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NAPOLEON GOT there first. Otherwise we'd be using the term Nate Robinson complex to characterize a man who compensates for his modest physical proportions with inflated aggression and audacity. "Almost 5'9" in shoes," as he puts it, Robinson stands head and shoulders below the field; he is the shortest player in the NBA, 10 inches shy of the average height of his colleagues. Yet there he is, blocking the shot of 7'6" Yao Ming, winning another slam dunk contest, boldly challenging larger defenders on drives to the basket and, routinely of late, putting up 30 points a night. ¶ In what might be a credo for the undersized everywhere, the Knicks guard explains his philosophy: "If you tell me I can't do something, I ain't gonna listen. I don't care who you are, I'm gonna bring it. Being small lets you rise to the competition. People talk about my height all the time, but honestly, I don't really feel smaller than anyone else." So there.
An antic, frantic player who plays both guard spots, Robinson operates at a speed that can make the other nine players on the floor appear almost arthritic. Already a short-list candidate for the Sixth Man Award, Robinson was averaging a career-best 17.6 points at week's end, and 26.2 over his last 10 games. Since the All-Star break, Robinson has been the sixth-most prolific scorer in the league. "God gave me this body," Robinson says. "Now he wants me to blossom."
Robinson, 24, spent his first three seasons doubling as the Knicks' unofficial mascot. The 21st pick out of Washington in 2005, he was an endearing, exuberant novelty act but a figure of limited value in an actual game. Often he would storm downcourt or blow by his man and then—that complex kicking in—attempt a ridiculous move that screamed look at me! A representative snapshot: Once, in his sophomore season, he went in for an uncontested layup against the Cavaliers but impulsively bounced the ball high off the floor, attempting to turn the routine into a spectacular dunk. He was called for traveling. And he was not exactly full of remorse afterward. "That," he explained with a shrug, "is why they call me Spontaneous Nate."
His great reprieve came last off-season when New York hired coach Mike D'Antoni, whose aggressive offensive philosophy accommodates players who might not operate under control at all times—a departure from the team's previous coaches. "Larry Brown held Nate back and doesn't like rookies or small guards," explains Robinson's father, Jacque, who at 6-feet was a tailback at Washington and MVP of the 1982 Rose Bowl. "Isiah [Thomas] had Nate playing behind Stephon Marbury and Jamal Crawford. When we heard D'Antoni was coming to New York and bringing that system from Phoenix, we were celebrating. Nate knew this was going to be his year."
The Knicks were 25--37 through Sunday and 3½ games out of their first playoff spot in five seasons. But already the "Isiah cloud" has lifted and some joy has returned to Madison Square Garden—thanks in no small part to Spontaneous Nate, who is pitch-perfect in this winter of discontent. For a few hours anyway, New Yorkers can stop worrying about their dwindling portfolios and precarious employment and can indulge in a bit of escapism, cheering on an irrepressible 69-inch scamp.
During a home win last month over the Pacers, Robinson punctuated his 41 points by repeatedly knocking knuckles with Will Ferrell, who was seated courtside. (Fair enough, since in interviews Robinson often blurts out "shake and bake," a phrase borrowed from Ferrell's Ricky Bobby character in Talladega Nights.) There was also the recent game in Philadelphia during which Robinson deflected a pass out-of-bounds and then approached Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who was in the stands. "You know I used to be a defensive back in college?" the 180-pound Robinson cackled. (In 2002 he started six games, including the Sun Bowl, at cornerback for the Huskies.)
If a few hubris-driven misses or ill-advised passes are the cost of doing business, well, that's a small price to pay. "I've liked him for a long time," says D'Antoni. "That athleticism, the way he can change a game, his bubbly personality. Oh, sometimes he's exasperating and needs to be harnessed in the right way—he can get a shot anytime he wants, so he needs to know what a good shot is. But he's getting more focused, and boy, he's been terrific lately."
IN KEEPING with his physique, Robinson suffers from a chronic case of arrested development. Knicks players and coaches uniformly use the term "big kid" to describe him. They're not kidding. Robinson lists his favorite book as The Cat in the Hat and has a voracious appetite for cartoons. When he isn't playing basketball, a video-game controller is all but surgically attached to his hands. Even his trademark crowd salute is a nod to the game Call of Duty: World at War. Last year Robinson was playing Madden online against teammate Mardy Collins—since traded to the Clippers—and losing badly. Robinson paused the game, drove 10 minutes to Collins's home, barged through the door and unplugged Collins's console so the loss wouldn't count against his record. Then there was the time last summer when Robinson conducted an ESPN radio interview as he played on his Xbox, declaring that, in his backcourt role with the Knicks, he tries to "make it easy for other guys to score the football." The show's host, Max Kellerman, suggested, "Maybe you could pause the game?"
Robinson lives in the Westchester suburbs with his girlfriend, Sheena, and their sons, Nahmier, 4, and Ny'ale, 2. "We play all the time, and I'm always the bad guy," he says. "I'm the robber in cops-and-robbers, the tiger in tigers-and-lions." And why is the tiger the bad guy? "You know—lion," Robinson says. "King of the jungle."
In conversation Robinson speaks at the pace of an auctioneer, gesticulating wildly and bursting into laughter at the merest provocation. Shooting guard Larry Hughes, who came to New York from the Bulls on Feb. 19, says, "I can already recognize Nate's laugh from the back of the plane."