to the Golden State Warriors.)

By Robinson’s senior year, Bethea had weathered countless pranks—Robinson loved to hide behind the coach’s car in the Rainier Beach parking lot, where he’d jump out of the shadows to shock Bethea—and learned to believe Robinson’s bluster. At the beginning of the 2002 season, Robinson told Bethea: “Hey, coach, you ain’t even got to worry about this state championship.” After a 28-1 season, the Vikings were state champions, and Robinson was the state’s player of the year.

In the second game of Robinson’s collegiate career, University of Washington coach Lorenzo Romar saw the way Robinson could win over a crowd. A two-sport athlete, Robinson joined the team late after football season, and had only been with Romar’s squad for a week when the Huskies played at Santa Clara. It was one of those “slow, grinding” NCAA stalemates in which both teams struggle to score, Romar says. At least it seemed like one of those games—until Romar put Robinson in at the end of the first half.

Before halftime, Robinson came up with a steal and a bucket. The second half started on as flat a note as the first, so Romar summoned Robinson again with about 15 minutes to play. “When the dust settled, we were up 19 and Nate had scored 17 points in the second half,” Romar says. When Robinson walked off the court, the Santa Clara crowd stood and gave him a standing ovation. “I’ve never seen a home crowd honor a visiting player like that,” Romar says.

In Robinson’s three years at UW, he became the “most exciting player in our conference,” says Romar. “Inch for inch, I don’t know if there’s been a better athlete.” At away games, Robinson withstood myriad “Ga-ry Cole-man” chants, often silencing hostile crowds with vicious dunks. By the time Robinson declared for the NBA draft in 2005, Washington fans knew what people all over the world are now learning: If you leave your seat while Robinson is on the court, you might miss something spectacular.

On St. Patrick’s Day in New York, while people lined up at bars to buy pints of green beer, a couple hundred sneaker fanatics lined up outside a Foot Locker in Harlem to buy green shoes. A limited number of Robinson’s KryptoNates were being released that afternoon. The handful of guys at the front of the line had arrived the previous Friday and endured a 96-hour vigil to secure a pair. As an added bonus, Robinson would appear at the store to sign the sneakers.

Foot Locker’s security retinue was a sure sign of Robinson’s growing celebrity: Three towering, thick-necked guards—one Italian, one black, and one Latino, as though they’d been ordered from a United Goons of Benetton catalog—watched the door and patrolled the line. Inside the store, a few Knicks fans who weren’t buying shoes but just wanted to see Robinson waited while a DJ blasted Rihanna and Beyoncé.

Among the crowd was a middle-aged Chinese businessman with a glazed look about him. He wore a dark suit, orange-tinted glasses, and a tamer version of Don King’s Buckwheat hairdo—and seemed to be rooted to a chrome-wheeled Segway. This man was Noel Lee, CEO of the audio-equipment company Monster Cable, who held out a business card with “The Head Monster” printed beside his name. Lee said he’d come to present Robinson with a one-of-a-kind pair of lime-green headphones, and wanted Robinson to wear them because “kids like him.” Lee mumbled something about Dr. Dre, who endorses a line of Monster headphones, then, referring to Robinson, said “It’s all part of that culture.” Check off another celebrity milestone: When out-of-touch CEOs want to use you as a guerrilla marketing tool, you’ve made it.

Just as Robinson pulled up in a two-Escalade convoy, the customers were let in to buy the sneakers. A small stage was set up at the front of the store, where Robinson did a short interview full of boilerplate gratitude, NBA-style: He thanked his teammates, his family, God, Mike D’Antoni, the cities of New York and Seattle, Nike, Dwight Howard, and everyone within a 10-block radius of Foot Locker. The only unscripted moment came when Robinson’s mother snatched the microphone, said “Hi, everybody! Get your shoes!”, then grabbed a stack of KryptoNate posters to give away on the street, where a vendor selling Obama T-shirts and snow globes watched in mild frustration.

Robinson recognized that about half the crowd was more interested in the valuable sneakers (they’ve already sold on eBay for as much as $4,000) than in his appearance. “They was just some sneaker-heads,” Robinson said. He has a point, but there’s also a reason why Nike chose to make Nate Robinson shoes and not a pair of Robert Swift cement high-tops.

Robinson tended to the brimming horde of fans who wanted autographs, and after 10 minutes of signing, security moved in and cleared out the store. Just before Robinson left, Noel Lee zipped in on his Segway and handed him the headphones. Robinson’s eyes flashed genuine excitement when he saw the green headphones, and The Head Monster got his photo of Robinson wearing the company’s gear.

D’Antoni believes that fame and publicity have brought his young guard to an early crossroads. “[He] can go either way,” D’Antoni says. “It can motivate him and calm him down to be a steady, great player, or he could just say ‘Look who I am!’ and go crazy.”

But as Romar suggests, Robinson, a 5’9″ guard capable of racking up 40-point games at the highest level of professional basketball, pulls off the improbable every time he checks in at the scorer’s table. “Don’t doubt him,” Romar warns. “I don’t think he’s being hyped up as the greatest basketball player to ever play the game. He’s being hyped because on the court, you find yourself not wanting to take your eyes off him. You can be captivated by his every move. And as long as he plays basketball, he’s going to be that way.”