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Little Big Man Is In Motion

'Nate the Great' Robinson Makes Name for Himself

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page D01

SEATTLE

The most exciting player in college basketball came into the world much as he is now, a carousel of motion, arms akimbo, legs jiggling, feet shuffling in the air. And when the nurses swaddled Nate Robinson for the first time, his father -- an athlete himself, then seven months away from being the MVP of the Orange Bowl -- looked at the boy and smiled into the future.

"My son is going to be great," Jacque Robinson said.


Nate Robinson, a 5-9 junior, was nicknamed at birth by his father, Jacque Robinson, a former MVP of the Orange Bowl. (Matt Sayles -- AP)

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At which point he bestowed upon his child the nickname "Nate the Great."

And the son did everything he could to live up to the title even if he never grew to be taller than a small SUV. He was Nate the Great, bounding off couches, running hurdles on an imaginary track filled with trash cans and lawn chairs. He wore homemade crowns around the house and urged his mother to buy him birthday cakes with crowns made of frosting.

People looked at the tiny boy who boasted of NBA dreams, and they laughed. He was too small, they said. But the rejection only emboldened Nate the Great. Doubt him? They would learn.

This was how he came to dunk a basketball in eighth grade. How at just 180 pounds he was the high school running back nobody could tackle. And how at barely more than 5 1/2 feet tall the little junior guard from the University of Washington became the most exciting player in a sport of giants.

"I hear I can't do things a lot," Nate Robinson says, a small smile playing on his lips. "It just goes in one ear and out the other."

In this NCAA tournament that starts today, Washington is an unlikely No. 1 seed, playing Montana at 3:10 p.m. in Boise, Idaho. But if the Washington Huskies are college basketball's most unlikely top seed, Nate Robinson is the game's most improbable story, the one almost nobody believed would make it here.

Like Jacque Robinson, who was a star running back at Washington, the son also was a football prodigy still famous for a 98-yard kickoff return in high school where everybody -- even the officials -- were looking for him in the pile of tacklers while he was standing in the end zone on the other side of the field. So good that USC Coach Pete Carroll came to Seattle's Rainier Beach High in Nate's senior year and told the player that he would become the Trojans' next great Heisman Trophy winner if only he would pledge his life to USC.

But USC wasn't offering basketball. Nobody was offering basketball despite Nate's qualifications as a McDonald's All-American finalist because major colleges don't offer basketball scholarships to football players who say they are 5 feet 9 and yet have been measured at no more than a finger over 5-7.

In the end, he went to his home-town Washington, the place that offered him a football scholarship along with permission to play basketball at the end of the fall. He played cornerback as a freshman for the football team, starting six games, intercepting two passes and heading straight to the gym to shoot baskets for an hour after his football practices.

Then the moment the Huskies football season ended, he stripped off his shoulder pads and never went back.

Great Leap

College basketball's most exciting player is a burst of Husky purple on the court, skittering around 7-footers, leaping from nowhere to snatch a pass and flying into the stands to save a loose ball. But it's when he jumps that everybody stops, mainly because no one has seen a player so small leap so high. There seems no logical explanation for why a player an inch shorter than his little cousin on the Washington women's team can dunk.


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