It’s easy to forget how eventful a career Nate Robinson had in his 11 NBA seasons.
He fought through early drama to not only carve out a role with the Knicks, but continually improve in it. His seemingly small 5-foot-9 stature was anything but and he has three Slam Dunk Contest trophies to prove it. Not to mention that on top of being a talented basketball player, Robinson also played a season of college football at Washington.
Now Robinson, 38, is on a different path. He recently revealed that he’s battling kidney failure. Ever the fighter, he’s partnered with media company Playmaker to tell the same story he’s told his whole career: Nothing can stop him.
ESNY recently sat down with Robinson to cover everything from his diagnosis to how a spark plug from Seattle became an 11-year NBA veteran.
You seem pretty healthy and feeling good now. What’s your treatment routine?
It’s in the morning. I go at 5 a.m., try to get in early and get it out of the way so I have the rest of my day to do whatever. When I first started, it was kind of tough. The time that they had the chairs, it was Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and they only had the chair at 4 in the afternoon. Or at 8 at night. So I was like, “Man, this is cutting between my days. I can’t see my kids do anything.”
So I said, “We gotta figure out a way to change my days. Instead of doing Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday, I want Monday/Wednesday/Friday. As early as possible.”
I’d imagine doing it later in the day too, it’s probably very draining because it’s four hours long?
Yeah. And it’s sometimes if I fall asleep there, I go home and can’t sleep because I already got four hours in. You try to get 6-8, and it’s so hard to fall asleep. So I just get my rest at night, wake up at 4:30-5, get up, drive. It takes, like, 10-15 minutes to drive to the dialysis center. And I sit there and plug in and try to get my couple hours in. Sometimes, I fall asleep an hour within or two hours within. Then, I come home sometimes and get a little rest, take a nap to get all my hours.
Are you not a morning person in general?
Well, I am in general because I get my kids up to get ready to go to school each day at 6. So it really wasn’t bad for me to be getting up that early, but some of those days I don’t want to drive.
Let’s go back to when you were diagnosed. You’ve mentioned it was with Dr. Lisa Callahan and the Knicks? It started with her mentioning you had high blood pressure. How did she and the medical team ultimately conclude it was a kidney issue?
Well, the first time I got sick and I was at home. I was throwing up uncontrollably and had a headache. My head was pounding. I was just throwing up so bad. I called a guy, Chris Bernard who worked with the Knicks. He made sure guys were all on time, did their community service, making sure we did our interviews. I lived down the street from the practice facility and called him two hours before practice.
I was like, “I’m not gonna make it bro. I’m sitting here throwing up.” And he thought I was playing around. He was like, “Bro. Stop playing, Nate. You’re always on time. You’re the first one in the gym and the last one to leave.”
And I’m like, “Exactly! Bro, I can’t make it today.” I said, “You gotta come pick me up. I’m not going to be able to drive to the practice facility.”
He was like, “Oh, are you serious?” And I said, “Bro, I’m serious!”
So he didn’t think I was serious. So I drove to the practice facility. I was throwing up outside of my car, through the window. It’s like a seven-minute drive from my house where I lived to the practice facility. It’s not far at all.
It’s not far, but that’s still a fairly busy area in southern Westchester.
White Plains, yeah. So I drove to practice, parked my car, laid on a treatment table where guys get taped. And I had no throw-up bag. I was throwing up all over the floor. “Oh sh–, you’re serious.”
“Yeah, I am, Bro. I don’t know what’s wrong. I feel sick. I’m sick as f—.” So I ended up going to the hospital. They ran their tests. They checked me and my blood pressure was super high, they were trying to figure out why that is. They checked my creatinine level, which is in your pee. They saw that I had so many bubbles and checked my urine, and they said that there was something wrong with my kidneys.
So Dr. Callahan was like, “We might have to do a biopsy.” They would have to go in and check everything. And I said, “Whatever it takes. Just figure it out.”
So she was like, “Yeah, you can go to practice.” They let me out of the hospital for a couple of days, getting fluids, got me back to feeling good. This was before the season started, in the preseason. So I went back to practice, everything was good. I didn’t get sick again for a long time.
