Cliff Robinson arrived at the Washington Bullets' 11 a.m. practice yesterday at 9:40, so early that he had to sit in his van for someone with a set of keys to arrive and let him in.
When the doors were finally opened, it wasn't long before the 6-foot-9 forward found his way onto the practice floor at Bowie State College, where he shot free throws, made moves on imaginary defenders and just reveled in the act of playing basketball.
"I wanted to get back and do some work," Robinson said. "I feel good and I'm ready to make a contribution."
"As long as nothing happens overnight."
One can understand Robinson's hesitancy. The past 10 1/2 months of Cliff Robinson's life have been a period of sudden changes, changes that have sometimes been violent in nature.
Besides the trade that brought the sixth-year player to Washington from the Cleveland Cavaliers on draft day in June, Robinson has been traumatized by the sudden death of two brothers.
Last Dec. 29, Robinson's older brother, Charles Ray, died near the family's West Coast home, causing Cliff to miss six games. Four games into the present season, he was given more cause for grief. A younger brother, Zachary, had died.
Robinson says that neither he nor his family are ready to discuss the circumstances behind the death of his brothers, the specifics of which have yet to be revealed. But he adds that his return to the basketball court isn't a search for some sort of sanctuary from recent events, but an effort to continue with his own life.
After a four-game absence, Robinson returned to the Bullets in time for last Saturday's game against the Boston Celtics. He played 26 minutes, getting 12 points and nine rebounds in the team's 112-95 rout of the defending league champions.
"It feels great being back and being with my teammates," Robinson said after that game. "I took care of what had to be done but I was anxious, really trying to get back."
"My grief is something that's there, I have to deal with it," he said yesterday. "Coming back isn't a way to hide from it or mask it. I've got my faith to carry me through. If I didn't . . . whew, I don't know what I would have done."
Zachary Robinson's death came at a time when Cliff was rounding back into shape after missing nearly two weeks of training camp with back spasms and a sore right shoulder. Playing hesitantly, Robinson was averaging 11 points and five rebounds a game before his departure.
"I felt like I was almost there, maybe four days away from being back from the injury," he said. "Now I have to get back into condition. Before, it was a case of, 'Maybe you don't want to do that now and get hurt again.' "
In both Saturday night's game and yesterday's practice, Robinson displayed signs of the zest that led to averages of 17.8 points and 10.3 rebounds per game with the Cavaliers last season and his subsequent acquisition by the Bullets.
When the team engaged in a full-court scrimmage, Robinson might have been considered the dominant player, hitting numerous turnaround jump shots and grabbing rebounds and cradling them with one motion in a single hand.
"Whatever it takes," said Robinson afterwards. "Whatever I can give, I want to help make this team a better one."
The Bullets meet the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden tonight, then play a rematch at Capital Centre Friday. The Bullets also are at home Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs and George Gervin, who scored 42 points in the team's 127-103 victory over Cleveland Saturday.
When asked about facing Gervin without adequate time to prepare, Bernie Bickerstaff, the Bullets' assistant coach, said, "That's one of the problems with the league schedule but it doesn't matter as much with him. All you can do is try to keep the ball away from him or use the element of surprise -- like at times using (center) Rick Mahorn to guard him."