Cliff Robinson is an NBA legend. The player nicknamed Uncle Cliffy played 18 seasons, most famously for the Portland Trail Blazers, where he earned Sixth Man of the Year honors, an NBA All-Star appearance and two trips to the NBA Finals. The former UConn Huskie also had an uncanny ability to play through injuries and illness, earning himself the No. 10 spot on Bleacher Report’s 50 Best Iron Men in NBA History. Even after the NBA, he maintained a high profile as a contestant on Survivor and a member of the basketball team that Dennis Rodman assembled to play in North Korea. Despite his Hall of Fame-worthy career, Robinson also faced arrest and several NBA suspensions for cannabis possession, and today he fights back as a cannabis advocate under the new nickname Uncle Spliffy. Robinson, who spoke at the 2016 Cannabis Collaborative Conference in Portland, has launched his own line of Uncle Spliffy products. To learn more, we spoke with Robinson about his product plans, cannabis suspensions, league-mandated cannabis treatment and whether or not he got high on Survivor.
Why are cannabis and pro sports compatible?
I think cannabis-based products definitely work well in the athletic space because they are natural products. They’re using it to treat migraines, and you can use CBD to treat muscle soreness and tension and things like that. I think that’s a really good help.
What have you learned about the medical potential for helping basketball players in particular?
I’m learning every day. That’s one thing that’s taking place. I’m finding there’s an overwhelming amount of information out there, and I’m trying to take it in, absorb it little by little. I do know in the 82-game season, of which I played 18 years in the NBA, you have a lot of soreness. You have a lot of muscle tension. Cannabis-based products would definitely help with the high level of mental and physical stress that you deal with in basketball.
Cannabis prohibition is especially strict in sports, and your alma mater, UConn, had two basketball players busted in recent years: Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Jerome Dyson. Is it unfair for young promising collegiate athletes to get punished for cannabis?
Oh, I definitely think it’s unfair. With more people using it medically and more places coming online recreationally, the stance around it has definitely started softening a bit. You know, it’s unfair for collegiate athletes to lose their scholarships or even be in a position to have that happen to them because they smoked cannabis.
When the NBA negotiates the next CBA [collective bargaining agreement], do you see yourself trying to campaign to make changes that protect current players from harsh penalties?
Well, I don’t sit on the association board, I’m not one of the advisers, so I don’t see myself partaking in the conversation, but I think me starting a cannabis-based company definitely shines a light on the conversation and continues the dialog. I’m sure that the dialog will continue during the next round of negotiations.
What type of cannabis business will Uncle Spiffy be? Will you open a dispensary?
No, no, no. We’re not doing a retail brick and mortar; we’re doing an ecommerce store. We’re going to start by selling apparel and some hemp-based products as everything continues to come online here in Oregon. We’ll apply for our licenses, retail processing and all that stuff. We’re taking it a little slow in our movement, but I think we’re doing it the right way.
Is it a goal to have your own strains and cannabis products?
Oh, definitely. Definitely. We’re going to have cannabis-based products, topicals, extracts and the like.
What gave you the idea to get involved in the cannabis industry?
I have friends on the medical side, so I was pretty much waiting for the right time. I thought, now it’s the right time since the recreational market has come online here in Oregon.
Without naming names, did many players reach out and commend you for stepping up like this?
Well, I spoke to quite a few before I did it. They were very excited for me, and since then, I’ve had people reach out to me and congratulate me on just going out there and starting a business and taking a stance.
Do you fear that getting involved in the cannabis industry might delay, or in some way affect, your likely entry into the Basketball Hall of Fame?
You know, I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about that. My play speaks for itself, and a business venture shouldn’t have anything to do with that. We’ll see. I’ve never really considered it because of the simple fact that I just played. I’ve never really thought about the accolades that might come with it.
In your time as a pro, you had a couple of issues involving cannabis. When those things happened, did teammates pressure you to stop or did they protest the penalties? And weren’t you forced into a league-mandated cannabis treatment program?
Uh, yes, they do have a league-mandated treatment program, but when you’re on a team, you’re on the team, and you stand behind one another. I’ve always been embraced by my teammates through ups and through what someone would look at as a down time, when I was suspended. You just have to deal with the punishment that comes with it and move on. As a team, that’s what we did when I played.
What was the treatment program like?
Well, you’re in a program where you have to abide by the program’s rules and submit to urine tests and things like that. You can’t mess around or else it’s going to continue to follow you. It’ll continue to keep you off the court, so you pretty much have to do it.
But what was the program itself like? Did someone lecture you about the evils of marijuana?
No, no, no, no. There’s no lecture. You’re just in the program until you can give them a clean sample, show them that you’re not using, but they don’t send people around to talk to you or anything like that.
You went in the second round, and a couple years later, you won Sixth Man of the Year. What do you think that says about not letting other people’s expectations limit you?
I think sometimes perceptions can spread. When one person has a bad perception about you, it can, I guess, create a snowball effect. I think that’s what happened with me when I was coming out of UConn. Everybody perceived me to be a non-physical player, a player who may have had some issues off the court. I just figured I’d show them they were wrong. At the end of the day, you have to go out there and prove them wrong. I’m pretty sure I did that by having an 18-year career because no one else in that draft had an 18-year career.
Or 461 consecutive games.
Or that. Or 1380 games [total]. So I don’t even worry about that. I just let my numbers and my play on the court speak for themselves. Anybody who played against me would attest that I always played hard and played the right way.
That iron-man streak of 461 games is impressive. Was there something specific you did to avoid injuries and illness, or to a certain extent were you just lucky?
I think it’s a little bit of both. You’ve got to be blessed, you’ve got to be a little bit lucky, and you also have to be willing to play through small injuries. I always wanted to be out on the court. I was playing with Jerome Kersey and Clyde Drexler and those guys, and I wanted to be out there with them. The last thing I wanted to do was not take advantage of the opportunity that I had.
You were on the TV show Survivor. Were you ever high when you filmed the show?
No, no. No, no, that’s definitely not taking place out there.
That would’ve been hilarious if you were.
People think they’re out there feeding you and all that stuff, but that’s not taking place. It’s really tough out there.
You also joined Dennis Rodman and several other players in North Korea. From that trip, did you make any key observations about North Korea?
You know what? The people were, I mean, they treated us very nice. They were excited about us being over there. They never had the opportunity to see NBA players, so from that perspective, it just felt like another trip, other than the fact that we were in North Korea. We knew we were going to get backlash when we got back.
You felt backlash?
Well, I mean, just from all the people trying to make it out to be more than what it was. It was a basketball trip. We went over there to do what we do, and that is all. It was a sports event, and sports events have always opened up the door to better communication, so who can say that it wasn’t going to do that?
Considering all the players on the team who got busted, do you think there’s a particular reason so many players on the Portland Trail Blazers seem to love cannabis?
You know what? I don’t know. I can’t speak for anyone else. I can speak for myself. I mean, Oregon has always been known for having great cannabis, so I think that definitely plays into it.