Meet Uncle Spliffy: Cliff Robinson Ventures into the Weeds

Ex-NBA player Clifford Robinson, once known as Uncle Cliffy, is venturing into the world of legal cannabis.

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Feb 12 2016, 3:30pm

Last Thursday morning, Cliff Robinson stepped off a stage at the Portland Expo Center, and basked in the warm applause that used to greet him when he played for the Trail Blazers just miles away. Clad in a black suit, a white shirt and a red tie—the Blazers' colors—he captivated the crowd with his story and the events that have led him to his current mission in life.

At 49, and a decade out of the NBA, Robinson is now in the marijuana industry. The player who used to be known as "Uncle Cliffy" is now the face and president of Uncle Spliffy, the nascent business trying to take advantage of a young and growing market for legalized marijuana.

The audience that had quietly, perhaps confusedly, just sat through an actual ex-NASA engineer explaining how to best grow product, suddenly erupted when Robinson finished his remarks.

"MVP!," screamed Mary Lou Burton, the conference's organizer, as Robinson stepped off stage. "I just voted you MVP of cannabis!"

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It was an odd sight. Robinson is, after all, an 18-year NBA veteran—even an All-Star once. Six-foot-10 and still lithe and sinewy, he speaks with a calm and even-tempered voice. On stage, he looked comfortable but not quite at ease like he did on a basketball court. Nerves had been an issue before his speech, and afterward he admitted he had wished he had taken a hit from an e-pen to calm his anxiety.

Still, his words were almost secondary. He came to the Cannabis Collaborative Conference, not just as an emerging businessman stepping foot into the trade but as the keynote speaker. That the speech itself wasn't particularly riveting or exciting didn't matter—he could have said almost anything and the audience would have loved him. Some people remembered him from the Clyde Drexler teams of the early '90s. Others just saw a former professional basketball player who was investing his name and credibility into a formerly—perhaps still—taboo industry.

If this seems like a bit or a gag, it's not. Robinson first started smoking marijuana as a 15-year-old in his native Buffalo. It was the beginning of a long and rocky relationship. In 1997, he was arrested for possession in Portland before charges were dropped. Four years later, he was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of possession and he pled guilty to driving under the influence.

He was suspended twice by the NBA for positive tests, including once for failing a drug test while his team, then the Nets, was in the playoffs. Yet, he is steadfastly positive about the drug.

"We've always had a good relationship," he told Vice Sports. "It's always been a way to calm myself. Calm myself, calm my stomach. It's always been that calming influence in my life."

Robinson decided to get into the marijuana business in October. He had ignored business offers and ideas for years, clinging to the hope that he would get back into the NBA somehow as a coach or in the front office, but that never came to fruition. He worried that coming out publicly in support of cannabis would affect his reputation.

Having Keith Van Horn up in your face can be both stressful and tiring. Photo via EPA.

Then he reached his tipping point. He was in a suite for ex-players at the Blazers' home opener along with Michael Harper—a commissioner on the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the body that regulates the marijuana industry in the state—and a long-time friend, Dave Miller. Oregon had just legalized recreational sales earlier that month and Miller already had experience on the medical side. Uncle Spliffy, a nickname bestowed on him after one of his suspensions, seemed just right.

For now, the business is still in its early stages. They have a name. They have an executive board. Soon, he hopes to open up an e-commerce store selling apparel—a friend of Robinson's was giving away red headbands with the Uncle Spliffy logo at the conference—and hemp-based products. He's looking to move back from Michigan and buy an estate somewhere in Portland with enough room for a grow. "I have a guy who's very good at growing," he boasts.

There might be topicals and extracts. He's examining the athlete and active lifestyle and considering products for that market, too. Eventually, he hopes to start a cannabis club too, with tiered membership and a plan he won't reveal at this point.

But for now, it's about playing the long game and waiting out the timeline to get the proper licensing. He can't sell to recreational dispensaries until the final quarter of this year.

"We're starting something from the ground floor," Robinson said. "I played basketball for 18 years but they were playing basketball before I played. And they were selling cannabis before but they weren't selling it legally. So now we're in a position where we can do something groundbreaking and we have to take that responsibility seriously."

If this all seems weird, that Robinson is now at the forefront of the legalized marijuana movement, he thinks so too. When he grew up, he had to sneak around to smoke. Some of his family members sold marijuana but just for some extra income on the side, he says. And he had to be careful in the NBA.

"You find a way," he joked. "There's been plenty of bathrooms with showers running and towels on the door with the steam. I played on one team and I couldn't even be on the same floor with everybody. The whole floor was just smoked out. I told the trainer to put me on a different floor. I'm a little bit more cautious about how I smoke. I'm not out in the open like everybody else."

Robinson would not smoke on the days before games but used it to unwind after games, when his adrenaline was still running, or to soothe his anxiety. While professional athletes may lead glamorous lives, Robinson says the stress of having to perform 82 nights a year, plus the added stress from his family, would get to him. He also preferred marijuana to prescription drugs or higher strength pharmaceutical products to ease his pain or the toll his body took on a nightly grind. Those would upset his stomach and he avoided them unless necessary. Marijuana became his panacea.

