Three Is An Unlucky Number

There was a basketball game on the 25th of November 1990 in Memorial Coliseum. Portland was hosting the San Antonio Spurs and had yet to lose on the young season, they were 10-0. The Blazers blasted the Spurs in the first quarter with 49 points and a 31 point lead. They cooled down for the rest of the game but the Spurs could never overcome that first-quarter blitz. The Blazers would go on to win their 11th game in a row. The trio of Kevin Duckworth, Jerome Kersey, and Clifford Robinson scored 56 points, had 13 rebounds, and 6 assists. Their collective offensive rating was 338.

Nearly two decades later, a 44-year-old was hosting a free basketball clinic for children and collapsed. Retired Blazer Kevin Duckworth was unable to be revived because of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure. Duckworth had been an All-Star for the Portland Trail Blazers, twice. He was the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 1988. He had an 11-year NBA career.

In Tualatin Oregon, seven years after the Duckworth tragedy Jerome Kersey collapsed. Kersey’s 17-year career was noticeable, particularly his second-place finish to Michael Jordan in the Slam Dunk Contest of 1987. (He also lost Slam Dunk contests 1985, ’86, 88). Kersey had multiple trips to the NBA Finals. He died at the age of 52 of a pulmonary embolism. A blood clot traveled to his lungs.

Five years later, Clifford Robinson rounded out the trifecta of tragedy. At the age of 53, Clifford Robinson died, though no cause of death was given, Robinson had a variety of health challenges including a stroke and cancer.

Three is an unlucky number. Duckworth, Kersey, and Robinson played together for four seasons. Robinson would replace Kersey in the starting lineup and Kersey eventually would leave Portland. All three would die prematurely, within twelve years of the other. No one would reach the age of 55.

The latest death was untimely, as were the others. Clifford Robinson played in the NBA for 18 years. 17 of those years he was in the playoffs. Uncle Cliffy as Robinson was affectionately called was a nickname that fans loved to yell out at games. Yo Uncle Cliffy over here. Uncle Cliffy drained that…damn he can stroke it.

Robinson danced after a playoff win and he called the dance the “Uncle Cliffy”. It fit everything he was about and stuck. A 6-11 three-point shooter rocking a headband and playing in an era when dropping threes was considered a novelty for a big man, Uncle Cliffy seemed like someone’s fun uncle. After draining a three, he always had a smile.

Clifford Robinson was the 34th pick in the 1989 NBA Draft. No one would have expected Robinson to log more games and years than number one pick Pervis Ellison, number two pick Danny Ferry, number three pick Sean Elliott, number four pick Glen Rice, number seven pick George McCloud, number nine pick Tom Hammonds, number eleven pick Nick Anderson, number twelve pick Mookie Blaylock, number fourteen pick Tim Hardaway.

Robinson took 471 threes in 1995-96. The next year, he took 350. He was one of the first big men to stand behind the arc and launch shots with efficiency. Although it seemed strange at the time, a decade later Clifford Robinson’s style of play had a name: stretch 4. But in the 90s, Clifford Robinson was a power forward with range.

An All-Star and Sixth Man of the Year, Clifford Robinson played college ball at UConn and put the Huskies program on the national map once he was in the NBA. Uncle Cliffy helped Jim Calhoun recruit across the country since Robinson was one of his guys and was excelling on the next level.

Teammate Rex Chapman noted “Guy absolutely loved to hoop. Never missed practice. Guarded the toughest guy every night and was a walking bucket. A great dad. Laughed every day. Res, bro. Rest, Cliffy.”

Though Robinson was always known for his 3-point offense, at 6-11 he was a strong defender. Not because he was some awesome rebounder or shot-blocker- he had only one top 10 finish in blocks in his career- but he was strong in defensive principles. He had good footwork, long arms, and defensive instincts. He had a career defensive rating of 103.

Cliff Robinson revolutionized the PF position but you can’t help but wonder if he had been drafted decades later, say in 2009, and played on teams that appreciated and created an offense for a power forward who could make three-point shots, the difference in his career and his stats.

He scored 19,591 points.

Clifford Robinson was loved by his teammates and by his opponents. Every new era needs a beginning and Cliff Robinson was it but I’d love to have seen him when three-point shooting was the center object. He was ahead of his time.

Most remember Cliff Robinson with the Blazers because they drafted him and he stayed with them for 8 seasons. Robinson played in two NBA Finals. While with the Blazers he had a consecutive game streak which lasted 461 games and it still remains a Portland record.

After Portland, Robinson was with Phoenix for 4 years. There was that January game when Uncle Cliffy put up a 50-spot against Denver and he only took 5 threes.  He did play for the Warriors but when your starting five is Jason Richardson, Clifford Robinson, Erik Dampier, Mike Dunleavy, and Nick Van Exel, you aren’t going to the playoffs.

Great players aren’t just the superstars. Cliff Robinson had durability, passion, likeability, skill, and was willing to establish a new way of doing things for someone his size. He wasn’t afraid of the critique or failing. After basketball, Cliff Robinson went into the marijuana business. Adored in Portland, he returned to the city where he spent the first eight years of his career and where, at the age of 53, he would die. He joins in the eternal kingdom, teammates Jerome Kersey and Kevin Duckworth. Rip City has one more angel.