The first time Brandon Roy went head-to-head with his future Washington teammate Nate Robinson, he didn't realize there would be a winner and a loser. The two boys were standing at the front of their fifth-grade classroom at Rainier View Elementary in south Seattle, serving a lunchtime detention for talking and laughing in class. As punishment each had to write I WILL NOT TALK IN CLASS 100 times on the blackboard. "Pretty quickly I noticed he was trying to write his sentences faster than me," remembers Roy. "That's when I first realized how competitive he is."
Robinson hasn't changed much in the decade since then. He still talks incessantly and seems to be incapable of stifling a laugh. Many of the things he enjoyed as a fifth-grader--cookies, candy and cartoons, for example--sustain him still. But while Roy, his best friend since that detention, has sprouted to 6'6", Robinson has remained schoolkid-sized at 5 ' 7 3/4" (though he's listed at 5'9"). More important, though, Robinson still has to be first in everything. "That's just my nature," he says. "I want to win; I want to be the best."
So far this season Robinson, a ju nior, has made a strong case for being named the best player in college basketball. Already recognized as one of the quickest point guards in the country, he was a paragon of efficiency in leading the Huskies to a 5--1 record at week's end, including consecutive wins over Utah, Oklahoma and Alabama in the Great Alaska Shootout, where he was named the tournament's outstanding player. Robinson was averaging 21.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.8 steals a game while shooting 55.3% from the floor and 53.6% from the three-point line. He had 34 assists against 12 turnovers and had made 29 of 36 free throws. And in the unofficial team stats of charges taken and loose balls corralled, he was the team's runaway leader. Alas, no one has yet built a thrill-o-meter to measure the jolt Robinson gives a crowd with his improbable dunks and authoritative rebounds, facilitated by his freakish 431/2-inch vertical leap. "Sometimes I'll look at him off the court and think, Man, you are short!" says 6'6" junior forward Bobby Jones. "But on the court he is as tall as I am."
Robinson feels the same way. "I don't think of myself as short," he says. That other people make an issue of his size (a favorite stunt of Oregon fans is to chant "Gary Coleman!" and brandish life-sized cardboard cutouts of the diminutive actor whenever Robinson touches the ball) only inspires him. "People doubt me, and that's a big motivation," he says. "When I hear the doubters or see what they write, it makes me like The Incredible Hulk. When the Hulk gets madder and madder, he gets bigger and bigger." Not surprisingly, Robinson has played well against the Ducks. Last year he capped an 83--74 win over them with a resounding dunk.
"Nate is the best competitor in college basketball," says Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who saw Robinson score a team-high 22 points (including four of eight three-pointers) in the Huskies' 99--87 loss to the Bulldogs at Spokane on Dec. 1. "He has a huge heart, and he competes on every play, and I think that's contagious for his team. People assume that's commonplace, but it's hard to find. It's hard to find in the NBA."
There's not much doubt that Robinson will be taking his infectious nature to the pros someday, probably next season. He wowed coaches and scouts at the June predraft camp in Chicago, where he turned in the best overall performance in the tests of athleticism and led his team to a 3--0 record by averaging 11.7 points and six assists. During the camp Washington coach Lorenzo Romar fielded a dozen excited calls from the sideline, including one from an NBA scout, who said, "I am your worst nightmare. He is the best guard here."
But with a slew of point guards, high school hotshots and foreign prospects crowding the 2004 draft lists, no team would guarantee Robinson a first-round selection. Unsure about whether he should declare for the draft, Robinson introduced himself at that predraft camp to a player he had admired from afar, 2004 national player of the year Jameer Nelson of Saint Joseph's. For an hour the two talked about some of the things they had in common, including being undersized (Nelson is just under 6 feet) and facing the challenge of being a good father. (Nelson has a three-year-old son, Jameer Jr., and Robinson was expecting a son in late October.) "Jameer told me fatherhood was going to change my life, make me a better person, a better man," recalls Robinson. "He also told me that without guarantees, I didn't need to rush into the league."
Largely because of that conversation with Nelson--who was drafted 20th overall, by the Denver Nuggets, then traded to the Orlando Magic--Robinson returned to school this fall, instantly making the Huskies a favorite to win the Pac10 title and one of the hottest attractions in Seattle. Ten of the Huskies' 15 home games are already sold out, eclipsing the previous one-season record (set in 1998--99) of four.
On Oct. 26 Robinson's girlfriend, Sheena Felitz, gave birth to their son. They named him Nahmier, partly after Nelson, and gave him the middle name Caillou, after a cartoon character Robinson likes. "It's crazy how much I think about my son when I'm on the court," he says. "When Nahmier watches the tapes of what I do, I can teach him some things, like my dad taught me."
Nate's dad, Jacque Robinson, was ranked by Street & Smith among the top players in the national high school class of '81, a class that included Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing. But Jacque, who is 6-foot, gave up hoops (he played guard at San Jose High) to be a running back at Washington. He was named MVP of the 1982 Rose Bowl and the 1985 Orange Bowl. Nate, who was born at the end of Jacque's junior year in college, grew up watching tapes of his dad's games as Jacque sat beside him, pointing out the best way to avoid a tackle or throw a block. By the time he was seven, Nate had so many moves that he had older kids grabbing at air during football games in the park. "I knew he was going to grow up to play football," says Jacque, now a youth case worker in Seattle.
