College professors rarely mention Nate Robinson in the same lecture as Sir Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein even though he's experienced the movement of a body (his own) through space on a level none of those physicists ever could. You can stare at an equation on a chalk board that involves energy and mass and acceleration all day long, but until you've propelled a 5-9 frame over 43 inches into the air, until you've felt your body break free from gravity, until you have, ever so briefly, flown, can you truly grasp how the earth's pull affects the human form? Some people ace physics, others defy them.
This is theory versus experience, reading versus rubber meeting the road. Like Robin Williams said to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, "So if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him ... But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that."
That's how it might feel to be someone who studies the earth's gravitational pull for a living but relies on machines and technology to escape it. Nate Robinson relies on his legs. He knows what it's like to push off the earth with his own two feet and actually get somewhere.
For most of us who watch the NBA on a regular basis, that level of physical prowess is off limits; as unattainable as swinging through a city by slinging webs from our wrists. When we're standing under a 10-foot hoop, in our driveway or our gym, and we look up at the cylinder that's only three feet away from our outstretched arm, we think: How the hell does someone shorter than me get from here (the ground) to there (above the rim)?
The reason you care is because Nate Robinson is your height. He's a palm tree playing in a forest of redwoods. The reason you cheer is because he entertains. He's a basketball player and a showman, though the order on any given night is debatable. He's as much Harry Houdini as he is Harlem Globetrotter as he is guard for the Chicago Bulls. But he's a legitimate basketball talent -- always has been.
In his last year at the University of Washington he averaged 16 points, four assists, four rebounds and nearly two steals a game, which was good enough for the New York Knicks to select him in the first round of the 2005 NBA draft. He played nearly 30 minutes a game in each of his first five years in the NBA, culminating in a career-high 17.2 points a game during the 2008-09 season.
There are more stats and big games and memorable moments, especially during his 2010 playoff run with the Boston Celtics, where he played Abbott to Glen "Big Baby" Davis' Costello. Or, as Robinson described it in a press conference, "We're like Shrek and Donkey." Yet those moments all take a back seat to the seemingly impossible slams, the out-of-nowhere blocked shots and the three nights he performed for the entire basketball universe and won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
Countless words have been written about what he's accomplished in the air. The dunk over Spud. The dunk over Dwight. The dunk between the legs. The block on Yao Ming. The dunk on Shaq in practice. The block last December on MarShon Brooks. But the 'how' is what we always come back to. The 'how' is the man behind the curtain; the part of the trick you don't see that makes the part you do see possible. That's the part we want to shine a light on.
"The first time I tried to dunk was when I was 12 or 13 years old," Robinson says. "It's not something you can just want to do. You have to go out and work hard. God gave me the ability, and I made it happen one day in practice."
Robinson says that his entire high school team could dunk and he simply wasn't going to let his small stature stand in the way of doing something he was dying to do. As is often the case, moving from a desire to do something to actually accomplishing it starts with one thing: Confidence.
"First and foremost, you have to believe in yourself," he says. "You have to want it so bad that you just go out and work hard and get it. You can't have any fear."
The word ‘fear' comes up a lot when Robinson is talking about his high-flying feats; sometimes in the context of ignoring it, sometimes in the context of embracing it.
Of his famous block on Yao Ming, he says: "That block surprised me because he's just so much taller than even other guys. I just saw the play and I jumped and I didn't have any fear and I made history."
He talks about fear in a slightly different way when asked about his iconic dunk over Dwight Howard: "I didn't want to embarrass myself with that dunk. I knew I had to go out and jump as high as I possibly could. The adrenaline rush was so much of that one. That time I had to jump with fear because I didn't want to mess up. I was shocked when I saw that dunk on the replay. My kids still talk about it."
Jump with fear when you have to, jump without it when you don't. Either way, harnessing it and overcoming it has been an essential part of Robinson's style since the first time he dunked in a real game. This happened during his sophomore year in high school and, true to form, it wasn't just some dunk in garbage time when nobody was playing defense. It was a spectacle.
"My coach was drawing up an in-bounds play that was supposed to go to a big man," Robinson says. "I said, ‘Coach, I'll do it'. It was an alley-oop pass on the baseline from out of bounds. I took the lob and dunked it. It was awesome."
