Commentary: Former Piston Clifford Robinson was an original UConn pillar
Clifford Robinson was prickly but joyful, aloof but driven, unpredictable but steady, and if ever there was a time when these little contradictions intersected it was June 27, 1989.
New York City. NBA draft. Robinson, a front-row guest following a standout career at UConn, heard 10 names called at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Theater, then 20 and more from there.
The first round concluded with Robinson still on the board. So he left abruptly, walking out a back door, onto the Manhattan streets and, as only he seemed to understand, into one of professional basketball’s truly unique runs.
“Through a kitchen, I think,” said Phil Chardis, the UConn basketball beat writer at the time for the Journal Inquirer of Manchester. “It was pouring rain, pouring. And Cliff is going back to the hotel with the whole Connecticut media contingent following. I yelled ‘Cliff!’ He stopped, turned around, and that was the most sincere he was in four years of covering him. He was hurt and humbled. He said, ‘They don’t know who I am.’”
Robinson wasn’t always easy to understand.
He sure was always easy to appreciate, though.
Cliff, Cliffy, Uncle Cliffy as he was affectionately known to Portland Trail Blazers fans and Clifford as he preferred somewhere along the line in an 18-year NBA career (including two seasons with the Detroit Pistons), he was intriguing for both his mercurial nature and consistency, beloved in Connecticut for his contributions to a UConn program beginning to show its potential.
Robinson has left the world, dead at 53, a unique NBA legacy left behind, one celebrated for so long because it was built over a period that nearly spanned a generation. He was that “he’s-still-around” player with tireless legs, a curious man who, post-retirement, ventured into the marijuana industry with a business named “Uncle Spliffy,” appeared on a season of “Survivor” and even traveled to North Korea with another former Piston, Dennis Rodman.
Robinson was ever present. And then he left us without warning. Jim Calhoun said Saturday that Robinson suffered a stroke 2½ years ago and had recently fallen into a coma.
“I don’t think he ever missed a game at UConn or a practice at UConn,” former Huskies assistant Howie Dickenman said. “He was a little bit temperamental at times, but he worked so hard after practice. He was quite a player and, in my opinion, quite a person. … There were some challenging times with Cliff, but he’d get over it. And he always had something to prove.”
Robinson sure was a little gruff when pulled from a game. He wasn’t a model student or model citizen, but who is? He sure smiled a lot, too, everywhere he went, celebrated across the nation on Saturday for the type of player and person and family man he was.
Finally selected in the second round by Portland with the 36th pick, Robinson played until he was 40, scoring 19,951 points (54th all time) in 1,380 games (14th, not including 141 playoff games). He entered the NBA a year after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s final season and lasted long enough to share the court with Chris Paul and LeBron James.
In his two seasons with the Pistons, from 2001-03, Robinson averaged 13.4 points and 4.4 rebounds in 161 games, including 149 starts.
The only time I spent more than a few minutes with Robinson was in 2005. He was in the corner of a visiting locker room in East Rutherford, N.J., before his Golden State Warriors played the Nets. His teammates were stretching and warming up — endlessly, it seemed. Robinson was casually eating grapes. He was 38. He mentioned that time flies. And he wondered what to do for the next hour or so before tip-off.
Robinson never taped his ankles. He never iced down. He just showed up and played, 461 games in a row at one point. He helped the Blazers to the NBA Finals in 1992, was the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 1993 and an All-Star in 1994.
First, though, he changed everything in Storrs. He was a two-time All-Big East player. Those famous photos of players atop the backboard at Madison Square Garden in 1988? They don’t happen without Robinson, named to the NIT All-Tournament Team as a junior. He is a member of the inaugural “Huskies of Honor” class and his 00 jersey hangs in Gampel Pavilion.
He scored 1,664 points at UConn, fourth on the program’s all-time scoring list when he departed (and now 13th). He is one of five players in Huskies history with two 600-point seasons, joining Chris Smith, Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton and Ben Gordon. The guy could do it all, ahead of his time in college and then in the NBA, a 6-foot-10 forward who could play three positions and guard all five.
Robinson, from Buffalo, N.Y., was UConn’s first national recruit, and the rest — more national recruits, international recruits, NBA lottery picks and so on — don’t come walking through the Gampel tunnel without Robinson having dominated the final days of the Field House.
He was actually UConn’s most important recruit — twice.
When Calhoun replaced Dom Perno as coach in 1986, after Robinson’s freshman season, his first two victories were to convince Robinson to return and Dickenman to remain part of the coaching staff. Robinson averaged 18.1 points as a sophomore, 17.6 as a junior in helping the Huskies to the NIT championship, and 20 as a senior. He accelerated a process that has yielded four national championships.
First, though, Robinson had to be willing to take a chance. So did Dickenman.
Outside of Robinson’s Chelsea Place home in Buffalo was a chain-link fence, plywood affixed, the paint job reading “Guard Dogs On Duty Four Days A Week.”
Dickenman’s visit apparently was on one of those days. He saw the dogs get agitated. And he sprinted back to his car to wait out Robinson, who was late.
“I went in and he looked at everything in the living room but me, no eye-to-eye contact,” Dickenman said. “I walked out after 35 minutes. I said there was no need to stay. He wasn’t listening. He’s not going to UConn. But as it wound up, he did.”
First, though, it had to be determined if this player-program relationship was a fit.
Dickenman, displeased with some on-court behavior toward heckling fans during a summer league game in Buffalo, stopped recruiting Robinson for a stretch.
“Three weeks go by and I didn’t call him,” Dickenman said. “But Dom and I went to the Empire State All-Star Game in Syracuse and (Robinson) is killing it, blocking shots, dunking. Dom says to me, ‘How are we doing with Cliff?’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, great, I just called him the other night. Great.’ That night when I got home, I called up Cliff Robinson and I started selling UConn again.”
Robinson picked the Huskies over Oklahoma and arrived with such high expectations.
First, though, his place in the program had to be made official.
On national signing day, Dickenman received a call of good news and bad. Robinson had signed his national letter of intent. But he left it on the bus before school and had no idea where it was. Dickenman had a new letter signed at UConn, drove it to Bradley International Airport and paid a $35 U.S. Air fee to have it flown to Buffalo.
“His math teacher left a class to go pick it up at the airport,” Dickenman said. “It was that urgent. Cliff signed it and ran to the mailbox to send it before he misplaced it.”
Everything eventually lined up, of course, and Robinson offered Connecticut big-time college basketball legitimacy before those 18 iron man years in the NBA.
First, though, he bolted. Out of that theater. He was doubted, initially. Then counted on, day after day and year after year.
“He had a chip on his shoulder, anyway,” said Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell, a UConn teammate of Robinson’s. “I remember he said, ‘I will prove that they made some mistakes.’ I think his whole career, he proved to a lot of people there were a lot of mistakes made that night. There are so very few players like him. When it was practice time, he was ready to go. When it was game time, he was ready to go. Very few guys I’ve been around had a motor like him.”