This wasn’t during your rookie year, was it?
My rookie year. So that went on. And throughout the time, they were like, “Yo, we’re just going to check your blood pressure,” before practice and after practice. They did the test and were like, “Man, your blood pressure’s pretty high and we gotta check your heart, make sure your heart’s not working too hard.”
And they checked everything, everything came out fine. Everything was fine. All the tests, everything came back fine. And over the years, I just kept doing that routine. For the most part, they’d check my blood pressure. She was like, “Well, if your blood pressure’s too high before the game, we can’t let you play.” And I was like, “Well, we’re not checking it before the game because I’m playing in the game. There’s no way you can stop me.”
She’s all, “Well, we don’t want you to have a heart attack on the court, die, fall down, blah blah blah.” I was like, “Listen, if that’s what it’s gonna be, then that’s my story. I’m not worried too much about it.”
You’re quite the athlete. On top of winning the Slam Dunk Contest three times, you also played college football. There was no family history of kidney disease?
None. None at all. No one in my whole family. The only thing in my whole family was my uncle died of diabetes. When he was younger, he stepped on a rusty nail and got gangrene. They had to amputate his feet. All his toes and feet. Then it started to come up to his knees. Then, they had to chop it off at his knee so it wouldn’t go up to the rest of his body. But at that time, it was too late. His fingers was getting chopped off. His body couldn’t take it. I think he died my second or third year in the league.
But that was it. He had diabetes. We didn’t have no high blood pressure and kidney disease, to my knowledge. My dad finally got on dialysis maybe 10-15 years ago. But ten years ago, I wasn’t in the league. So I told my dad, once I found out with him and he was doing dialysis, I was like, “Man, I didn’t know what it was.”
And I went to go see him in Oakland one time, and he took me to the center and showed me what he did. And I was like, “Wow, I don’t wish this on nobody. You’ve gotta come here four hours a day, plug in, sit with different people with different problems and sickness?”
I felt bad for my dad for a minute. He said, “No, son. Don’t feel bad. This is just what I gotta do until I get a kidney.” And then I was just joking with him. I said, “Man, I’ll give you one of mine,” not knowing that mine were messed up. But he was like, “No, son. I don’t want to take anything from you. You might need it.”
But backtracking. I told Dr. Callahan, “Look, I want a warrior’s death. If I die on the court, I’m doing something that I love. I want people to remember me doing something I love even with my situation.” And when I was younger, I thought I was Superman. I never got sick as a kid, my mom never had to worry about me in the hospital. I was always one of the healthiest people in my family. So it was all shocking.
It was shocking. You must have had very supportive teammates while going through this process as a rookie.
They didn’t know. I didn’t tell any of my teammates, any of them. They just saw me being sick, thinking I had a flu or something. When I was gone, I would go in the hospital for a couple of days, I’d come out and be good. And luckily, I only missed a couple of games throughout my career with this. I think I only missed three games?
You just said it yourself. “I want to die a warrior’s death.” So I can only imagine hearing that news. They’re trying to take away basketball from you and you’re like, “Nope.”
Exactly. I didn’t want them to use it against me. I didn’t want to feel no sympathy from people. I just wanted to play and didn’t want nobody to know. And I just dealt with it on my own time on my own terms. And it’s weird, I didn’t really get sick and start throwing up until after the season was over. When I came home and I was in the offseason? When I was working out, training, some days I would get sick and have to go to the hospital for an IV.
I was getting dehydrated, so I had to change the way that I was eating and drinking. I got rid of all the bad sugars from drinking soda, and I started to drink only water. And then I just got better over time, a little bit. Just trying to eat better, stop eating so much fried food with salt and sodium. So I kind of had to watch my diet a lot of the times. But other times, when I wanted to eat certain things, I would just eat it because I wanted to.
I was like, “You know what? If I die, I die. Everyone’s gonna have their turn.” And I was just like, “I’m just gonna do what I love and rock with it. And my time will come.” So I always knew eventually my kidneys were going to deteriorate over time. I just didn’t know when.
