The word “professional” is probably not the first adjective you would’ve chosen to describe Nate Robinson in the past. But that’s exactly what he was and how he acted like during his 13-game benching. Despite not playing for a month and having to deal with all the embarrassment and drama (mainly between his agent and the team), Robinson kept his mouth shut, cheered for his team and most importantly, stayed ready – both physically and mentally.
After his jaw-dropping, 41-point outburst in his first game back in the rotation against the Hawks on Friday night, Robinson proved how mentally tough and professional he really is. While you can’t say that he’ll hit 18-24 shots like he did against Atlanta every night (he shot only 2-11 last night against the Pacers), he did perform at a high level because he made a decision to root for his teammates and smile rather than pout. He also decided to put in extra work during his benching instead of having a sense of entitlement and demanding a trade.
“I never saw him down, but I’m pretty sure he did,” says teammate Wilson Chandler. “When stuff like that happens you can’t help it. But he’s a strong person, so I knew he’d bounce back. I think it was humbling for him.”
During that stretch when he was in the doghouse, Nate was on the court hours before every game hoisting up jumper after jumper. Since he wasn’t getting the 24 minutes a game burn he was used to receiving, Robinson was running up and down the bleachers of Madison Square Garden as well as every opposing arena he was in prior to each game. On top of working his tail off during practice, he’d also come in before and stay after practice to work on his game.
“I don’t know if I’m impressed, but I’m glad he did it,” says Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni. “These guys make a lot of money to stay ready and it’s not like, ‘Oh, boy, he stayed ready.’ I would say most people in the workplace would be kind of ready if they’re getting paid a lot of money.”
“Nate handled it really well,” added rookie teammate Jordan Hill. “Even when he knew he wasn’t going to play, he was always out there staying in shape. You knew he was going to get his chance sooner or later. [His benching] never stopped him, he was still cheering his team on and still staying focused.”
Robinson’s work ethic and mental preparation is a good example for Hill, who was the Knicks’ eighth-overall selection in last June’s draft. The 6-10 power forward out of Arizona has only appeared in 10 games this season and has logged in just 80 minutes total (8 mpg).
“It’s hard,” Hill says about not playing. “I was thinking about it like, ‘Man I wish I was out there playing and producing.’ But you have to stay focused. You don’t know when they’ll call your number. If I’m on the bench, I’ll cheer my team and try to show people I’m not down. So I try to be happy and cheer and do what I got to do when it’s my time.”
This season, Indiana Pacers guard Luther Head has experienced a situation similar to Robinson’s. Head received four-straight DNP-CDs (Did Not Play, Coach’s Decision) in mid-December but has played 33 mpg in the Pacers’ last five contests. He says handling it the same way Nate did is the only way to deal with not playing.
“In this league things could happen for no particular reason, so you got to focus on you,” says Head, who entered the league the same year as Robinson. “You have to continue to put in extra work before and after practice and take practice seriously.”
On top of being physically ready, it’s just as important to maintain a good mental state. That means keeping your head in the game when you’re not playing and not being scared or nervous when you do get your chance.
“When I was in Houston and I was in the doghouse, I was scared to make a mistake when I got back in,” says Head. “I learned that I can’t play that way. If you think about not making mistakes, that’s when you make the most mistakes. So I just go in there and just try to play.”
“I’ve been in this league long enough to realize that it’s a game. Everything is still just a game, you just got to go out there and do what you’re expected to do and do what you’ve done your whole life.”
When Nate got into the game against the Hawks at the end of the first quarter, he was a little cautious of doing the things that got him in the doghouse in the first place like: gloating, goofing off, taking bad shots and not focusing on the defensive end. But to his credit, he was aggressive and still tried to be himself on the court. Even though the Knicks are 2-0 since his return, doesn’t mean he is perfect now. He still looks confused in a zone defense and still has the tendency to takes some bad shots. But he took got D’Antoni’s point and he’s playing like he never left.
Or at least he’s acting like it.