Nate did grow up to play football--and basketball. He also ran track. In his senior year of high school The Seattle Times named him the Class 3A player of the year in football (he was a running back, defensive back and kick returner) and basketball. He left his mark in track, too: His 13.85 seconds in the 110meter hurdles is a state record.
After fielding scholarship offers in basketball and football, Robinson accepted a football full ride at his dad's alma mater and planned to play basketball, too. The day after he had played cornerback and helped the Huskies win the Apple Cup by picking off a pass intended for Washington State's 6'5" wideout Mike Bush, Robinson was on the hardcourt, trying to absorb the system his teammates had already been practicing for six weeks. In his second game--a close, grind-it-out affair at Santa Clara--he appeared but briefly in the first half, scoring two points. In the second half, though, he seemed to channel another of his favorite cartoon characters, the Tasmanian Devil. When the dust had settled, Robinson had chalked up game totals of six rebounds, four assists, two steals and 19 points, plus a failed dunk attempt over a 6' 8" Bronco that brought the crowd to its feet. The Huskies won 72--55, and the Santa Clara fans gave Robinson a standing ovation.
It's hard to have that kind of impact on a football game. Robinson's mom, Renee Busch, thinks that's one reason he chose basketball over football after his freshman year. "He has more control of the outcome in basketball," she says. "And believe me, he likes to control things."
He likes to start things too. Waiting around for the team bus after a practice at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion two years ago, Robinson touched a teammate and said, "You're it!" launching a teamwide game of tag. It was Robinson who convinced Romar and his teammates last year that black shoes with black socks were the look the purple-and-gold-clad Huskies needed. ("I'm still trying to talk Coach into black uniforms," says Robinson.)
"Nate's life is festive," says Romar. "If you are around him 10 minutes, there's going to be laughter. He is friends with everyone. The people who may be lower on the totem pole--the outcast, the guy who never plays, maybe someone with a birth defect--they all know Nate."
Every Friday and Saturday night that Robinson is in town, he returns to the same Rainier Community Center he has been haunting since he was 11 or 12. When a hoop is available, he'll shoot three-pointers until closing time, sometimes paying one of the neighborhood kids five dollars to rebound for him. Otherwise he plays cards, video games or tag with the children there. "Kids will come from other community centers just to be with him," says Busch. "They love him."
He loves them right back. At the Huskies' basketball camp for youth league players last summer, Robinson ripped up an old Tshirt and made headbands, upon which he printed the nicknames he had given his campers that week. He passed them out in the locker room before the title game. "Those kids walked out of there on cloud nine," says Romar. "They won the championship. It's the touch Nate has, his way of making people feel special."
Robinson is a born host. When an SI photographer arrived at Busch's house (where Nate lives) to shoot pictures of him with Nahmier and Felitz, Nate busied himself making cookies from store-bought dough, wielding the spatula with convincing authority. How often does he bake? Felitz was asked. "Never," she said.
He is, however, a good dad, according to Busch. "He sings to [Nahmier], he talks to him, he gets excited about changing diapers," she says.
As he tended to the cookies, more than a dozen friends and relatives of all ages came and went in the living room, briefly touching down on a couch that could easily seat all of them at once. The state high school football championship game was on TV, eliciting loud groans, shouts and commentary from Nate and two of his buddies from high school, whom he considers family. "He collects people," says Busch. "He takes everybody in."
No one is keeping score on this one, but Robinson is clearly a winner at amassing friends, too.
"When I hear the doubters," says Robinson, "it makes me like THE INCREDIBLE HULK. When the Hulk gets madder and madder, he gets bigger and bigger."
Wee Shall Overcome
Here are five guards--all comfortably under six feet--who, like Nate Robinson, still loom large
JEREL BLASSINGAME,5'10" UNLV The Runnin' Rebels' sparkplug won't give an inch to foes, even USC's 6' 8" Nick Curtis.
KEYDREN CLARK, 5'9" SAINT PETER'S The nation's top scorer in 2003--04, "Kee-Kee" is pumping in 24.8 points a game for the Peacocks this season.
DREW LAVENDER, 5'7" Oklahoma The skittering Sooner excels at seeing the court, and it's a bad idea to foul him: He's a 92.9% shooter from the line.
CARLDELL JOHNSON,5'10" Alabama-Birmingham "Squeaky" is the catalyst for the Blazers' frenzied attack, averaging 5.3 assists and 2.8 steals.
JONATHAN BLUITT, 5'9" ORAL ROBERTS The feisty playmaker (above, left) for the 5--0 Golden Eagles sank two clutch treys to help beat Loyola-Chicago.
Photographs by Robert Beck
RUN AND STUN A former track star, Robinson uses his prodigious athleticism to go around foes and, occasionally, over them.
Photographs by Robert Beck
ON A PEDESTAL Even his fellow Huskies--from left, Joel Smith, Zach Johnson, Hakeem Rollins, Jamaal Williams and Mike Jensen--are captivated by Robinson's charisma.
HOWARD C. SMITH/ICON SMI
JEFFREY HADERTHAUER/ICON SMI
STEPHEN HOLMAN/TULSA WORLD/AP