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.