Nate Robinson is used to playing and performing well in front of large crowds.
He spent 10 years in the NBA playing in front of nearly 20,000 fans on a nightly basis, and helped sell out arenas in Israel during his short stint there in 2016.
But Tuesday night was a little different than what Robinson was typically used to. Maybe 200 people showed up to watch the 32-year-old as he suited up for the Delaware 87ers in Robinson’s first professional basketball action stateside since October 2015, his first points coming on a corner three as some children in attendance played in a moon bounce just off the court.
This is the NBA’s Developmental League, and although the fanfare around the Sevens doesn’t even come close to rivaling that of his previous destinations, Robinson realizes playing in Delaware is his best shot of making it back to The Association.
“There’s a lot of guys that have been balling that are from the D-League and are in the NBA now, so it’s just fun to see that after really getting the opportunity from here, not just from overseas and not just getting the call-up from being at home,” Robinson said. “So why not be down here playing, get in some good conditioning and some good basketball?”
Robinson, who was selected with the 25th overall pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, spent the first five seasons of his pro career with the New York Knicks, wowing fans at Madison Square Garden with his high-flying abilities despite being just 5-foot-9. Although he played for their Atlantic Division foes, Robinson said he modeled his game after another player whose heart made up for his lack of height: Allen Iverson.
“Just watching A.I. do his thing and carry a whole franchise like he did...It was just unbelievable and as a kid you don’t forget that, you kind of want to mock that,” Robinson said. “So every time I played Philly, I just tried to give them the best of me.”
He recalled the first time he was ever slated to play against his idol, and got so worked up the night before he couldn’t even sleep. Robinson would hit a buzzer-beating three over the outstretched arm of Iverson to give the Knicks the win in overtime.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. I hit the game winning shot over [Allen Iverson] and it changed my life,” he said.
Robinson became the NBA’s only three-time Slam Dunk contest champion during his tenure in New York. His first victory came over former Sixers small forward Andre Iguodala in a controversial decision, and according to Robinson, Sixers fans still to this day let him know he didn’t deserve to win.
“I get that on my Instagram a lot,” Robinson joked. “Everybody’s telling me I robbed him and I keep telling [Andre Iguodala], ‘You can’t do the same dunk trying to get different results.’ ”
He politely disagrees with the Instagram commenters.
“You can’t go back and change history,” Robinson said when asked if he felt he deserved the title.
After leaving New York, he turned into a basketball vagabond, spending time with seven different NBA teams over parts of the next six seasons.
With opportunities no longer presenting themselves at the NBA level during the course of the 2015-16 season, the Seattle, Washington native was forced to head overseas. He signed a deal with Hapoel Tel Aviv of the Israeli Premier Basketball League, and relished the opportunity to play there.
“I loved every second of it. Fans are crazy, they cheer the whole time. They’re not too cool. They really appreciate you as a person and as a player,” Robinson said about the experience.
Prior to his debut with the Sevens, Robinson had been completely out of basketball. He could’ve returned overseas, but chose to stay in the U.S. to be closer to his children. He confirmed he worked out for the Sixers last month when the team was in pursuit of a third point guard, but was told he needed to play more 5-on-5. The Sixers opted to sign Chasson Randle instead.
When the D-League and the Delaware 87ers came calling, he knew it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Now in his pursuit of a return to the league he called home for so long, he’s now drawing motivation from another vertically challenged guard.
“Just watching what my guy Isaiah Thomas is doing...it’s wonderful,” Robinson said about his fellow University of Washington alumni now starring for the Boston Celtics.
“When I text him and talk to him every other day I just tell him, ‘You got me looking up to you.’ I’m just happy. Iverson paved the way, I paved the way, and it’s coming back full circle.”
For Robinson’s basketball career to come full circle first game, he’ll need to play better than he did in his first game with the Sevens. He finished with just three points on 1-8 shooting, three steals, and one assist in 14 minutes. He looked gassed at times, and at one point told head coach Eugene Burroughs his lungs felt like they were on fire.
To Robinson’s credit, he hasn’t played professional basketball in nearly a full year, and was only able to practice with his new team once before Tuesday’s game.
General manager Brandon Williams still anticipates that he’ll play a large role in the team going forward.
“I think it’s an experiment for all of us at this point having been gone so long but we’re expecting that he’ll give us a spark, and as he learns our offense and starts to develop chemistry with the guys he’ll be a major part of what we’re doing,” Williams said.
Robinson was disappointed in his performance, noting that he couldn’t score at all, but believes he can still contribute to an NBA team.
“I know I can help any team in the league, with what I bring, which is energy, passion, grit, scoring, defense, and hustle,” he said.
Hopefully that’ll open up some eyes and get me another opportunity.”