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Former UConn great Cliff Robinson, first NBA star of the Jim Calhoun Era, dies at 53

Before there was Ray Allen, Donyell Marshall, Rip Hamilton or Kemba Walker, there was Cliff Robinson.

Robinson, the first true star and future NBA standout in Jim Calhoun’s tenure at UConn, has died at age 53, his family announced on Saturday.

Robinson was the first true UConn star of the Calhoun Era, helping to lead the Huskies to the 1988 NIT championship as a junior. He was selected in the second round of the 1989 NBA Draft by Portland and played 18 seasons in the league, helping the Trail Blazers to the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992, where they lost to the Detroit Pistons and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, respectively.

Robinson, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 1992-93 and an all-star the following season, ranks No. 54 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. He is UConn’s 13th all-time leading scorer.

“He was our first great player,” Calhoun said on Saturday morning. “He came from a difficult background in Buffalo. I watched him evolve as a man, as a player. He really was the first star we had. An incredible man, (had) a daughter he took good care of. He’s a good man who had a great career and was instrumental in a lot of the great things that eventually happened at UConn.”

Calhoun was hired in 1986, after Robinson’s freshman season, and remembers bonding with Robinson and fellow standout Phil Gamble immediately after his introductory press conference.

“That started everything, really,” the Hall of Fame coach recalled.

Robinson, a 6-foot-10 forward, averaged 18.1 points and 7.4 rebounds as a sophomore, then was the leading scorer and rebounder (17.6, 6.9, respectively) as a junior as he, Gamble, Tate George and others led the Huskies to the 1988 NIT title with a win over Ohio State at Madison Square Garden.

As a senior, Robinson averaged 20 points per game and took a prized freshman recruit from Bridgeport named Chris Smith under his wing.

“Cliff welcomed me into his family,” Smith recalled. “When I got there as a freshman, he recognized the talent that I had and took me under his wing. He was the star player on our team … He wanted me to blossom, he pushed me in practice, and he was a mentor. This news is just really bad.”

Robinson was chosen by the Trail Blazers with the 35th overall pick in the 1989 NBA Draft, UConn’s highest pick at the time since Toby Kimball was picked 25th overall in 1965.

“He meant so much to UConn,” said Calhoun. “When you have that kind of guy, it does so many things for the program. It doesn’t 100-percent legitimize you, but for most kids looking for the NBA, it gives you a great deal of credibility with the players.”

After eight successful seasons in Portland, he also played for Phoenix, Detroit, Golden State and the Nets before retiring after the 2006-07 season at age 40.

“He had a great career,” noted Smith, “but he was just a great guy. You rarely meet people that will do anything for you. Cliff was one of those guys. If you had money, didn’t have money, he didn’t care. If he put you in his circle, you were his friend. And that’s all that mattered.”

In 2017, Robinson opened his own marijuana dispensary in Portland, taking advantage of Oregon’s relaxed marijuana laws.

Calhoun said Robinson suffered a stroke about 2 ½ years ago that inhibited his ability to speak and walk for a while. But about six months later, he was back out shooting baskets, and had been doing better in recent times.

Calhoun said he learned through a text from Hamilton on Monday night that Robinson was in a coma.

“It’s a tragic death,” Calhoun said. “A young guy who was looking forward to leading the life afterwards. He enjoyed being in Portland, he was a star there. Too young. Our first pioneer, great player that we had. He kind of set the table for a lot of great things that happened.”

david.borges@hearstmediact.com

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