"When you look at a commercial on TV about a prescription drug they always give you 20 side effects that come with it," he said. "Really, we live in an age where you should be concerned about that kind of stuff. Why not have an alternative?"

While he acknowledges that he did smoke too much at certain points during his playing days, Robinson says he never felt like his habit got to be too burdensome or a threat to his career. But marijuana did cost him. When he was suspended the first time, Robinson didn't have much remorse. He was young and didn't see it as a big deal. His second suspension still nips at him.

He got caught during the 2006 playoffs, with the Nets already in the second round. Robinson was a vital bench player on that team. He was 39 and in his 17th season. He hadn't smoked in a while and didn't plan on it. But after two of his teammates had their fourth and final drug test of the year—the NBA's collective bargaining agreement calls for four random drug tests throughout the year —Robinson said they wanted to celebrate and kept pestering him to smoke with them too. Robinson said he resisted at first but eventually relented. Two days later, he was chosen to be tested too. His suspension took effect with Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with the series tied 1-1 and headed back to New Jersey. The Nets wouldn't win another game in the series.

"I looked at it me being selfish and not understanding the position we were in," he said. "That one really hurt me because we were paying well, we were in the playoffs and everything is under a microscope in the playoffs and to be taken off the court during the playoffs because you smoked marijuana, I never felt good about that."

Robinson smokes less now than he did in his playing career. And he's a more savvy consumer. He prefers sativa to indica because it allows him to be more functional—he didn't know the difference back when he played.

He started educating himself about marijuana after he finished playing. And his role at Uncle Spliffy isn't just as a figurehead but as an executive. Miller, a former professional paintballer who met Robinson when the two bumped into each other during a game on a paintball field, and his wife, Linda, are also investors and vice presidents. During the two days of the conference, they all roamed around the vast open space, checking out booths and taking informal meetings.

The conference itself was banal. Despite it being centered around cannabis, it was a run-of-the-mill business expo, not anything zany that might be expected when the product being marketed is weed. There were a few jumbo jars filled with marijuana, t-shirts or signs printed with bad puns, the open distaste for New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and free Ben & Jerry's, but the overall attitude was decidedly one of boring professionalism. The samples of edibles being given away were cannabis-free and the marijuana investment and venture capital firm got as much action as nearly any other booth. When the investment bankers are popular, then you know the life has been sucked out of the party.

Robinson was actually one of the few—or perhaps only— people who eschewed business casual for a suit. But he was still recognizable. One fan saw him and got him to call his 90-year-old grandmother, who had handmade a large teddy bear to resemble him, headband and all. There were regular requests for photos and selfies that seemed only to get in the way of him trying to get from one booth to another.

One man, with a full white beard and the aged complexion of a hippy whose morals had finally seen history catch up, recognized Robinson walking around and asked for a picture together. "An old Blazer," he told a friend. "He's into marijuana."

Others saw him more as a spearhead for the cause than as a celebrity interloper. One former NBA player in attendance, who remains employed by a team and asked for anonymity to speak freely in fear that his job could be effected, called Robinson a "pioneer. He's a trail blazer." Other former players, he said, see the marijuana industry as a place to potentially invest down the line. Robinson is the public test-case for that.

The terrifying facade of Portland's legal marijuana scene. Photo by Another Believer via Wiki Commons.

"You need somebody to go first," Andrew Gurevich, the host of the Potcast PDX podcast, said. "I think that he's not in the league anymore but still has a lot of credibility – especially in the area. People remember him in the area for being on that great Blazer team with Drexler, (Terry) Porter and those guys. I think him being first is going to open the floodgates for people to come out next and at least have the dialogue."

Gurevich remembers attending Portland games during their lowest points, when the team was nicknamed the Jail Blazers because of the prevalence of players who found themselves in legal trouble. When Rasheed Wallace was jeered heavily following an arrest for marijuana possession, he was flabbergasted.

"I remember looking around and going 'Where do I live?'," Gurevich said. "I don't even know if there was a medical program yet—there certainly wasn't a rec program—but I was blown away at that...I didn't know what I was seeing. I think it's that family thing—the children, the children, the children—that everyone is so worried about. But I think that's changing, right?"

At the conference, and around Portland, it seems like it. Marijuana is legal now and the market is growing. Robinson is still a beloved former Blazer despite his new platform.

He doesn't see himself going back into the NBA, the role he once desired, even if it opens up for him. And he thinks leagues will be slow to accept marijuana, too. Just this weekend, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell proclaimed that it still has no place in football, even medicinally.

Robinson sees the risk for leagues. "They don't want their players looked at as guys who are out there playing while they're stoned and that's understandable."

He sees it for players too. But attitudes are slowly changing. Four states have already legalized marijuana, two with NBA teams. Robinson thinks that one day an active player will come out and endorse a marijuana product.

"And I hope it'll be with Uncle Spliffy."