by Mike Bruscas
Nate Robinson believes he can fly.
"When I jump, it feels like I'm flying, like I'm a bird in the sky and I feel like you can see everything," the Husky sophomore says. "Sometimes when I jump I just don't want to come down, I just want to stay up there."
Having proven himself able to defy gravity, the question remains as to whether the explosive point guard can defy recent history and lead the Huskies back to the top of the Pac-10 Conference.
Through the first two months of the 2003-04 basketball season, there has been a sense of hope in Hec Ed such as has not been felt since Todd MacCulloch made his last stand in the paint. Over four straight disappointing seasons, the Husky faithful have desperately searched for someone to fill the big shoes of the seven-foot center.
At a debatable 5-foot-8, Robinson may come up a few shoe sizes short, but his unrelenting energy and immense heart on and off the court has inspired teammates and fans alike to believe that not even the sky can put limitations on this high-flying highlight reel and the rest of the youthful Dawgs.
It was on the gridiron where Robinson first catapulted himself into the hearts of Husky fans, leaping high over a Washington State receiver to intercept a pass in the 2002 Apple Cup, helping spark a come-from-behind UW win. Robinson started the final six games of the season for the Huskies, finishing with 34 tackles and two interceptions, and earning Freshman All-Pac-10 honors from The Sporting News.
Who knew the freshman was just getting started?
A few days after the Apple Cup, Robinson donned a basketball jersey and lit up the Huskies' non-conference opponents, scoring 19 points twice in his first three games and bringing a road crowd at Santa Clara to its feet by soaring over the Broncos' 7-foot center for a near-dunk. Robinson's nonstop motor infused passion and excitement into the team, and before long the freshman was in the starting lineup.
Putting the team on the shoulders of a true freshman point guard in the always-loaded Pac-10 could have proven disastrous, especially since at times Washington featured five freshmen on the floor at once. Robinson responded, however, by leading the team in scoring with 13.0 points per game and earning his second All-Pac-10 Freshman Team acclaim of the year.
Looking back on his whirlwind freshman ride, even Robinson recognizes how special the season was.
"Putting on a Husky football jersey and basketball jersey all in the same season is an incredible experience," he says. "Not a lot of people can say they did that before."
Family comes first and foremost for Robinson, a fact for which Husky fans are thankful. Nate's father, Jacque Robinson, was a star tailback at Washington from 1981-84 and knows a little something about being one-of-a-kind, having been the only player in history to have been named MVP of both the Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl.
"I was a Husky baby; my dad was a junior here when I was born," says the younger Robinson. "Deep down inside of me, I wanted to be a Husky just like my dad. Everybody wants to do everything just like their dad."
If his pedigree was passed down from his father, his drive comes from his mother, Renee Busch.
"My mom is like Allen Iverson, she never gives up," Robinson says. "She's been there for me all my life. She's in my ear making sure I'm on my schoolwork, making sure I'm going to class, doing all the little things that mom's supposed to do. She's been to every game, cheering for me when things aren't going well. I'm just thankful that I have my mom because I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have her."
The basketball team could say the same about Nate, and fortunately, they won't have to find out anytime soon. Last spring, Robinson chose to rein in his ability and focus on one sport - basketball - for the first time in his life. It was a difficult decision that Robinson didn't make alone.
"I asked God," he says. "I'd been sitting around talking to him a lot about my decision. He just told me to follow my heart. I wanted to do something I had never done. I wanted to try one sport for the first time in my life."
Narrowing his scope has allowed Robinson to keep pace with the rest of the nation's elite point guards, but instead of embracing the lighter workload, he has simply doubled the amount of work he puts into his court game.
"I can work even harder now at some of the things I couldn't really work on while playing football," Robinson says. "The mechanics of my jumper, my defense, court awareness - making sure I have all the fundamentals in a great package to help the team win."
This season, the Huskies are all about "team." With the nucleus together from the start this season on a team free from egos or distractions, the men hope to fully realize the potential they've shown.
"We want to prove to people that we can play together, have fun, and win games on top of all that," Robinson says. "Last year, at the end of the year, we started to gel more. When I first came on the team I could see people here and there going their separate ways, but this year we're going everywhere together as a team."
Playing together, says Robinson, makes the setbacks easier to bear.
"When you lose as a team, it doesn't feel that bad," he says. "When people start saying it's your fault and pointing fingers, that hurts more than anything, but we bring each other's spirits up."
Raising spirits is Nate Robinson's specialty. His philosophy is a simple one.
"Just play and have fun," he says. "I play with a smile on my face. I try to have fun, raise everyone's spirits - the team, the coach and the crowd."
Nothing raises the crowd's spirit quite like when Robinson's feet leave the floor and he uses his phenomenal 42-inch vertical leap to soar for a rebound or dunk. His high-flying game often leaves Robinson plummeting earthward after a nice finish, but he doesn't mind.
"If you've got to go out there and fall, break whatever for a rebound for the team, go out there and do it," he says. "Don't hold anything back."'
With his significant size disadvantage, Robinson has always had to work harder to create his shots. Scoring 15 points can seem like 30 from a fan's perspective, as there are rarely any easy buckets.
"You've got to out-quick guys and outsmart guys," he says. "You've got to go out there and just execute and know that you can't be stopped."
That confidence is one reason Huskies' head coach Lorenzo Romar has been eager to put Robinson on the floor.
"Nate's got a swagger about him that just rubs off on everyone else," Romar says. "It's contagious. The best way to describe him is as a hard-nosed winner."
Romar's belief in the ability of his players is unwavering, and he sets the bar high.
"Coach Romar pushes us because he expects so much from us and he knows we can do so well," says Robinson. "He has so much faith in us and for us to go out there against Gonzaga and lose like we did, it's like we're letting him down. He's a good coach, we love him to death."
With the better part of three seasons still on tap for Robinson, he can already imagine the legacy he wants to leave.
"I hope when I leave here people will say, 'Nate was one of the hardest working players I've ever seen play,' because when you work hard, only good things can come out of it," Robinson says.
Should Robinson's legs one day become old and lose their spring, he hopes his children will further the Huskies' Robinson heritage.
"God gave me hops, and hopefully I can pass it on to my kids," he says. "Hopefully I can pass it on to my daughter. She'll be the first girl to dunk at 5-foot-8."
Though fans have placed the weight of their collective expectations on his shoulders, Robinson shrugs it off in much the same way he shrugs off defenders, choosing instead to focus on his family.
"I cherish every breath, every chance I get to be with my family, and I know we're not going to be on this earth for long, so it's important I get to look at their faces as many times as I can," he says."
Nate Robinson is a once-in-a-lifetime, tell-the-grandkids type of player, and Husky fans should cherish every chance they have to get a look at him. Just remember to look up, as Robinson is taking the crowd, the coaches, and the team to new heights.