Nate Robinson's story is about a lifetime of proving himself. It's about ignoring obstacles and using sheer will and unstoppable determination to achieve goals in sports and in life. His story begins in Seattle, where, you guessed it, he was the smallest kid on the block. But he played college football and basketball at Washington, became a first-round NBA pick and a three-time dunk champion while standing 5-9. Here's an excerpt from Heart Over Height:
High school was really the first time that I started to get made fun of for being short. I guess up until then I was short, but since most of the other kids were still only in middle school, nobody was really that much taller than me. When I stepped on the basketball court for the first time as a freshman, I was only about 5'4". The second shortest guy on the team was about 5'8" and everyone else was way over six feet.
Guys would mock me and call me every name in the book for being short, but I really didn't let it bother me. I think what allowed me to get through it was how I carried myself. I knew I was better than every single guy on the freshman team and I knew that my real competition was with the older guys. I even felt that way in eighth grade when we'd play in summer leagues. I just knew how good I could be and I carried myself like I belonged with the best. But even though I felt that way, I wasn't just handed a spot on the team. Coach Mike wanted to see how I would do against everybody, so at first he put me with the freshmen. This didn’t last long because I was too good to play with them.
Then he tried me with the junior varsity team, and even though most of those guys played varsity too I was still dominating, so he put me on both the JV and varsity.
When the season started, I would play two quarters of JV and then I’d play varsity either later that night or the next day. JV was fun, but it was just a way to get in a warm-up. Most of the times in the two quarters I played to stay eligible for varsity I would have 25-30 points.
I definitely had to pay my dues on varsity as a freshman, but very early on Coach Mike told me he saw something special in me. He'd say, "Nate, you can be anything you want to be. You have something that nobody else has. It's a gift. I see it in your eyes. I've never seen anyone with the eye of the tiger that you have."
I'll never forget that. But if I'm totally honest, at the time I thought basketball was my second best sport. I even told Coach Mike. I used to say, “I play basketball for fun, but I'm a football player."
The freshman football coach also said I could play varsity, but there were some huge guys playing varsity ball and I was just too small.
Meanwhile, I learned a lot about high school basketball and how to play on a real team that year from Coach Mike and from Jamal. Jamal was getting recruited and scouted by almost every major college program and I watched how he handled it all, which I’ll get to later.
We had some games where coaches from Duke, North Carolina, Michigan and Ohio State would be sitting in the stands watching us play. I was only fourteen years old and I had seen most of those coaches on TV during the NCAA tournament. It was crazy.
Jamal had an incredible year and we went to the playoffs, but ended up getting only seventh in the state. When the season was over, I told Coach Mike that I was going to work on my game and that next year, as a sophomore, I didn’t want to play JV and varsity. No more bouncing around. I wanted to play just varsity. He told me he had no problem with that if I was good enough.
After basketball I ran track, and that summer my dad worked with me on finding my true jump shot.
“You need to learn how to shoot," he said. “You have all the speed and quickness a basketball player could ask for. You just need to be able to knock down your shot all the time.”
He signed me up for some shooting camps and we worked all June and July on my form and on my rotation. After a few months of shooting what felt like a million balls with perfect form, one day I was out there stroking it and I knew I had it. I could just feel that everything was in tune and I didn’t have to think about it anymore. All the hard work paid off. My dad saw me shooting and he was so proud.
“You’re going to be unstoppable,” he said. “Now you can add a complete offensive game to your driving and dunking. With everything you can do, you just need to go out there and do it. Be the best you can be. You just need to believe in yourself. You’re Nate the Great."
My dad helped me get that mentality to always believe in myself.
When school came back around in the fall, I went in for my physical and saw that I had grown about five inches! I remember talking to the nurse after she measured my height, which was 5'9" going into my sophomore year, and I said to her, “I have one more growth spurt in me. My dad is 6'1" and I’m going to shoot up another three or four inches by the time I'm a senior."
The nurse just looked at me and said, "Nate, you're done growing. I'm sorry."
"No way,” I said. "I'm only fifteen."
"I’m telling you,” she said. “You come back to me your senior year and I promise, you'll be 5'9"."
I still don’t know how she knew this, but she was right. I'm the same height right now that I was my sophomore year in high school. Every summer I would go for my physical and watch them measure my height and it was always the same: 5'9", 5'9", 5'9"... Even in college I kept hoping for a few more inches. I knew plenty of guys who grew three or four inches at nineteen or twenty years old. But not me. My mom is short so I guess I got the short gene. I was 5'9" then and I’m 5'9" now.
Thanks to all of my hard work that summer, I met my goal of playing only varsity as a sophomore. Our team was awesome. Me and the twins, Lodrick and Rodrick Stewart, who were already 6'4" as sophomores, came off the bench and lit it up. I could already dunk easily in practice, but that year I got my first dunk in a game, which is something people ask me about all the time because I’m known for my three NBA dunk contest wins.
For the record, I dunked a volleyball for the first time when I was in eighth grade and I dunked a basketball for the first time in a game my sophomore year. The dunk happened on an out-of-bounds alley-oop play and the gym exploded. Nobody expected it. Even the other team's fans went crazy. It was just awesome.
I probably could have dunked earlier but I have small hands, so at the time I needed to either cuff the ball or dunk it off a pass. That first dunk put me on the map as a basketball player in Seattle.
At the time I was best known for football, but once people heard I could dunk and started hearing about all the other things I could do on the court, the basketball talk really picked up.
We finished third in the state that year and almost the entire team played on the Gary Payton All-Stars AAU team that summer. I'll never forget it because we won every tournament we were in and I was just coming into my own as a legitimate basketball player. To that point, I had always thought about playing football in college because I was really making a name for myself as a cornerback and multi-position guy on offense, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was scoring almost forty points a night in these AAU games against the best players in the state. After that summer, I realized I wanted to play college basketball too.
-- Excerpted by permission from Heart Over Height by Nate Robinson and Jon Finkel. Copyright (c) 2014 by Nate Robinson and Jon Finkel. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the authors. Available for purchase from Amazon. Follow the authors on Twitter @nate_robinson and @Jon_Finkel.