When the Washington Bullets visited the Golden State Warriors last weekend on their current six-game road trip, there was precious little acknowledgement that Cliff Robinson had come home.
Ten days ago, Seattle was the first stop on the Bullets' two-week tour through the Northwest and Texas, and that city went to great lengths to welcome back a recently departed hero, Gus Williams. Television crews were nearly tripping over themselves to record Williams' thoughts on returning to play against the team that had traded him eight months earlier.
There was none of that for Robinson during the team's two-day stay in the Bay Area. In fact, Williams, who maintains a home in Oakland, probably received more attention than native son Robinson. A look at the record book could explain why.
Williams spent six years with the SuperSonics, winning one NBA championship. He also spent two seasons with the Warriors, the first a year after the team won the 1975 title. All Robinson ever did for Oakland was to grow up there. Seventeen years spent on the east side of town with his sister and three brothers, time spent in his words, "playin' a lot of street football and hanging out. Nothing out of the ordinary."
Even basketball, the endeavor that would eventually become his livelihood, was a chore then. Not until the 11th grade did he take up the sport earnestly. Prior to that, "the only times I got off the bench were to stretch," he says. "Guys used to tease me. In the 10th grade the coach told everyone there were 12 guys on the team and I was the 12th."
That summer, the varsity coach at Castlemont High gave Robinson a basketball with words like defense, sliding and footwork written on it in ink. He told him that, if he wanted to be a player, he had to use the ball. According to Robinson, by the time school began that fall, "that ball had been worn smooth; the words were wiped off."
The following season, Castlemont won everything in sight in the Bay Area, with Robinson, 16, a junior, playing an instrumental role. But high school titles are won in 50 states and the District of Columbia.
An NBA title is special. And now, Robinson, a 24-year-old wanderer who has played on four NBA teams, wants to be special, too.
To see him on a basketball court today is to know that he is blessed with extraordinary talents. At 6 feet 9 and 230 pounds, the Bullets' forward is as bulky as most men who toil down low at power forward. In the NBA, perhaps he and Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics are the only two players of that size capable of being effective at small forward.
A Bird-Robinson comparison is by no means ludicrous. While not the passer Bird is, Robinson is almost every inch the scorer and rebounder. Both men entered the NBA in 1979; Bird had played 399 games to Robinson's 351 entering this season. Bird gets a rebound every 3.5 minutes played, Robinson every 3.3. Bird scores every 1.6 minutes, Robinson every 1.7.
None of this is meant to suggest that Bird robbed Robinson of the most valuable player trophy last season. That difference of 48 games played meant a great deal, as does that difference in passing, Bird assisting on a score every 6.7 minutes to Robinson's 16.3.
There also has been a difference in each man's NBA surroundings. Playing solely with the Boston Celtics, Bird has been a major part of two league championships. When Robinson was traded to the Bullets on draft day last June, it marked the third time he had been dealt. He had previously been traded to incredibly bad teams. The total won-lost records of the New Jersey, Kansas City and Cleveland teams Robinson played for was 124-286. It's hard to be special if no one ever comes to watch you play.
Yet, at the same time, anyone who has ever seen Robinson on the court surely has had his breath taken away after a stunning move, a remarkable dunk.
Coaches recognize Robinson's abilities, but that hasn't stopped them from trading him. Why so many moves? The word selfish is often whispered about Robinson around the NBA, though it is a reputation both he and the Bullets insist is not warranted.
"I've always thought of him as an immense talent that was only going to get better," says Chuck Daly of the Detroit Pistons. Daly, head coach of the Cavaliers for all of 41 games in 1981-82, coached Robinson during that time.
"He's always had great stats but the longer I've been around and the more I've coached in the East, the more I've discovered how important intangible things are," Daly says. "Minutes played, defense, they get exploited more in the East . . .
"With Cliff, I think the problem could be injuries. It seems he misses a lot of games."
In that sense, the 1984-85 season has been a nightmare for Robinson. Of the 55 games played by the Bullets, he has missed 22. There have been back problems, leg problems, knee problems, even problems with a single finger. On top of all that, Robinson missed four games earlier in the season because of the death of a brother.
"When I was 19 and with the Nets, I got the measles once," says Robinson in explaining the extent of previous absences. "That's about as major as it's gotten. Now, I wonder what else could happen to me. I've been so miserable that I almost wished I had a dog just so I could kick it. But with my luck, I'd probably just hurt my foot."
When Robinson has been in the lineup, he's played well, averaging almost 17 points and eight rebounds a game. According to Washington Coach Gene Shue, Robinson has been "everything the team expected him to be." Rejoining the Bullets on their trip west after missing 15 games with strains and sprains in his right leg, the forward has averaged more than 21 points and 12 rebounds in the three games (all defeats) played thus far.
In doing so, however, Robinson also has knows he has run the risk of alienating some of his teammates. During the month he was out and watching the Bullets struggle night after night on the boards, he worried about their thoughts.
