Robinson was one of the first professional athletes to get involved in the cannabis industry.
Cliff Robinson was always ahead of his time.
The 6’10” power forward laid the foundation for the “stretch forward” position, playing away from the basket and splashing in three-pointers long before that became standard practice for modern NBA big men.
In 1988, playing under the lights of Madison Square Garden, he led the University of Connecticut to the school’s first national basketball title, marking the beginning of a new era of basketball at Connecticut and setting the school up to become a basketball powerhouse.
The rangy and durable big man, who still holds the Portland Trail Blazers record for most consecutive games played (461), was also a longtime cannabis advocate. In 2017, he opened a cannabis dispensary in Portland and launched a line of products under the Uncle Spliffy banner, a play on his nickname, Uncle Cliffy.
Robinson died this past weekend from Lymphoma. His family confirmed the news in a post on Robinson’s website. He was 53 years old.
The former NBA All-Star and Sixth Man of the Year played nearly two decades in the league and often credited cannabis for aiding in his recovery between games.
“If you play 18 years in the NBA and perform over an 82-game schedule, you’re going to deal with anxiety issues and your ability to relax,” Robinson told the Las Vegas Sun in 2018. “Cannabis has always helped me with that.”
And though injuries rarely kept Robinson off the court, he was suspended three times during his career for testing positive for cannabis, missing a total of 11 games. After one of those suspensions, Peter Vecsey of the New York Post bestowed Robinson with the nickname “Uncle Spliffy.”
“He was giving me a hard time for being suspended from the Blazers for a game,” Robinson told Civilized. “He decided to call me that. So really it’s about taking something that has been a negative and turning it into a positive.”
Much of Robinson’s work in the cannabis sector was about eroding stigma and countering the belief that weed and athletics don’t mix.
“I’m going for the person that goes on a nice run, that goes on a nice hike, that goes and plays basketball, and wants to really enrich that activity by partaking in a cannabis product before. Or you want to smoke a joint after the activity. It’s going to be geared toward the active-lifestyle people,” Robinson told Willamette Week in 2016.
“I think the idea that athletics and cannabis is a bad mix is overblown. It’s kind of reefer madness.”
Robinson was one of the first professional athletes to get involved in the cannabis industry, rejecting long-held prejudices and establishing a viable path forward for other athletes, like Al Harrington, to follow.
“You need somebody to go first,” Andrew Gurevich, the host of the Potcast PDX podcast, told Vice Sports in 2016, in an article about the launch of Uncle Spliffy. “I think him being first is going to open the floodgates for people to come out next and at least have the dialogue.”
It is not uncommon for athletes to struggle in retirement, as the fame and fortune and bright lights of professional sports fade away and they search for ways to spend their remaining days. Robinson, who starred on a season of Survivor and joined Dennis Rodman on a “basketball diplomacy” trip to North Korea in 2014, was not afraid to try something different. As an athlete and a cannabis pioneer, he opened a door that had long been shut.
“This was a natural fit for me,” he told Willamette Week. “Why not take something that’s been perceived as a negative in my life and through my career and turn it into a positive?”
On Saturday, as the Portland Trail Blazers took to the court for their first-round playoff matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Trail Blazers wore black headbands, a signature style of Robinson, and a way to honour the man whose playstyle — and entrepreneurial vision — was years ahead of its time.
“He was our first great player,” Jim Calhoun, the legendary University of Connecticut coach told the New Haven Register. “He set the table for a lot of great things that happened.”
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Written by Sam Riches.
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