Clifford Robinson, selected by the Portland Trail Blazers with the 36th overall pick of the 1989 Draft, led a remarkable life. He played 18 seasons in the NBA, traveled to North Korea with Dennis Rodman, was a proponent of marijuana legalization and even contestant on a season of “Survivor.”
But Robinson, tragically like so many others, could not survive 2020.
The man known affectionately as “Uncle Cliffy” passed away at the age of 53, joining Kevin Duckworth, Jerome Kersey and Drazen Petrovic as Trail Blazers greats from the early 90’s who died far too young.
Questions about his character caused the 6-10 forward, a two-time All Big East honoree over the course of four seasons at UCONN, to fall to Portland in the second round, though those concerns proved to be of no consequence, as Robinson was a model citizen on and off the court.
Robinson would go on to play eight season with the Trail Blazers while appearing in every single game in his first five seasons. A stalwart of the early 90’s teams that went to the NBA Finals twice over the course of three seasons, Robison was the Sixth Man of the Year in 1993 and made the All-Star team in 1994. Thanks to his skill, health and longevity, Robinson ranks in the Top 10 in franchise history in games (5th), minutes (6th), field goals (8th), three-pointers (t-7th), free throws (6th), total rebounds (10th), offensive rebounds (7th), steals (6th), blocks (2nd) and points (5th) despite starting only half of his 644 games in Portland.
And while it’s harder to quantify than his statistics, one could argue Robinson was the “coolest” player on those great Trail Blazers teams. Clyde Drexler was the All-Star, Terry Porter the general, Jerome Kersey the athlete, Duckworth the gentle giant and Buck Williams the hardass, all of whom where revered and whose names still ring out in Rip City. But it was Cliff Robinson, a little younger than the aforementioned, with his wide smile, headband and wristbands and ability to shoot, who always seemed like the cool one. And he came off the bench, giving him a bit of an underdog persona that plays incredibly well in Portland, where hard work and sacrifice are respected just as much as talent, if not a bit more so.
After leaving the Trail Blazers, Robinson signed as a free agent with the Suns and played four season in Phoenix, twice earning All-Defensive team honors, before playing in Detroit and Golden State for two seasons and finally wrapping up his career with the Nets at the age of 40. All told, Robinson appeared in 1,380 games, which puts him in between Reggie Miller and Kobe Bryant for 13th all-time in NBA history. In his 18 seasons, Robinson’s teams made the postseason 17 times, a truly amazing accomplishment.
While the numbers he piled up over the course of 18 NBA seasons are impressive, Robinson’s influence on the NBA, both in terms of skill and style, can still be seen today.
First, Robinson was one of the first three-point shooting big men in league history, paving the way for the “stretch” bigs that are highly sought after in today’s NBA. In a time when anyone taller than 6-8 was supposed to spend the majority of their time in the post, Robinson developed a three-point shot and would go on to shoot 36 percent from three for his career. He paved the way for the likes of Rasheed Wallace and Dirk Nowitzki, who, along with Robinson, are the only players in NBA history to record at least 1,000 three-pointers and 1,000 blocks.
And secondly, Robinson is primarily responsible for players in the NBA wearing headbands. While he wasn’t the first to don a headband in an NBA game, he was the most prolific devotee of the look and would often change into different versions over the course of a game. If you look at some of the photos from his playing days, you’ll notice Robinson is almost always the only player wearing a headband, a sartorial choice which is now common place in the NBA.
After his playing career was over, Robinson lived a colorful life that included going on a trip, unbeknownst to him at the time, to North Korea with Dennis Rodman and being a contestant on 28th season of the reality game show “Survivor.” Robinson also moved back to Portland and got involved in the cannabis industry as both an investor and advocate, a fitting post-career choice for someone who credited marijuana use as one of the reasons he was able to play professionally for nearly two decades.
Another good man gone far too soon, something that sadly doesn't seem all that uncommon these days.