Dr. Callahan said, “You’ll be in your late thirties. We never know. Maybe they might get better because people have reversed theirs and things have happened.” People have changed their diet completely and did things to change it.
Are you on a strict diet right now?
A: Not as strict as I want it to be, but I’m getting to there. It’s so hard to change from eating stuff that you want. I’m just going to try and go on a fast and see if it can help my body in the long run, or if I gotta juice. Or if I gotta eat or drink a certain way. I’m gonna get there. It’s just gonna take time.
Let’s talk some basketball. Your rookie season with the Knicks was fairly infamous. It was Larry Brown’s only season, plus some drama with Stephon Marbury. Amidst all of this, did you learn anything big from coach Brown?
I did. I learned a lot because knowing what I was going through, he was going through [health issues] on his own too. And he showed up to work every day. No complaints. And to find out what he was going through? It was like, “Man, he’s coming to work every day.” Not complaining, trying to show us young men what it takes to be a real player and be a good teammate and do all the things.
So I kind of respected coach Brown on that aspect, but we bumped heads a lot throughout my rookie year. There was just a lot of things I did not like about the man. One, he was calling me, “The Little S—” which bothered me a lot, f—ing with my emotions. I was like, “Bro, you can call me ‘Rook’ or you can call me ‘Nate,’ or don’t call me nothing at all.” Nobody else was disrespecting me.
It kind of bothered me. And I’m like “Bro, are you degrading me? Are you trying to talk down about me? Because I’m the first person in the gym and the last one to leave.” And I asked him. I said, “I’d really appreciate if you stopped calling me that, coach. Because I don’t call you ‘Little White Man’ or ‘Little Whatever,’ because that’s disrespectful. I’m a grown man, I’ve got two kids. My kids look up to me. I’ve got people that look up to me, and you’re calling me ‘Little S—’ like I don’t mean s— to you. And it’s kind of f—ing bothering me and I don’t like it.”
And he just kept calling me that the whole season, so I just stopped talking to him.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure I would have done the same thing.
I just didn’t say nothing to him. When he would talk or speak to me, I would just look at him and just not say a word. If he asked me to do something, I’d do it, but I just wouldn’t speak to him. I wouldn’t speak to him. I was like, “You’re not going to understand until you start respecting my wishes.” It was a long season, but we got through it. They changed coaches the next year. Coach Isiah Thomas, he was a great guy. A great coach. Respected me, respected my game, pushed me to become better. And I had a better season the next year. I just kept getting better over the years.
You and Isiah are almost kind of kindred spirits. In his playing days, he was considered undersized but very athletic. Very much like yourself.
Yeah, I watched him growing up. That was my dad’s favorite point guard growing up as a kid, so I watched a lot of his basketball. He had a lot of fire, a lot of heart. He played injured, almost with a broken ankle. He was just a beast. He was the guy that wanted to draft me, and that did draft me. He gave me the opportunity. And I told him, “I’ll never let you down, Bro. You gave me the opportunity to show what I can do at 5’9”, when nobody believed in me. If I didn’t get drafted by you, I don’t think I would have been drafted in the league at all.”
So I always told him I really appreciated it. I always told him, “Look, I’m gonna do whatever it takes. Just know that you’ve got a warrior on your hands here.” And he was like, “Oh, I know it.” And we had a great two years of him coaching. I was sad that they fired him because he was the one that believed in me and had brought me in. So during that time, during everything, I was still going through what I was going through. I just tried to make the best of it.
Let’s talk about the Slam Dunk Contest. Tell us about your relationship with Dwight Howard, jumping over him with the Superman cape on. I remember watching in college with friends, a bunch of New Yorkers literally gathered around the TV and jumping up at everything. At some point we realized, “Oh my God, he’s going to jump over Dwight!” Did you and Dwight have a lot of fun building that together?
Oh, we did! We had the same agents at the time, Eric and Aaron Goodwin. I told them I had a special dunk I wanted to do. I asked, “Do you think Dwight would do it?” And he was like, “Yeah, just ask him. Just ask him. He’ll do it.”
