Heat forward and New Hampshire native Duncan Robinson has been in the NBA’s Orlando bubble for nearly three months, at once the most invigorating and isolating time of his life.
On the court, the sharpshooter has averaged 11.8 points per game during the playoffs and helped guide Miami to an improbable NBA Finals appearance against the Lakers.
And on Friday night he scored 26 points to help the Heat beat the Lakers, 111-108, and force a Game 6 on Sunday night.
But there have been so many idle hours, too. Robinson would sometimes call his sister Marta three times a day, with her finally asking him what’s left to talk about. It was important for those close to him to remind Robinson that he is certainly not alone, even if the now desolate Disney campus may feel that way. So they came up with an idea.
Harry Rafferty, Robinson’s close friend, reached out to people from all phases of Robinson’s basketball life, asking them to send videos offering support or congratulations, or even just a good laugh, to share with their friend.
Robinson has received clips prior to each game of these NBA Finals. Before Game 1, there was the video compilation from his former teammates at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Before Game 2, there was one from teammates at Division 3 Williams College, where he played a season before transferring to Michigan. The Wolverines handled the Game 3 clip, which included former coach John Beilein. For Game 4, the messages came from the Middlesex Magic, Robinson’s old Boston-area AAU team. And prior to Game 5 on Friday night, with the Heat trailing the Lakers, 3-1, the video montage was all family.
“I don’t think he’s struggling from loneliness, but it’s been three months down there, so I was trying to think of things that connect him to his past and hopefully make him reflect on his journey and how far he’s come,” Rafferty said. “Also, to remind him that no matter what happens in the Finals, that he has a lot of people in his corner.”
Robinson is from New Castle, N.H., an island town of about 1,000 just east of Portsmouth. He was not drafted out of Michigan in 2018 and ultimately parlayed a strong showing with the G League’s Sioux Falls Skyforce into a deal with the Heat, emerging this year as a starter and connecting on a blistering 44.6 percent of his 3-pointers. Over the past month, he has become something of a household name on basketball’s biggest stage, and the pride for him in this region is swelling.
“I still have very intense pinch-me moments where I honestly can’t believe it’s all happening,” said Robinson’s sister, Marta. “But then on the other end of it, I totally believe it, because that’s Duncan.”
Robinson’s mother Elisabeth traveled to Orlando last week and is in the NBA’s secondary bubble, which essentially means she can sit in the stands but is not allowed to come in contact with the players. So even though she talks to her son twice a day, she cannot even hug him. She said that it’s dark where she sits, so he cannot even see her, but he knows she’s there.
Earlier in the NBA restart, Rafferty completed a one-week quarantine in his Orlando hotel room and spent three weeks in the primary bubble. When he saw his best friend guarding two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the conference semifinals against the Bucks, it was surreal. But that was just the start. A few days later Robinson and Rafferty were having breakfast while Lakers star LeBron James was eating at a nearby table.
“LeBron walked over and goes, ‘What up, Dunc? ” Rafferty said. “And he gave him a dap. My jaw kind of dropped. I don’t get starstruck much, but LeBron is a different level. And I couldn’t believe he called him Dunc, as if they were childhood friends or something. Duncan, in the deepest voice he could, goes, ‘What up, man?’ And I was like, ‘Did you just say, ‘What up, man’ to LeBron? What world are we living in right now?’ ”
The support for Robinson goes well beyond the Orlando bubble, even if there were some slightly uneasy moments in the conference finals against the Celtics. Elisabeth has a Heat flag but did not want to upset any neighbors by hanging it during that series. So she waited until Miami closed out the Celtics with a Game 6 win and then planted the flag outside her house at 2 a.m.
Marta and her fiancé moved into a new home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Portsmouth, and her boisterous support during the conference finals could be heard by neighbors. One of them later asked, somewhat quizzically, why she was cheering for the Heat instead of the Celtics. That’s when she told them about her brother.
“That was a tough series, because we’re all Celtics fans,” Elisabeth said. “Even today watching [Rajon] Rondo, I just loved him on the Celtics. I don’t like him so much now, but I loved him then. So it’s been a little tricky, but everyone in the community is really supportive. They said they’re rooting for the Celtics, but they’re really rooting for Duncan.”
When the Finals end, Robinson will go back to Miami for a few days before returning to New England for several weeks. Elisabeth is already planning a socially distant homecoming party. And, for the first time since he was a child, Robinson is unlikely to have any basketball games or practices around the winter holidays, so the family is eager to have that time together. For now, though, the long phone calls and video messages will suffice.