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CLIFF ROBINSON RISES TO STARDOM IN NBA BLAZER COMMANDS NEW RESPECT

CLIFF ROBINSON RISES TO STARDOM IN NBA BLAZER COMMANDS NEW RESPECT

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Cliff Robinson said it didn't hit him until the day of the game, a week ago today. He was sitting in his mother's house in Cheektowaga when the All-Star Game came on TV and he felt the knife of recognition go through him.

Looking upon the All-Star spectacle, this wondrous collection of his basketball contemporaries, Robinson finally realized how much it would have meant to be among them.

"I looked at it and let out a big scream," Robinson said Friday night at Meadowlands Arena. "All those great players out there, that would have been lovely."

In a younger time, he might have raged at the snub, chafed privately over the fact that two of his Portland teammates made the team ahead of him.

But after allowing his brief moment of disappointment, Robinson simply shrugged and put it behind him. He went back to what he has been for four seasons -- an indispensable member of one of the NBA's premier teams.

"You've just got to keep playing," he said. "I've tried to do that all through my young career, just go out and do what I'm capable. If it's recognized, then it's recognized. If not, then I can't get caught up in wondering why. Right now my concentration is on our team."

The Blazers reached the NBA Finals in two of Robinson's first three seasons. But they've fallen on difficult times. Despite Friday's 102-91 win over the Nets, this will be their first losing month since Robinson joined them.

So that makes it hard for him to revel in the fact that this season has been by far his best. At 26, he is posting careers highs in every category. He is second on the Blazers in scoring (18.5) and third in rebounds (6.6), while shooting a career-best 47.0 percent. He is the leading shot-blocker in the Pacific Division.

His value, while not adequately reflected in numbers, is indisputable. The day after the trading deadline, a Portland official was quoted as saying that no Blazer had been untouchable -- "not even Cliff Robinson."

This is a team with a USA Dream Teamer and certifiable superstar named Clyde Drexler.

"He's matured as a player," Drexler said. "He has tremendous talent and he's starting to take full advantage of it. He really means a lot to this team. It's a slow process. I think you have to do it over a period of years before people take notice of you."

But to fully appreciate Robinson, it's necessary to watch him in the context of a 48-minute game. Only then do you comprehend his impact, and what his interchangeable talents can do for a coach.

Friday's game here was a rare opportunity to see his skills in full force. Because the Blazers had been struggling, coach Rick Adelman decided to give the 6-10 Robinson -- the NBA's top sixth man -- his fifth start of the season.

That move, along with an injury that sidelined veteran power forward Buck Williams for the second half, allowed Robinson to play 42 minutes (11 above his average) and show the array of his talents.

Robinson jumped center, but he guarded Nets small forward Chris Morris at the start and took him right out of the game. At other times, he guarded power forwards and centers. Offensively, his position changed constantly, allowing Adelman to take advantage of mismatches.

"Every year he's gotten better," Adelman said. "He still has a tendency sometimes not to realize he's quick enough to take bigger guys to the hole, or that he can overpower a smaller guy. When he does that and stays under control, he's very tough."

Still, it's defensively that Robinson has his greatest impact. He is a watchful, looming presence whose quickness and long arms allow him to roam without violating the league's illegal defense rules. He's among the best in the game at dropping off his man to stop smaller players.

Consider this five-minute sequence against the Nets:

Robinson rips the ball out of Derrick Coleman's hands to start a fast break; he gets back on a Nets break to force Drazen Petrovic into a turnover; he helps out on Chris Dudley and knocks the ball out of bounds off Dudley; he drops down to cover Petrovic on a baseline drive, forcing him to miss wildly on a reverse; he runs out on Kenny Anderson's jumper and alters his shot.

Much of this doesn't translate into personal statistics. It's not so much the shots he blocks, but the ones he alters -- or in the case of Morris, who was held to eight points, the shots that aren't taken.

And he's also altered the opinion of people who felt he lacked the emotional makeup to succeed in the NBA. It's hard to believe now that the former Riverside High and UConn star was available to the Blazers with the 36th pick of the 1989 draft.

"I've always been a fan of his," said Coleman, who faced Robinson regularly while at Syracuse. "He proved all his doubters wrong. They said he wasn't a hard worker, that he didn't play hard, that he was selfish. I mean, I knew he wasn't that type of player. I knew what he was capable of doing, given the opportunity. He's been my vote for sixth man of the year the last two or three years."

The media has often presented him as a one-dimensional person, and he is no saint. He missed classes at Connecticut. He could be surly and uncommunicative on and off the court, his scowling face suggesting a barely contained rage.

As a pro, he's also had his share of problems. Late one night, he slapped a female police officer during a brawl outside a nightclub. Last spring, he was charged with driving 110 mph.

"All guys have little things that stick with them all through their career," he said, "especially if you have a couple of incidents that lacked good judgment.

"I can't let myself get caught up in what other people think. I know who I am," he said, "and I know where I'm trying to go. I can see changes in my personality each year. If you want to call it maturing, I guess I've done some of that."

He seems to have abandoned the scowl, though he still wears his signature headbands. On Friday, he wore red in the first half, black in the second. And he was a smiling, joyous figure, both on the floor and in the dressing room.

Robinson is about to experience the joy of fatherhood, in an unorthodox fashion. He is in the process of adopting a 5-year-old girl, Jessica, whom he once mistakenly believed to be his natural daughter. He could have been free of responsibility for Jessica, but he had grown so close to her that he decided to bring her to Portland to live.

After Friday's game, an old acquaintance from the Connecticut media said he couldn't believe Robinson had decided to adopt Jessica.

"Why's that?" Robinson said. "Don't let the media form your judgment on somebody else. Don't let 'em do that."

Then he made a face of mock surprise and told the Connecticut writer, 'Hey, you are the media! You might be part of the problem. Hey, guys, we got a troublemaker over here!' "

Imagine that, Cliff Robinson, calling someone else a troublemaker. He's come a long way since leaving Buffalo, and the only real trouble he's causing these days is for the opposition.

Maybe he's not an All-Star yet, but every coach in the league would love to have him. It's not certain whether he's about to become a starter, but there's little doubt he's on the verge of becoming a star.

CLIFF NOTES

NAME: Clifford Ralph Robinson.

BIRTH: Dec. 16, 1966, Buffalo.

HIGH SCHOOL: Riverside.

COLLEGE: Connecticut.

ACQUIRED: Selected by Portland Trail Blazers in second round (26th overall) of 1989 NBA draft.

PRO STATISTICS

Averages based on 82 game season

Year Min. Reb. Blks Pts.

1992-93 31.2 6.6 1.8 18.5

1991-92 25.9 5.1 1.3 12.4

1990-91 23.7 4.3 .93 11.7

1989-90 19.1 3.8 .65 9.1

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