So I waited all the way to the Dunk Contest. I waited till I saw him and I said, “Bro, I got this dunk and it’s gonna be memorable. We’re gonna make history with it, but I need your assistance. I need Superman. I’m KryptoNate, I need Superman.” And we were in the elevator, on our way to our media shit. And he was like, “What is it, man? Of course I’ll help you.”
I said, “I want to jump over you,” and he looked at me. He said, “First of all, can you do it?”
I was like, “Bro, come on. I wouldn’t ask you if I couldn’t do it.” I told him I jumped over Jared Jeffries every day in practice. And he was like, “How tall is Jared?” I said, “Jared’s, like, 6-10, 6-11.”
And he was like, “Oh yeah, you got this.” And then was like, “Yeah, man. Let’s do it!” So I was like, “All right, man. Cool. Thanks.” And I let him go do his media, I did my media. The next day came. We went to a private gym to practice our dunks. I went, jumped over him a couple of times, showed him how I wanted him to stand, showed him where I had the whole thing, had him turned around.
And I jumped over him and I dunked it. And he was like, “Oh my God, you cleared me!” And I said, “Yeah, Bro. I told you we’re gonna make history. So many kids in the world are gonna want to be like us. They’re gonna want to be Superman/Kryptonite. You’ve already won a Dunk Contest. I’ve won one already. It’s gonna really shock the world with this, man. We’re gonna put on a show.”
I said, “We gotta be showmen. We’re entertainers. That’s what we gotta be.” And he said, “I’m with it.” So the Dunk Contest, he did a dunk. Me and him made it to the Finals. Everything worked out, everything was going to plan, and then that dunk came up. I called him up, he put his cape on. We had our outfits on.
In my head, I was like, “I’ve just gotta make this on the first try. I have to make it on the first try.” If not, this dunk is not gonna be what it was. And I was just praying to God the whole time I had the ball and was dribbling in front of all the people, all the greats and peers, all the legendary players before me.
I was like, “Man, I gotta do this. Man, I gotta show the world who Nate Robinson is and what I’m about.” And I went and I jumped and I dunked on the first try. And that dunk has gone down as one of the greatest dunks, I think, in Dunk Contest history.
Well, here we are talking about it over ten years later.
It’s pretty cool, man. Me and Dwight kind of took the NBA Dunk Contest by storm with our antics and our entertainment. I think it was awesome with the whole Superman thing. The cape, him coming out the booth, dunking on two hoops. Changing in the booth. The whole thing. I think we did a pretty good job of bringing the fun back to the Dunk Contest and what it’s supposed to stand for.
Who’s the bigger goofball? You or Dwight?
We both are, but I think he got me by a hair. He’s still a goofball. He’s still comedy. He’s still a great guy to be around. He’s really very funny for somebody 6-foot-10 that can actually move around like that, and can actually be funny I think is pretty cool.
You mentioned how playing for Larry Brown, there really wasn’t mutual respect. What about when you played for another tough head coach, Tom Thibodeau? He was your coach in Chicago and is now coaching the Knicks. Did you have a better relationship with him?
I did. Me and Thibs, we bumped heads sometimes just off of coming into the gym. Like, we’re in the locker room. We laugh, we joke. He wanted everybody to be just, like, Army serious all the time. I’m like, “Bro, that’s just not my personality. I’m gonna come in, have a good time. I’m always gonna be ready to play.”
We kind of bumped heads with that. But then after a while, I was like, “You know, Coach? I’m gonna just let you win that. I’m gonna go and just do my own thing in the locker room.” I would come to the gym early, get my shots up, do all my warmup before getting in the locker room. Get my journal out, write in my journal. Just stay away from guys that would want to be laughing and joking before the game.
Because we want to relax. We want to ease into the game. We don’t want to come in too tense. You want to be relaxed and flowing into the game. But him? He was a great coach. He brought the best out of me. Thibs is a great guy, a great coach. Once we had an understanding, everything went smooth the whole season.
It isn’t very often you hear about an NBA player who keeps a regular journal.
