It didn’t start with the reception one would have expected for a returning hero or end the way he would have liked, but Nate Robinson’s first game in Chicago since leaving the Bulls was still a fond one.
The diminutive scorer, who signed with the Nuggets as a free agent in the offseason, went scoreless in the Bulls’ Friday-evening, 94-89 win over Denver at the United Center, but after the game, Robinson still had a smile on the face, as his former teammates surrounded him to deliver postgame greetings. Prior to the contest, the instant-offense ex-Bulls fan favorite and last season’s playoff hero made it clear how much Chicago meant to him.
“This is something special to me, just because of the season from last year and what we did. It was a very special season, man, with a great group of guys, and I miss it. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t. But the guys over there, they showed me so much love. The coaching staff, the organization, fans. I had a hell of a year, and it was a great run,” he said. “We called to talk throughout the summer. I saw Jimmy (Butler) yesterday. Me and Jimmy sat down and ate dinner, talked it up. Called (Carlos Boozer), Booz bought me some cupcakes. I used to make cupcakes for the team, so he bought me some cupcakes. He said he had a surprise for me. I told him I hate surprises. But the guys are stand-up guys. I saw Joakim (Noah), Kirk (Hinrich), all those guys. (Luol Deng), Marquis (Teague), Nazr (Mohammad). I saw Naz yesterday, and it’s just good to see the guys, man. They still love me as a teammate and that’s good to know, and I love it.”
While he admittedly wanted to stay in Chicago, Robinson knew it was it was basically unfeasible with the return of Derrick Rose this season. Still, he cherished the experience.
“This is a business, man. Everybody knew I wanted to come back, but they had other things in mind. They signed a great shooter in (Mike) Dunleavy, they got a good rookie. They’ve got a great team. Plus, they’ve got D-Rose coming back, so why have Nate Robinson when you have D-Rose? I know that’s been the talk around the league. Pooh’s back healthy, looking good and he’s the man, and that’s how it should be,” said Robinson, who could be described as an NBA journeyman. “It was great, man. Really. Even more than any other place that I’ve ever been. Here has been the best.”
But when asked to imagine the possibilities of a backcourt that included him and Rose, Robinson couldn’t help letting his mind wander: “Ooh, it would have been scary. It definitely would have been scary, but you never know. Anything can happen.”
After watching Rose practice for much of last season, Robinson isn’t surprised by the former league MVP’s preseason success.
“No, he was that good last year. But I told D-Rose, ‘Just take your time, man. Come back when you want. Don’t let anybody push you into coming back when they want you to. You are (your) own investment. You know exactly when you’re ready,’ and it shows that he’s ready now,” he explained. “For me, it’s fun to see because my son loves him. My son’s like, ‘Dad, did you see what D-Rose did?’ ‘Yeah son, I watch TV. Of course, we play him.’ My son’s birthday is tomorrow, so he’s real excited. He was real excited D-Rose took a picture with him, and D-Rose is a stand-up guy, one of the best superstars that we have in this league and it’s a treat just to watch him play.”
No matter how Robinson is remembered as an NBA player, his legacy in Chicago is secured, as his first-round playoff performance in a triple-overtime home victory over Brooklyn was one of the most remarkable in franchise history, if not the entire league.
“For me, I was just carrying my team and the city on my back. It was a must-win game. I was just in the zone. My teammates were feeding me. The coaches, the fans gave me energy, but I couldn’t do it without my teammates. They believed in me, and it just made it easier for me to go out there and have fun. I was just having fun,” Robinson recounted. “All summer, everywhere I go, they say, ‘Hell of a game.’ Just everywhere. ‘You brought a different light to the team, a lot of energy,’ and a lot of fans — Twitter, Instagram, around the city. I was walking around yesterday, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ They were like, ‘Good to have you back. We miss you,’ and that’s just great, to be missed and to be loved like that, and I just hope it continues.”
That outing, along with the rest of his postseason, was a big reason Denver signed him, according to first-year Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw.
“Obviously being in Indiana last year we had some good battles with the Bulls. Nate hurt us in the games we played against the Bulls. But in particular, I saw the first round against the Nets in the playoffs. I thought he was probably the best player for the Bulls during that playoff series. When you have a guy like that who has proven he can score off the bench and plays with a lot of energy, excites the crowd, it was a no-brainer for us,” the coach said. “I’ve followed him for a long time. I’ve known him from back when he was at University of Washington. Obviously, when he was on the Celtics, they played against us in the Finals when I was with the Lakers in 2010. I’ve seen him and been a fan of his. I know that he has a lot of heart and brings that with him. That endears him to the fans.
“He’s been good. The guys on the team respect him. He hits them all the time with heart over height. They know he’s had to overcome a lot of obstacles in his career because of his size. He has proven doubters wrong. He comes in every day and challenges Ty Lawson at that point guard position and just works. We’re hoping our younger guys follow his lead,” Shaw went on to say. “Just doing what he does, bringing energy off the bench and giving us that scoring punch as well. He actually falls into the leader category on this team. He’s one of our older guys. I’ve had some discussions with him about he’s at that point in his career where he has to lead by example as well.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, who had crossed paths with Robinson as a Celtics assistant during the guard’s stint in Boston, even cracked a smile before the game when discussing defensive strategy.
“You’ve got to defend him into the game. It doesn’t take him much to get going. We know him well,” Thibodeau said of Robinson. “He had a great year for us, did a lot of good things. He gets going, he can cause a lot of problems.”
Due to his small stature, Robinson has thrived on beating the odds throughout his career, so when queried about Denver’s deep guard corps — point guard Ty Lawson is entrenched, while the likes of starting shooting guard Randy Foye, experienced veteran holdover Andre Miller and second-year French swingman Evan Fournier battle for the rest of the backcourt minutes with Robinson — he responded with a quote that sums up his whole NBA existence, let alone his memorable campaign in Chicago.
“Just bring energy,” he said. “Just continue to be Nate Robinson.”