Remembering “Uncle Cliffy”

by | Mar 12, 2021 | Opinion | 0 comments

2020. It’s a year that if we are old enough to comprehend how terrible it was, none of us will ever forget it. An epidemic that morphed into a pandemic. Civil unrest. A presidential election that was such a circus, it lead to an insurrectionist siege on Capitol Hill in January 2021. And I would be remiss in not mentioning the hundreds of thousands of innocent Americans who succumbed to the aforementioned pandemic. My wife and I both lost family members due to Covid, like I said, it was an unforgettable year.

One life, of the many lives that were lost that was unrelated to the Coronavirus was one of a person I’ve known since the 4th grade. We weren’t best buddies but, we always liked each other. He was always taller than most of the kids our age but, there was nothing unusual about that. Lots of kids grow faster than their peers. What stuck out was that he wanted to be great at basketball, even then. The kid I’m referring to grew up to play 18 years in the N.B.A., his name, Clifford Robinson.

Not an NBA Natural at the Start

Like me, Cliff was raised on the East side of Buffalo NY. I am from the Central Park neighborhood, Cliff was from the East Delevan/Grider neighborhood. Back then there were neighborhood schools within walking distance of your home. We both lived in P.S. #61’s district so, that’s where we met. My homeroom teacher at the time was Mr. Distefano, a large, bearded man who loved basketball and had access to the gym after school. At least three times a week, Mr. Distefano would let us stay after school and play ball for 2 hours after completing our homework, which we did right in the gym.

I’ll cut out the suspense, Cliff was no natural.

There were recreational centers or school gyms all over Buffalo that hosted basketball house leagues or, just plain old pick up games throughout the year. Winter, Spring, Summer…..you could play whenever. I played pick up/house league games between a grammar school near my house, Campus East or, the Mecca of the Buffalo basketball junkie, The Masten Boys & Girls Club (I’ll write a future article about that!). Cliff played between the same Campus East as I and The Delevan/Grider Community Center aka “The Rec”. As years went by, Cliff was growing like a weed. By 6th grade, Cliff was at least 6’1. We’ve all heard of someone not getting used to a quickly growing body, it’s never a smooth transition. He did however, learn to become the ultimate shot blocker right around that time.

Team Always Bests Individual Talent

We would play on the same or, different pick up teams at Campus East from time to time. Looking back now, his defensive skills came first and his offensive skills really didn’t develop until junior year in high school, which is kind of backwards considering that most kids want to learn to put the rock through the twine (make baskets, to the layperson), that unorthodox order of his learning of the game was the foundation of his long N.B.A. career, we’ll get to that later.

By 7th grade, we were both bussed out of our neighborhood schools and sent across town to what is called the Riverside/Black Rock section of Buffalo. I went to P.S. #65 and, Cliff was sent to P.S. #60 which were literally about a mile apart from each other. I wrote an article about the the non existence of rivalry in today’s N.B.A.; schools #65 and #60 introduced me to rivalry in it’s purest form! Like most cities, teachers and administrators all know each other, so there was an after school league formed from 6 schools around the immediate area.

School #65 had a pretty good team, myself, Reggie Hilton, Paul Pope, Tom Pennington, Brian Markott and, about 3 other guys. We were a good “team”, everybody did their part. School #60 was Cliff and company. The coach of that team gave Cliff the ball every time down the court, and for those who aren’t good at math, 5 is far greater than 1! We beat them the 3 times we played them and I NEVER let Cliff live it down!!

“What up, Mike?”, “What up Cliff?”

We entered our Freshman year of high school in the fall of 1982, I concentrated on football (my first love ????) and of course, Cliff stayed in the basketball lane. He went to Riverside High School and I went to a Magnet School called Buffalo Traditional. Our basketball teams were on opposite ends of the spectrum, Riverside was loaded. They had Brian Scaife (R.I.P.) a do- everything athlete (football, baseball, basketball) Tyrone Thomas, who went on to be a college teammate of Dennis Rodman and play professionally overseas, Michael Ray Richardson, a Magic Johnson– like point guard who went on to play at Canisius College (D1) here in Buffalo, and a developing Cliff Robinson. Traditional….we had some guys, period.

Anyway, as the years went by and those guys graduated, Cliff was THE MAN by our junior year. He was joined by my cousin, Jamel Mosely, a 6’3 combo guard who also went on to play at Canisius. They were tough, along with Bennett, Kensington, Hutch Tech and City Honors high schools. Many players from those schools went on to play college ball on some level, Buffalo has a rich basketball history. One thing about Cliff’s development, the better he got, the more COCKY he got! Man oh man, his ego grew as fast as he did but hey, when you’re a teenager who is becoming nationally known at 16, things like that can change your personality. But even as his star was rising, whenever we saw each other, it was “What up, Mike?”, “What up Cliff?”; just like 4th grade.