I had to go talk to a shrink, to a psychiatrist to get to that. I was going through it, dealing with the NBA. The coaches, GMs, whatever not accepting me for who I was: a guy that’s fun, that people can be around. Laughter and all that. It frustrated me because they wanted me to be somebody that I wasn’t, and I had a hard time dealing with that.
I was like, “Man, if you guys don’t like who I am, then don’t allow me to be in the league. I’ve worked to be here. This wasn’t something that was given to me. You guys gotta understand that, so I’m gonna have a chip. I’m gonna have a chip on my shoulder, respectfully. I’m a 5-foot-9 guy that you guys don’t even think can play basketball. You guys look at me as being a little guy that didn’t earn to be here. And I earned the right to be in this league and I can play in this league.”
I could have averaged 25-30 in the NBA easily if they would have let me play the game I really wanted to play. If they would have gave me the green light to do what I wanted like they gave so many young guys the keys to the team. And I showed that in the playoffs for the Chicago Bulls. I showed I could do that every night.
I’m just a scoring guard that can play the game, man. I can put the ball in the basket. That’s my gift. I’m sorry you guys want me to be something that I’m not. I’m not a point guard. I’m not a guy that’s just going to give you 13, 15 assists per game. That’s not my game. I’m the guy that can put the ball in the basket and heat up in a heartbeat.
I just had to show them what I was. I showed the Knick fans, played hard, did what I did. When I was in Chicago with Thibodeau, I had an opportunity. A couple guys got hurt and went down. I went to every practice. I played every preseason game. I played every regular season game and every playoff series game, and didn’t miss a game that whole season.
Me and Jimmy Butler were the only guys in the league that year that didn’t miss a game or practice or preseason or playoff game. That whole year.
And Jimmy’s got a very strong work ethic himself. It sounds as though you guys almost fed off of each other.
We did. Jimmy was kind of wet behind the ears. I told him, “Bro, you’re just as good as anybody else on this team or in the league. You’re not just a guy that Coach puts in to guard D-Wade or the toughest matchups. You’re that guy that can guard it. You can guard it and you can score.”
So days where I wanted to get up extra shots, I would go to the gym. And Jimmy and I had a close relationship. He was like “Bro, what are you doing?” I said, “I’m at the gym by my house.” I got a little membership at the gym by my house. I could walk from my apartment. I would go in there and just shoot around. They had a lot of courts. I couldn’t be bothered. I would go in there and shoot around all the time.
Jimmy would call me like, “What are you doing?” “Man, I’m getting shots up at the gym. You already know where I’m at.” That whole year, that’s what we did. We stayed after practice, got our shots up and played 1-on-1. Then, go to the gym to just get our shots up, work on our shots. Our game moves. And me and Jimmy did that the whole year, and it worked out for us offensively, defensively. Getting to know each other on the court, off the court, and we became friends. He would pick me up before every game. Driving in his car, he would always listen to country music.
The prime of your career was when social media really started hitting its stride. We’ve all seen the Kyrie Irving situation play out. Let’s say something like this happened before social media. How would a team you were on handle it?
Without social media, I don’t think it would have been a problem. Honestly, I don’t think it would have been a problem if there was no social media. It wouldn’t have been something the media could jump on and harp on. He can reach so many people, and the media can reach so many people because we are our own media source with the phone.
Everybody has a chance to be the media in their own right because they have a phone and they can go look up something. If they caught something on camera, they can post it. They’re their own media source. Especially someone like Kyrie who has, I don’t know, 20 million followers? They’re attracted to him and what he likes and what he posts or believes. They’re fans. They follow him.
You’re touching on an important lost detail which is that for all of his, for lack of better word, faults, Kyrie Irving is probably an objectively smart person.
Oh, he’s brilliant! He’s really smart. He knows what he likes. He knows what he stands for, and he’s not going to sit back and let people try to tarnish his name. Of course he’s going to fight back with words. He’s going to fight back with his beliefs, and he’s going to stand by that. And that’s something that I adore Kyrie for doing, because a lot of people can’t do that. They’re not willing to sacrifice their job and their career, and their millions of followers or millions of dollars; their deals that they have outside of basketball.
