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About that scowl: Robinson says he developed his drop-dead mug when he was a kid growing up in Buffalo. The older kids would try to "punk me off." The scowl, coming from this string bean, was supposed to show that he meant business. Who knew it would end up costing him money instead?
"Just because I had a mean look," he laments, recalling the shame and consequences of that draft. (The No. 10 pick in the '89 draft, Pooh Richardson, signed a four-year, $2.7 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves; Robinson got a non-guaranteed two-year deal for $750,000.) It's hard to believe that a guy drops like a rock in the draft just because he'll give you the death-ray stare—Charles Barkley is Mr. Sunshine?—but Robinson's on-court demeanor did invite suspicion.
"Guys get bad raps," says Portland teammate Clyde Drexler, "and it follows them forever." Williams, who also joined the Blazers in 1989 after being acquired from the New Jersey Nets, says that the word on Robinson reached beyond scouts and was persuasive among players. "I was apprehensive," Williams says.
"I'm not saying he was a perfect kid," says Calhoun. "You know, things weren't perfect for him growing up. But he is a maturing kid. All I know is, I got to UConn after his sophomore year. They'd had four straight losing seasons, and people wondered if we belonged in the Big East. He's coming off a funny freshman year, didn't do much. But I see he's immensely talented. I take him aside and say, 'Promise me one thing. Stay with me.' Not every kid in that situation stays. If people were judging the book by its cover, they were judging a book that wasn't written yet."
Robinson harbors no bitterness. In fact, despite the embarrassment of the draft, Robinson spent a half hour that day, after he had been selected, talking to the Connecticut press. "I was steamed at first," Robinson admits, "but I was O.K. by the time I got to the hotel."
Though reliving that day now does not even inspire Robinson to scowl, it's not as if he has completely let go of the episode. "Oh, I remember my little draft," he says lightly. And he remembers every player who was picked ahead of him. He knows exactly where they are, including the 14 guys who aren't in the NBA any longer.
Robinson was a gift to the Trail Blazers. Doubts about his work ethic were soon dismissed. Teammates saw past the scowl and began to appreciate him. "A nice guy," says Drexler, as if still surprised.
Robinson was a little immature, perhaps, a little overanxious—as if he wanted to prove a point and pronto. It's true: Coming off the bench, especially for a talented rookie from a high-profile program, can engender a sort of desperation. Robinson was of a mind that Portland should start him right then, ahead of Jerome Kersey, a five-year veteran. "I wanted to make something happen," Robinson says. In that first season the desperation was nearly comical at times. "I'd come off the bench, and I wouldn't go up and down the court twice before I'd shoot," he says. And they weren't always the best shots. (Better shot selection is a phrase you hear over and over when people talk of Robinson's improvement.) Not that anybody ever dressed him down for his scattershot style. "Nobody said anything, but I'd get these looks," Robinson says. "Last thing you want to see is Clyde sucking his teeth." That year Drexler nearly peeled the enamel right off.
Over the years, though, Robinson has come to grips with his role. He has started on only 22 occasions, almost always in an injury emergency, and he still hasn't shaken the sub's paranoia: How many minutes will I get? How many mistakes can I make? But he has given up on forcing a change in his status. "I look at the chemistry of those five guys starting, and I see what they do out there," he says of the Blazer regulars, who have led Portland to an average of 59.7 wins a season during Robinson's years with the team. "I can't argue about that."
Anyway, the Blazers use him plenty—around 30 minutes a game—and they use him wisely. Walsh says Robinson is so good off the bench because coach Rick Adelman can scope out the game in the early going and figure how to deploy Robinson for the best mismatch. Here's Robinson slipping on his signature black or red or white headband and going in for Kersey at small forward and overpowering a smaller player; or going in for Williams and presenting a stronger offensive threat at power forward; or even going in for center Kevin Duckworth and outquicking a bigger opponent. This season, until Drexler fully recovered from last September's knee surgery, Robinson was usually Portland's high scorer.