- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Come the 1989 NBA draft, the word on Cliff Robinson was not good. The word was that Robinson, then a senior at Connecticut, was the biggest dog since Sgt. McGruff. A hound. The general managers, the scouts, they all agreed that he was talented. But sometimes these drafts become word-driven. And word was, this kid belonged on a leash.
The word plunged Robinson, a lean, 6'10" forward-center, right down through the first round of the draft. It was amazing, if you hadn't heard the word. Here was a guy who could run and jump, who could block shots, who could fill the rim. He ranked third in the Big East conference in scoring during his senior year. And defense? He always drew the league's big guns—Derrick Coleman, Jerome Lane, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Charles Smith—and he had shown he could handle them. He was, in that year's unremarkable pool of talent, a top- 10 guy, for sure. The NBA even invited him to New York, where the selecting would be done, for some draft-day fun.
But general managers, whose suspicions about Robinson's attitude had been fueled by their scouts, used their first-round picks on guys named Michael Smith and Kenny Payne and Jeff Sanders and Byron Irvin (none of whom, just for the record, are now in the NBA). Robinson, having not heard the word, couldn't figure this out. Pick by pick he became more baffled. Finally, when the Detroit Pistons chose Kenny Battle of Illinois as the 27th and final pick of the opening round, Robinson stormed out of draft headquarters at Madison Square Garden and returned to his hotel room. It was one thing to be mystified, quite another to be humiliated.
Nothing personal, though; just the word. "There were a lot of things we just had to guess at," says Donnie Walsh, general manager of the Indiana Pacers. "With Cliff we questioned the way he wanted to play, how hard he'd want to work, how physical he'd be willing to get. We questioned his intensity." It was just business.
Robinson, on his way back to the hotel, learned from a passerby that he had been picked by the Iran Blazers, the 36th player chosen overall—but well after no-hopers like Dyron Nix and Frank Kornet and Jeff Martin and even someone named Pat Durham had been selected.
Now in his fourth pro season, Robinson is the Blazers' second-leading scorer (18.8 points per game at the end of last week), their second-best rebounder (7.0) and possibly their best defender, even with Buck Williams around. He may be the hardest-working player in Portland—again, even with Williams around. And he has not missed a game in his pro career; that's 291 games through Sunday. The league that didn't want him will almost surely honor him at season's end with its Sixth Man Award for being the game's best player off the bench.
"So," says Walsh, "everyone was wrong." Was it something Robinson did? Something he said? Something the scouts thought they knew that nobody else did? Robinson's college coach, Jim Calhoun, remembers the scouts descending on the Connecticut campus, appraising the kid, becoming, to Calhoun's mind, overly particular. As Calhoun recalls it, one day a scout told him that Robinson couldn't go to his left or some such nonsense. Calhoun is not a man easily driven speechless. But that one slackened his jaw.
"To me," Calhoun says, "it was a no-brainer. He runs, jumps and shoots. I didn't know he'd become this good, but I knew he'd be in the NBA 10 years. I didn't understand this intrigue, this mystery thing they had about Cliff. To ask me what kind of prospect he was? Whoa!"
Looking back, as he often has, Calhoun wonders if people somehow forgot the way Robinson had led UConn, which had won a total of 19 games during Robinson's first two seasons, to 20 wins and the NIT championship in his junior season. Maybe they remembered, instead, that the Huskies won just 18 games in Robinson's senior season and failed to reach the NCAAs. "People locally blamed him for not taking us to the next level," says Calhoun. "Maybe they thought he wasn't a leader and that he wouldn't take responsibility."
People locally, maybe. But scouts? "Well, there was his demeanor," Calhoun says. "Cliff had a look about him that was not always Chevy Chase. I love the guy, he was totally loyal to me, and we still talk. Talked to him the other day. So I can't say anything negative about him. I won't. But that scowl.... I once told him he didn't have to look like Peter Pan out there, but Darth Vader?"