I’ve heard that so many people are dropping him just for whatever, and this man has the right to feel and say what he wants. That’s the point of having a social media. It’s my media. It’s my Instagram. It’s what I believe. I post what I want. And that’s something that I respect for him to be able to do because it’s hard.
There’s so many people that got scrutinized doing that. There’s Dr. Martin Luther King. There’s Malcolm X. There’s so many guys that people try to disrespect and try to tarnish them for their beliefs and what they believe in. Muhammad Ali’s another guy. And these are guys that stand up that look like us, that talk like us, that are our people. And it sucks that he can’t say what he feels without just being talked down upon.
Like, Kyrie’s a great guy. He’s a great pal. He’s a great father, a great person, a great son, a great brother. Like, come on, Bro. You guys are trying to make this guy be a bad guy and it’s not even that. And it sucks, you know? It really sucks that they don’t want to keep it about basketball. I get what he said, but we all have a job to do in this world. And maybe Kyrie feels that God has talked to him in a different way where He wants him to go ahead and talk about certain things.
It’s almost like you don’t have to necessarily agree with the position he takes, but you have to respect the fact that people listen to him.
I mean, yeah. Just the same fact that we don’t have to accept what people have done to us over the years, to our people. People want us to forget. They want us to forget because when we bring up our slavery days and what we’ve been through, they don’t want to talk about that. They try to sweep that shit under the rug and that shit’s not cool. But when we talk about bringing up something that has do with Jews or whatever other race? It’s “Oh, y’all said it? Let’s talk about this and bring this to the light and it’s not right that you said this.”
It’s not fair. And it’s never going to be fair.
You’re absolutely right. It’s never going to be fair, but I think you’ll agree that the first step to having a meaningful conversation about this is accepting that it’s going to be a hard conversation.
It is. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to talk about either. Because then it’s opening up old sores and old wounds that we have to deal with from our people. And it just seems like we’re never going to get the respect that we deserve over the years. And it sucks.
Dwight Howard is Superman. You’re KryptoNate. You jumped over him and became Super Nate. You’re working with the National Kidney Foundation and have so many goals. What’s next for Nate Robinson?
Man, I just want to show kids you can get through anything. There’s so many different types of problems in the world. Homeless kids. Kids going through cancer and heart disease. I just want kids to believe that some of your greatest people that you look up to– the celebrities, the basketball players, the football players– we’re human. We’re human. We’re not the real superheroes you guys believe that we are. We’re human, just like you guys.
You know, we go through problems. We have diseases that we go through. Kidney disease, it could be so many different diseases with the body. For me, I want them to understand that I’ve been dealing with this. And if I can get through it, you can get through it, and we can do this together. And that was my message. That’s why I came out. I wanted to share what I’m going through for kids, for adults who looked up to me that believe, “If Li’l Nate Robinson from Seattle, Washington can get through something like this, then I can fight with him.”
And the fight, we’re not doing it alone. I need my fans. I need my people. I need people praying for me. I need people that are going to be there to support me. I can’t do it alone either. Because there’s hard times that we go through. When we fall down, we need someone with a hand picking us up.
And I think that with my message and what I’m going through, I think God was like, “It’s time to let the world know, and let kids know because there’s somebody that’s out there that’s going through the same thing that you’re going through. And they’re feeling the same thing that you’re feeling, and they need somebody. And they don’t have nobody, and that’s gonna be you.” And I think it was just time.
Your faith seems to have been a big part of your journey to this point.
I’ve been faithful my whole life, man. I’ve been believing in God. He has blessed me so much with so many things I can’t even fathom. I have four beautiful kids. Healthy, strong, smart, beautiful. I had a great career, played a game where people didn’t believe I belonged. He gave me three Dunk Contest championships, 11 great years. One of the greatest off-the-bench guys to ever play the game. Not gonna say I’m the greatest, but I’m one of the greatest to ever play coming off the bench.
I played the game with love, passion. Everything that He gave me, I played with. And I respected the game, I respected Him and the decisions and everything I’ve done throughout my career. I’m just thankful, man. I humbled myself so much throughout my life. And I’m just really appreciative of the blessings God gave me throughout my career.
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