A celebration of the NBA's most infuriating players, both past and present. Read other NBA Shit List entries here.
For the 2009 season, Mike D'Antoni introduced a new motto for the Knicks. Written on the locker room greaseboard before every game, it read "Be terrible. Don't be stupid." It took 12 games before Nate Robinson heaved a three at the buzzer toward his own basket. Nate, no!
It went in, like Nate always knew it would. (He is always "Nate," and just "Nate." The AP-style "Robinson" is incongruous for the sprite whose maturity didn't quite exceed his stature. The Times' "Mr. Robinson" felt more like a practical joke that they were only half-in on.) The bucket didn't count because it was released milliseconds after the buzzer sounded, sparing the scoresheet but not anyone's blood pressure. He couldn't have known he wouldn't get the shot off in time. He took it because he saw no other option—the quarter essentially ended, the ball in his hands, a hoop right there. Nate's universe is purely deterministic, even if our laws of physics and rules of basketball don't always cooperate. Mike D'Antoni knew this, because to know Nate is to accept him, but couldn't help remind his player that actions have consequences. "He was like, 'What if it went in?'" Robinson said. "I was like, 'My bad.'"
This is the fundamental hurdle to "coaching" Nate Robinson, or rather lightly suggesting that whatever the thing he just did isn't something he should try to do again. He is medically incapable of picturing an unfavorable outcome for any of the possibilities racing through his mind like so many gerbils on Adderall. No-look pass to somewhere within a 10-foot radius of a wing who's not even paying attention? It'll work out somehow. Thirty-foot jumper with two men on him and 15 seconds left on the shot clock? That'll look so cool when it goes in. Nate believes in his precious little heart that he will make every shot he takes. And if he should happen to miss (which he does with horrible regularity), it's not his fault. Like for Vladimir and Estragon, there's nothing to be done. Mike D'Antoni's motto was wasted. Nate doesn't even grasp the concepts of terrible or stupid.
The Shit List archives: Nick Young | Anthony Carter | Toney Douglas | Bill Cartwright | Dahntay Jones | DeShawn Stevenson | Michael Sweetney | Eddie House | Sasha Vujacic | Voshon Lenard | Eric Leckner | Dwight Howard | Andris Biedrins | Antawn Jamison | Don Nelson
He doesn't know short, either. Here is a non-comprehensive list of things that Nate Robinson has jumped on or over. Spud Webb. Dwight Howard. An unsuspecting Shaquille O'Neal. An oblivious Paul Pierce, who still may not know what that buzzing noise in his ear was. A naked Malik Rose, over an unpaid NFL bet. "A Playboy Bunny dealer who was seated at a blackjack table." Very few of these were good ideas, yet for Nate, the simple fact that he could meant he must. There is no free will in Nate's world.
At a listed 5-foot-9, Nate Robinson having a pro career is improbable enough. The very fact that he made the NBA shows he's got more work ethic and devotion than you or I will ever muster. He is handicapped by his height, but not in the way it's probably understood by those who didn't get to see him receive major minutes every single day in New York. This is an important distinction to make: The limitation isn't physical in the least. He's blocked Yao Ming, rebounded over Andray Blatche, dunked on everyone. He can do power forward things when he wants. He can also do point guard things when he wants. The problem is that he wants to do all of these things at once, at the expense of doing any of them consistently well. While his body is playing token defense, his mind is already planning his next trip upcourt and his crossover and his pull-up jumper and his putback slam. It's not that he's Magic Johnson trapped in Nate Robinson's body. It's that he's Magic Johnson stuck with Nate Robinson's id.
As one of two marketable players on some terrible Knicks teams, he always had flashes that made you think yeah, maybe an offense could run through him. And then he'd fall into a singleminded shooting fugue and make you realize that Nate thinks the offense should run to him. Even within the confines of a 33-10-9 performance, he'd find the time to go 2-for-11 from three.
Each ill-advised chuck would be more glorious than the last. You'd see it happening. His teammates would disappear, his eyes would narrow, tunnel vision setting in. If he was off the ball, he'd eye it like it was the last ball on earth, ignoring his man and his mark and the shot clock all. You'd see him turning to shoot before the pass was on his fingertips. Nate, no!
And then he'd make the shot. And he'd make it again. Once more. And the crowd would explode for the sheer spectacle of all, because he is 5-foot-9. This is the real curse of Nate Robison's height, not something physically holding him back, but the fact that anything he does becomes amazing. A short player has no choice but to be a folk hero, as he receives all the projections of similarly statured fans. He's my height and he's dunking! He sure can shoot for a little guy! A shorter-than-average human excelling at basketball! Nate is singularly unprepared for this kind of adoration, because he doesn't realize it has the whiff of condescension. Give him eight inches, he would have had Jason Richardson's career. As is, he's got the starring role in a joke he's not in on. It's a tragedy, and we're all culpable.
Every team needs an irrational fan favorite. If it's not the short guy, it's the white guy, or barring that, the fat guy or the old guy. For the Knicks, for four-and-a-half seasons, it was their third scoring option. This was not a recipe for success, and Nate Robinson was the most visible figure on a team that was often terrible, occasionally stupid, and never boring. I miss him. I know it's not healthy, but this is my chosen codependence, and I make no apologies for pining for our abusive relationship solely because he made me laugh.
He's now on his fifth team in four years, on the Chicago bench while the Knicks start two true point guards at a time and the Bulls start none. He's a mere spectator to headlines like "Joakim Noah Regrets Shooting a Three-Pointer to Win Free Big Macs"—in New York, there's zero chance that story would have involved any player but Nate. The second unit isn't where he thrives. He needs starts, starter's minutes to truly spread his wings and crash into the sun.
The cosmology of Nate is vast; you get a glimpse of his potency in the occasional brief, destructive event, but you really don't appreciate the full effects unless you take the long view. Every night, every minute, every possession carries the possibility of an inexplicable decision that has fans pulling their hair out. But put it all together, and patterns emerge from the macroscopic Nate. They're not bad decisions; they're not decisions at all. He has no choice—there's the ball, there's the basket, everything else is just noise. It's the superstructure of a unique and maddening basketball universe, and Nate's so oversized, there's no room for anyone else.