Collegiate Greatness

By our Senior year, Cliff was touted as a top 25 recruit in the country. It was great to see, the last local guy prior to Cliff to garner national attention was Curtis Aiken (Bennett High) in 1983. Curt went on to be the first McDonald’s All American to play for the University of Pittsburgh. Curt had a very good college career. Many of the major programs wanted Cliff and back in the 1980’s but, if you were a physical, tough, driven and even sometimes, nasty basketball player, The Big East was the only place to play.

Patrick Ewing (Georgetown) Chris Mullin (St. John’s) Ed Pinckney (Villanova) Michael Adams (Boston College) just to name a few of the league’s greatest talents (and all future N.B A. players). Cliff had a nasty, even cruel streak in him at times on and off the court and, he could be an EGOMANIAC. The University of Connecticut’s coach, the great Jim Calhoun, saw him as the perfect addition to his team and, the conference.

Cliff took the scholarship to UConn and became a Hall of Famer at the school, I joined the Navy and got stationed in San Diego, California and had a great time serving the country. Whenever I was home on leave during the summer, I would often run into Cliff who was filling out with chiseled muscle and had even gotten taller! Physically and mentally, Cliff looked like the N.B.A. was in his immediate future. His name and his game was ringing out as a future draft pick. We would see each other, greet each other with a handshake and hug, “What up Mike?”, “What up Cliff?” some small talk and we’d go our separate ways. Still cool with each other.

Bonafide Pro Baller

1989, Cliff gets drafted early in the second round by the Portland Trailblazers, the city of Buffalo could not have been prouder. I was done with my enlistment and came home to find a job and go to college. Another Buffalo native, the Hall of Famer Bob Lanier, was the last high draft pick from here…..19 years before that so, it was a huge deal. He had a good rookie season and the Blazers were very good. They had Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Terry Porter, Kevin Duckworth and Cliff as a defensive specialist (grammar school #P.S. 61!) and growing into a top 6th man in the league.

Cliff came home summer of 1990 and it was official, he was a bonafide pro baller. The latest fashion, crispy Nikes (contract), shiny jewelry and, a big, shiny, black 1990 BMW 745i. It was like a spaceship, we’d NEVER SEEN anything that cold in this town!! I ran into Cliff on Hertel Avenue at a pizza joint during that time and he was shining, he looked great. There were some whispers throughout the town that Cliff had become big headed (that was nothing new!) but when I saw him, guess what happened?

“What up Mike?”, “What up Cliff?”

Successful Pro Career

I always liked the fact like I mentioned earlier, we weren’t best buddies but, we liked each other. As years went on, Cliff made his mark in the league. He went to the Phoenix Suns, got a big contract, won The Sixth Man of the Year in 1993, named an All-Star in 1994, made the All N.B.A. Defensive Team in 2000 & 2002. He played for 5 different teams and had a successful pro career. He is going to be remembered as one of the greatest players Buffalo ever had to offer. There is one thing about our relationship that I regret not taking advantage of.

In 2001, Cliff was playing for the Detroit Pistons and I ran into him at a Lackawanna (a town outside of Buffalo, former N.F.L. quarterback Ron Jaworski is a native) summer league basketball game and it was the usual greeting between us. However, this is the first time time we had ever exchanged phone numbers. He said with Detroit being a few hours from Buffalo, to come up and see him play and we could just hang. I said cool but you know how life can be, it just never happened, you know?

Retirement

The last time I saw Cliff in person was in the summer of 2016. I was coming out of my favorite Greek restaurant here in Buffalo, Kosta’s on Hertel (if you are ever in Buffalo, NY, Hertel has some of the city’s best eateries) with my mother and my wife. We were waiting to cross the street, as we were parked in the lot across from the restaurant, and this big, black, shiny (just like the 1990 BMW) Ford F-150 slowly creeps toward the curb we’re standing on. “What up Mike?” with that infectious grin, it was Clifford Robinson.

By this time, I hadn’t seen Cliff even before he had retired in 2007, for years. He would pop in and out of town but I’d never run into him. I was married by 2004 and life had changed. Hell, I didn’t see many people IN Buffalo after I’d gotten married, for that matter. It was a beautiful summer day, I handed my wife the keys and talked to Cliff for a few minutes.

Uncle Spliffy

I just asked how the family was doing, how the kids were doing. We even laughed about my team beating his team 3 times back in the grammar school days. Most importantly, I asked how he was doing. He said he was good and how he was investing in a legalized marijuana business out in Portland. His nickname was “Uncle Cliffy” because of a dance (named just that) he was doing after the Blazers had closed out a playoff series to advance one year. Cliff also loved his weed so another nickname of his was “Uncle Spliffy”, how appropriate!

Then the news came that he suffered a stroke in 2017, a year after I had seen him in Buffalo. He bounced back from that and then a series of health issues soon followed. Like I mentioned in the beginning of this piece, 2020 was a terrible year in this world’s history. The summer of 2020 ended (August 29, 2020) with my longtime schoolmate, sometimes teammate, passing away too soon at 53 years of age.

I miss Cliff. In my eyes, I think that our relationship was perfect. Even though we weren’t best buddies, we really liked each other.

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Mike Hicks
Written by Mike Hicks