Why We Watch: Nate Robinson, Chaos Without Consequence

There's no way to tell what Nate Robinson will do from one moment to the next. Even Nate Robinson seems not to know. This is why we watch.
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“He’s like an industrial dishwasher,” a former high school coach of Nate Robinson once said about Chicago’s mercurial point guard. “Sometimes you’d start the thing up and at the end everything would be shiny and grease-free and sparkling clean. Then other times you’d open it up and two or three of dishes would be clean, another three or four would have beet stains on them that you don’t know how they got there, the rest would be shattered in a million pieces and also there’s a dead squirrel in there, somehow.”

Actually, that is false. Or false insofar as I made it up, but not quite an inaccurate assessment of what it’s like to watch Nate Robinson play basketball. Take, for instance, Chicago’s near-finished felling at the hands of the Miami Heat. Sure, it’s a series few beyond the more optimistic/deluded in the city’s Skyway-and-burb boundaries believed the shorthanded Bulls had any businesses making competitive, let alone winning. But then there they were, on the right side of a 93-86 Game 1 win punctuated by NateRob’s script-flipping 27-and-nine. The improbability of it all made the game indelible and great, but the improbability of it all was also towering. It seemed that way even after Nate averaged an intermittently brilliant and totally schizophrenic 17.3 points in Chicago’s seven-game upending of the hapless, multiply depressing Brooklyn Nets one round earlier.

Game 1 was the best of Nate, to be sure. Here was the iron-taut LeBron Mini-Me; the impish assassin bound more by muscle than memory – the memory in question being some criminally off-balance 27-foot air-ball with 21 on the shot clock and 22 in the quarter, probably. Nate could’ve broken Joakim Noah’s collarbone on a put-back dunk up 43 in the fourth; could’ve suffered a dislocated torso in the third quarter – doesn’t matter. The memory’s gone and anyway he’s already forgotten, left it in the smoke floating off his sneakers as Tom Thibodeau implores from the sideline for Nate to ignore the pop in his knee and the blood in his lungs and make the most of his 48th minute, Goddammit. And by God Nate will, and by God he’ll tell you about it afterwards. This is Nate.

And this is also Nate: one week later, he’s going 0-for-12 from the field with an assist-to-turnover ratio of one. He’s hitting the heel of the rim hard enough to puncture the ball, missing wide-open teammates, blowing defensive rotations, playing with a level of self-possession that can best be described as Freebased Monster Energy Drink and generally looking like he’d be hard-pressed to lead a troop of Boy Scouts off a baseball diamond, let alone an NBA team through the Playoffs. Teammates pat him on the back, less out of solidarity than sorrow, wondering what the fuck Nate was thinking on that cross-court pass that LeBron intercepted and dunked with the same hand without so much as jumping. This is also Nate. This is all Nate.

***

If the Chicago Bulls offense is an adventure, Nate is its Indiana Jones: One part world-weary toughness, one part instinctual brilliance, ten parts flagrant recklessness leavened by goofy charm. He is not the player any team would pick to start at point in a playoff series, but Robinson was perfect for Chicago’s strange, fraught, supremely unlucky postseason. And really, he was just being himself: the theatrics are part and parcel with his personality. If we found out tomorrow that Nathaniel Cornelius Robinson came into this world by tying his umbilical cord to his own feet and throwing himself out of the womb – destroying thousands of dollars of medical equipment on the other side – how many of us would really be surprised? He is what he is, and he is how he is, and if he has been somewhat better and more effective in recent years than in earlier seasons, he has not at any point been any less like himself.

A product of Seattle’s still-burgeoning high school hoops scene, Robinson made two-way hay at the University of Washington, where he coupled on-court heroics by moonlighting as a backup cornerback for the Huskies. But it was Nate’s high-flying unconsciousness, and the two Sweet Sixteen appearances to which the team rode on his impossible hops and cartoonish energy, that had scouts looking past the big bolded “H” – he’s 5’8” if the air is thin – on the scouting cards.  

That Nate’s first term of employment – with the Knicks, who acquired Robinson from the Phoenix Suns on Draft Day in 2005 – also happens to be his longest only enhances the air of journeyman chaos that now surrounds him. He is good enough to get jobs, and Nate enough not to keep them long: few armies can find use for a weapon that, for all its potential power, also happens to spew shrapnel backwards every fourth time it’s fired.

During his first five-and-a-half seasons in New York, Nate Robinson laced up for Larry Brown, Isiah Thomas, and Mike D’Antoni. Flawed and tremendous egos all, but each employed his own exacting logic – Brown through ironfisted discipline, Thomas by leveraging his own legend, and D’Antoni through his system’s supposed infallibility. With each, Nate paced a rut between the heights of Rudy-style paragon status and the very back of the doghouse. There is no glory to show for those years save for a pair of Dunk Contest trophies.

When he was finally traded to the Celtics, in 2010, for flotsam (it’s all love, Bill Walker), Nate navigated his newfound role as bench spark with more than a modicum of consistency and efficiency. But not even that was enough, and one year later Nate found himself once again parceled up shipped out, this time to the ascendant Thunder as a fellow traveler in the Jeff Green-Kendrick Perkins trade. He would play in just four games down the 2011 stretch for OKC, logging a PER of 3.3. Six months later, on Christmas Eve – one day before the Thunder would open their lockout-shortened 2012 campaign – Robinson was waived.

Nate would eventually find brief respite, this time with the Golden State Warriors, who signed him to a one-year deal ten days later. But despite decent per-36 numbers (17.2 points, seven assists, and 1.7 steals on 42% shooting, including 37% from deep), summer found Nate once again cut adrift.

Then, on July 31st, came another one-year deal – this time with the Bulls, a team desperate for positional depth in the wake of Derrick Rose’s injury and C.J. Watson’s free-agency departure. Biding his hefty off-bench time behind Kirk Hinrich for most of the year, Nate was once again thrust center-circus in the Brooklyn series. The Nets never found a reasonable, reliable answer for the crazy shouting questions that Nate raised on the court. And so the warrior ethos of Thibs and Noah and Gibson and the rest – corners brightened by the exploits of this loony Lilliputian – won the right to be thrust before the King and Miami.

The Bulls absolutely will not survive this. But it won’t be for any failing in their jester’s tricks. Miami has both the Bulls and Robinson completely figured out, just as we knew they would, eventually. But damned if it didn’t take those Game 1 fireworks – the impossible shots you’d be tempted to grant with ten feet of space to spare – to scare them towards those solutions.

Where Nate goes from here remains to be seen, a circumstance for which he can only blame the character he himself has forged: a wayward cowboy clown never quite certain which he wanted to be. It’s possible that he still doesn’t know. But that’s exactly what makes him so much damn fun, so brilliantly great to watch even when he is neither brilliant nor great.

At any given moment – late-game chess match, garbage time flaunts, and pretty much everything in between – Nate Robinson has no idea what he’s about to do, beyond the fact that he is going to do it soon, and hard. And neither do his opponents. And neither do we. All we can do is watch, and know that it won’t be long before all of us find out.


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