To the one hundredth of one percent of humans who have experienced what it's like to bounce 40 inches-plus in the air with nothing but a pair high tops to get you there, jumping is an artistic expression.
"It's an art form, it really is," Robinson says. "A guy like Gerald Green controls his hops and his jumps are for a purpose. Julius Erving had big hands. He was always moving the ball all around; he made it look like magic in the air. Then you have explosive dunkers who jump high and dunk hard like Dominique Wilkins. Me? I'm an energy jumper. My jumping ability is more like an explosive Dennis Rodman, and since I'm shorter, it looks crazy. I'm just a guy out there who's trying to show the world what I can do. Not too many 5-9 guys can dunk like I can."
The phrase Robinson repeats when asked about the key to maximizing your vertical leap is "control your hops." By that, he says he's talking about three things: Timing, control and balance.
"There are guys who can jump out of the gym, but they can't control it," he says. "For anyone who wants to dunk, you have to get balanced and go for it. You need to use your core and your legs and have everything work at the right time. So much of dunking comes from your core. I do so many sit-ups and crunches and high knees and running the bleachers in the off-season because lots of jumping comes from ab muscles."
Robinson openly says that he was born with God-given natural talent to jump, yet to maximize his gifts and maintain his status as an elite leaper, each off-season he embarks on a leg-strengthening, explosion-inducing workout that marries a mastery of kinesiology with the latest in functional training. Tim Manson, his trainer, is the man responsible for putting him through these workouts.
Manson calls himself an Athletic Enhancement Performance Specialist. He talks about jumping and training the same way a biologist might talk about the ecosystem. The minutia fascinates him. The way having too much strength in one part of the body can lead to weakness fascinates him. Nate Robinson fascinates him.
"Nate set a record in the 110-meter hurdles here in Washington when he was in high school. He was ranked top five in the nation," he says. "He was an all-state football player. He could be in the NFL right now. Nate is talented but you still have to work your talent. There's no perfect athlete. Where Nate excels is in his strength to body mass ratio. His strength to body mass ratio is off the charts."
In that simple ratio lies the key to jumping and possibly what sets the great athletes apart from the good and average ones. Manson says guys like Robinson and Kevin Durant can dominate because of the power they have on their frames. He mentions that college basketball programs are filled with guys that have similar physical dimensions to Durant, but since they don't have the same command of their bodies, they can't compete at his level.
The key, then, for weekend warriors to improve their leaping ability is to improve their own ratio through strengthening their kinetic chain, which includes all of the muscles involved in producing an explosive jump, from calves to quads to core muscles.
"Jumping starts when you're in the triple flexion position," he says. "That means your feet are placed slightly wider than shoulder length apart and you're flexing your ankles, knees and hips properly. It's the basic mechanics of a body squat that so many people do incorrectly.
"Not to get too technical, but Nate is an outstanding jumper because he has an innate ability to eccentrically shorten his kinetic chain, store a tremendous amount of energy within his kinetic chain and with extremely high neuromuscular reaction speed, and release that stored energy to produce enough explosive power to significantly overcome the force of gravity. Although this ability is an innate gift, he has trained and mastered the ability to produce an outer-worldly amount of force production."
The explanation may sound too scientific, but when you watch one of Robinson's dunks in slow motion, you notice that two things happen right before takeoff and what Manson says suddenly makes perfect sense:
1) His body rises slightly and then compresses, tightening to the ground (eccentrically shortening his kinetic chain).
2) He plants his feet, aligns his hips and, for maybe a 10th of a second, his body seems to pause in that triple flexion position, aligning itself just before takeoff (preparing to release that stored energy).
In freeze frame, he's a piston ready to fire. That's the exact form you want to have to maximize your own jumping potential, and it's what Robinson is referring to when he talks about the importance of his workout.
"I'll do stability ball work, medicine ball work, boxing, whatever it takes," Robinson says. "I think the highest vertical I was ever measured at was 45 inches. Right now I'm at about 43 1/2. I work hard to be strong enough to maintain my core and my strength so I can keep jumping like I do. Dunking is fun and my kids love it. One day my kids will grow up and see how short I am compared to the other guys out there and then they can really appreciate what I do."
Until then, he'll have to settle for the fans' appreciation.
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.