Sullivan: Cliff Robinson, Western New York's forgotten star

Jerry Sullivan

In April of 1989, I came to Buffalo to be a sports columnist at The News, straight from the national NBA beat at Newsday. Two months later, Clifford Robinson — he was just “Cliff" in those days — was drafted in the second round by the Portland Trail Blazers.

I hadn’t paid much attention to Robinson’s college career. UConn was a Big East doormat until he got there. Besides, I was busy covering the NBA from 1985-89, chronicling the exploits of Patrick Ewing, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon.

But in time, I felt like Robinson’s local publicist. From his rookie year, when he was sixth man for a Blazers team that reached the Finals, it seemed Robinson, who died of lymphoma at 53 a week ago, was never fully appreciated — even in his hometown.

There were reasons for that. For one thing, Buffalo was an orphaned NBA city. The Braves had left town just a decade earlier, and there was a palpable disdain in Western New York, a sense the league had abandoned them. The best revenge for a lot of fans was to simply ignore the NBA.

Robinson’s early years directly paralleled the Bills’ glory years, the four straight Super Bowls. People’s attention was diverted. The Sabres were getting hot. Pat LaFontaine, Alex Mogilny and Dale Hawerchuk all came to Buffalo between 1989 and 1991.

Oh, and it was also the time when Christian Laettner, a local kid, became the most famous college hoop star in America. Laettner was a matinee idol. No athlete from Buffalo — not even Patrick Kane — has been so nationally celebrated in modern times.

Robinson was accustomed to being underestimated. He was a late bloomer. He was just 5-foot-11 as a freshman at Riverside High and averaged just 3 points a game as a sophomore. He was a raw, marginal player as a freshman at UConn and nearly flunked out before Jim Calhoun took over as head coach and got him the academic counseling he needed.

But he blossomed in Storrs, leading UConn to the NIT title in 1988 and paving the way for a dynasty that went on to win four NCAA titles. Robinson, who was 6-10, was expected to be drafted in the first round in 1989. He certainly thought so, and attended the draft in New York City.

“He thought he was going in the first round,” said Billy Russell, who coached Cliff at Riverside and became a lifelong friend. “He told me he didn’t have a tie to wear with his suit for the draft. He said he spent foolish money for a tie to wear with his suit.”

So much for the tie. They never called Robinson to the stage. He went in the second round, 36th overall. As the story goes, Robinson departed Madison Square Garden through a kitchen and bolted into the Manhattan streets.

“He went out and threw his suit coat and tie in the trunk of his car,” Russell said.

After the draft, Calhoun told reporters that 30 teams had made a mistake. Robinson told Calhoun, “I’ll show them.”

It was reminiscent of another famous Buffalo athlete, Thurman Thomas. A year earlier, Thomas had been drafted 40th overall by the Bills. Like Robinson, he was embarrassed and devastated. Two proud athletes, born in the same year (1966), went around for the rest of their careers with giant chips on their shoulders.

Robinson showed them, all right. As a rookie, he was sixth man on a Portland team that won 59 games and reached the Finals. His teams always won. It wasn’t until his 15th season that he played on a team that won fewer than 44 games over a full season.

The first time I interviewed Cliff, in March of 1990, he was in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. You could tell over the phone he was tired as the Blazers were about to play their fourth game in five nights.

It was also obvious that he was still burning for recognition, though he said he didn’t care what people thought. He admitted that making the NBA’s all-rookie team was a goal for him. He also knew his stats weren’t worthy in the eyes of the voters. Cliff was a vital cog on a title contender, but he was scoring only 9 points a game.

“If you put me in the same situation, getting the ball all the time and playing 40 minutes, I'd do the same thing,” he said that day. “But I'd rather be playing a role on a team that's winning.”

Robinson didn't even make all-rookie second team. He didn’t have the numbers. All he did was play every game — he still holds the Blazers’ record with 461 straight games — and win. The Blazers went back to the Finals in his third season, in 1992.

He began to get more respect as the years wore on, though he continued to come off the bench for a top team. Critics slowly came to appreciate that Robinson’s value couldn’t be measured in mere stats.

“If it’s recognized, then it's recognized,” he told me when I interviewed him in New Jersey in 1993. “If not, then I can't get caught up in wondering why. Right now my concentration is on our team.”

He was the NBA’s sixth man of the year in 1993. In 1994, he made his only all-star team. It surely bothered him to make only one. It wasn’t until 2002 that he made second team on the NBA’s all-defensive team.

It was Cliff’s stunning longevity, and his versatility, that came to define him. When he played for the Nets in 2007, he was 40 years old, the only active player who had played in the 1980s.

He was seventh all-time in games played upon his retirement, and he’s now 13th with 1,380. Robinson is 50th in career NBA scoring with 19,591 points. Buffalo native and Hall of Famer Bob Lanier, who played four fewer seasons, is 55th.

Robinson is the only player in NBA history with 1,400 steals, 1,300 blocked shots and 1,200 3-point baskets. At one point, he was the tallest man ever to sink 1,000 3-pointers. He was a unique talent who foreshadowed the way the game would be played 20 years after his prime. Defensively, he could guard multiple positions, which is increasingly valued in today’s game.

He would battle 7-footers like Shaquille O’Neal or David Robinson down low. Then he would switch out and match up with smaller men on the perimeter. He guarded Michael Jordan in crucial moments of the 1992 NBA Finals.

It was unusual for a man his size to play outside the arc on offense back in the day. Nowadays, a center or power forward who can stretch defenses by shooting 3-pointers while guarding multiple positions at the other end is one of the most valued commodities in the NBA.

“He was ahead of his time,” said Rob Lanier, a Buffalo native who was a year behind Robinson and played at St. Bonaventure. Lanier went on to be one of the top assistant coaches in America and is now the head coach at Georgia State. “He would be one of the top players in the league today, for sure.

“He was tough and competitive and had that combination of skills that wasn’t necessarily embraced back then,” Lanier said.

During his final NBA season, Robinson told me, “I’m the type of player who will probably get more credit after he’s done playing.”

He was right about that. After his death, there was a fresh feeling of discovery about his career. Really, he played that long? He scored more points than Lanier? He ranks that high in 3s, steals and blocks? Maybe he was better than he got credit for all along.

“I do think a case can be made that he was underappreciated,” Lanier said. “But I think people in the community appreciated him and there was a love for the fact that he was a really authentic person. There’s a community perspective and then there’s a media perspective.”

Robinson had his issues as a younger man. He was seen as overly emotional, immature, sullen. He was suspended twice during his NBA career for marijuana. He advocated for pot to be legal. Even there, he was ahead of his time. Once pot was legalized in Oregon, he opened his own marijuana dispensary in Portland.

There are athletes we don’t fully embrace until they’re gone, until time and distance bring them into better focus. Cliff yearned for acceptance, but I believe he came to peace with his place in the basketball world. He was a happy man and a loving husband and father of six.

As Lanier said, the people who mattered knew how good Cliff was, and how authentic a human being. In the hoop community, and the community from which he sprang, he was a hero, one of the greatest athletes Buffalo has ever produced.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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