Cliff Robinson, who starred at UConn in the 1980s and went on to a long NBA career, helping to redefine the role of big men in basketball, died in Portland, Ore., early Saturday morning.
He was 53.
"Cliff was 'Uncle Cliff,' " said Jim Calhoun, who coached Robinson at UConn. "He really overcame an awful lot to become something special for the school, for the program and for himself."
Robinson's family confirmed his passing to WGRZ-TV in Buffalo, N.Y., according to reporter Claudine Ewing. Robinson, who recovered from a brain hemorrhage in 2017, apparently died from a stroke, lapsing into a coma earlier this week, according to Calhoun, and he was sent home when it was determined nothing more could be done.
Robinson, from Riverside High near Buffalo, arrived at UConn in 1985 to play for Dom Perno, who was fired after that season. One of the players inherited by Jim Calhoun, Robinson ultimately adapted to the change in coaching and helped the Huskies win the NIT championship in 1988, the program's first major breakthrough on a national stage, setting the stage for its future prominence.
"I still remember the first conversation we had," Calhoun said. "He had averaged five points as a freshman and he had struggled, but he was a great talent. I said, 'Cliff, two things can happen, you're going to get your butt kicked out of here by my size 12s, or you're going to someday have a terrific NBA career.' He chose the latter, and I give him great credit for that."
Robinson averaged 15.6 points and 6.1 rebounds in 109 games for the Huskies. His number, 00, was retired at UConn as he entered the Huskies of Honor in 2007, and he was named to the program's all-century team in 1999.
"The big thing he did for us," Calhoun said, "during the time, we needed legitimacy. Promise and hope are great things, but to get players is seeing things. Other guys started to see some of the players we had, and the only player we had in the NBA was Cliff, and he was playing beside Clyde Drexler in the playoffs, some of the great games in history. He did so much for us in that regard and over the years, if I needed something from Cliff, to come to an event, he was there. He is a great UConn story."
Drafted in the second round by the Trail Blazers, Robinson played in the NBA from 1989-2007, with the Blazers, Suns, Pistons, Warriors and Nets. He helped lead Portland to the NBA Finals in 1990 and '92, was the NBA's sixth man of the year in 1993 and an All-Star in 1994. He played in 461 games in a row at the start of his career, still a Portland franchise record.
"He had passion," Calhoun said. "The man drove himself from middle second round to an All-Star."
During the playoffs in '92, Robinson performed a victory dance he called the "Uncle Cliffy," and that nickname stuck with him.
"His personality and energy were unmatched," read a statement released by the Trail Blazers, "and his contributions on the court were unmistakable, helping the Trail Blazers into the playoffs each of his eight seasons with the team. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Cliff's family and loved ones. Uncle Cliffy will be greatly missed by the Trail Blazers and all of 'Rip City.' "
As a player, Robinson was a forerunner of the modern "stretch four," a power forward who had the added dimension of perimeter shooting; at the time of his retirement, he was the tallest player to make more than 1,000 3-point goals in the league, a mark now held by Dirk Nowitzki. Robinson averaged 14.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists across 1,380 games in the NBA.
"Uncle Cliffy taught me all I needed to know to be a stretch 4 in the NBA," said former Husky and current CCSU coach Donyell Marshall, via Twitter. "(The) UConn family has lost another great one."
After his retirement, Robinson became a leading proponent for legalizing marijuana and its use for medicinal purposes, opening up a dispensary in Oregon in 2017. Robinson had been arrested for possession of marijuana and driving under the influence in 2001, and suspended for one game in 2006 for violating the NBA's drug policy.
In 2014, he appeared on the TV series Survivor, and often joked about his experiences on the show with Calhoun.
"Cliff was a good man," Calhoun said. "He had a tough exterior because he had a tough life and he had to fight back to show it. I loved him for what he became, and how he pulled himself up."
Robinson is the third member lost from UConn's ground-breaking NIT championship team. Jeff King died from heart disease at age 31 in 1997, Robert "Spider" Ursery died from Hodgkin's disease at 44 in 2008. Earlier this summer, former Husky Stanley Robinson died at 32.