"The players are concerned about me and it's a true concern," he said just before the all-star break. "It's worse when the team is losing; you're sitting there on the bench and you can't do anything and they sort of look at you. Their eyes say, 'When you comin' back?' "
But in trying to provide the team with what it so desperately needed during his absence -- in trying to be special -- Robinson has almost done too much. There have been forced shots at inopportune times. Says one member of the Bullets, "We want to go to him but he has to let it happen. You can't come back after missing a month and just take over; it has to evolve."
Such feelings are exactly what Robinson had hoped to avoid in Washington. Contrary to Chuck Daly's theory, injuries were not responsible for his almost nomadic career, it's been the specter of selfishness that has hovered over his head wherever he's gone.
With the Bullets, he has gone out of his way to avoid the tag. In any conversation with the media, he goes to great lengths to include mentioning Jeff Ruland and/or Rick Mahorn, the heart of the team. After a 105-94 victory over the Nets Dec. 18, a game in which he had 30 points and 18 rebounds while New Jersey's Buck Williams had 29 and 14, Robinson looked warily at reporters inquiring about the great one-on-one duel, as if they were laying the bait for some trap.
"Maybe things would have been different if I had waited to come out," says Robinson, referring to his decision to join the NBA after his sophomore season at the University of Southern California. "There have been some rumors here and there. People say things that aren't true. I have no control over that. Everyone isn't going to like you, but it seems the people who don't like me have pens in their hands. I was 19, two years out of high school. I'd imagine I had some growing up to do."
Unfortunately, Robinson has never gotten the chance to sit back and passively experience that growth, mostly by his own choice. After his high school career, he decided to attend Southern Cal because he wanted to play right away.
That certainly happened. Moving right into the starting lineup, he led the Trojans and the entire Pacific-10 conference in scoring. The team went from last in the league to second behind UCLA.
He continued that pace until late the next season, when he suffered torn tissues in his left foot. His foot encased in a cast, he was pressured to play in the NCAA tournament, he says. After he refused to, he says, "I felt all alone. Things started to get very weird."
Rumors began to fly, including stories that he and Bob Boyd, then USC's coach, were so much at odds that Robinson's father Charles once threatened the coach. Boyd was unavailable for comment today. That spring, Robinson decided it would be best if he left school.
When the Nets selected him with the 11th pick of the first round in the 1979 draft, he was supposed to be a star, not a child. "I had a lot to learn about the game, a lot to learn about life for that matter," he says. "It wasn't a case where I knew I couldn't do this or do that or go here or go there and avoid them. I was learning as I went along."
In the process, he averaged 13.6 points and seven rebounds for the Nets. In his second year, he improved to 19.5 and 7.6. That season, the Nets played their home games on the campus of Rutgers University while their present site, Byrne Arena, was under construction.
Driving to Piscataway, N.J., from his apartment in Hackensack, Robinson would pass the arena site and dream big dreams. "That was going to be my building," he says. "I was learning; they wanted me. That next season was going to be it. Then I heard that they traded me, I just had to sit back, I was so stunned."
Upon arrival in Kansas City, Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons told Robinson that he should lead the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, which he did. It still didn't stop him from getting traded 38 games into the 1981-82 season.
And to Cleveland no less. In his 2 1/2 seasons there, he never averaged fewer than than 16.3 points and 9.5 rebounds. But in that span, he played for four coaches. "Maybe I've never gotten the credit I think I've deserved because of the won-loss record of the teams I've been on," he says. "In Cleveland, there was always a different philosophy, a different style. One year we had two entirely different training camps.
"I could be great in one steady situation, where I could adapt and get to know the people involved. I'd get envious sometimes of the guys who had played on the same team for four or five years. They'd just know what to do, pow, pow, pow. I used to think about what I could do on that team. Then I'd have to face reality and deal with where I really was."
Before obtaining Robinson from Cleveland, the Bullets' front office talked extensively with Tom Nissalke, fired last year as the Cavaliers' coach. Like everyone else, Nissalke told Shue and General Manager Bob Ferry that he'd never had a harder worker.
For Robinson, a trade to Washington means a chance to exorcize some of the demons. "I've always felt that I've been traded so much because wherever I've played I've been the team's most marketable player, whether in terms of talent or salary or whatever. Now I want to be able to unpack my suitcases for a while.
"I don't think I'm shooting as much as I have in the past," he says. "I could score more but I'm realizing that winning is more important, if only because winning teams get the most recognition."
And with that recognition, perhaps he will finally take on that special status. "I've had a lot of experience and I'm only 24 years old," he says. "I feel I'll get stronger and if I can stay here any amount of time and learn the system, watch out. I'm sick and tired of hearing about how I might become a great player. There's not too much that I can't do out on a basketball court. It's time I became a super player instead of a potentially super one."