By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted Sep 11 2009 9:25AM
SAN ANTONIO -- Folded into a chair not made for an adult, much less one standing 7-foot-1, David Robinson is completely at ease. Perhaps more so than at any time during an astonishing NBA career that redefined the center position and the position athletes have within their communities.
Surrounded by books, not thousands of fans, Robinson feels the need to almost apologize. He wishes the kids who bring The Carver Academy to life were here, because this is their library and they're the reason Robinson is lighting up. The joy in his eyes accentuates the message in his words.
This is the Admiral's admirable mission.
"After I signed my last contract, my wife and I sat down and asked what we want to do in the long term for San Antonio," Robinson, 44, said recently on the eve of The Carver Academy's ninth year. "Something that will give back long after we're gone. Education had always been something near to my heart."
The Carver Academy is just a long 3-pointer from the Alamodome, the stadium where many of Robinson's basketball memories were scripted. But the Academy is literally on the other side of the tracks. The five-acre campus is nestled in an economically challenged and racially diverse neighborhood on the east side of San Antonio.
The private school houses 120 students from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, with 98 percent of the student body on scholarship. Only 15 students make up each grade level, ensuring individual attention within a curriculum that emphasizes the sciences, arts and technology along with faith and service. Robinson not only founded the school in 2001, he's there just about every day. Two of his three sons graduated from there. He quipped that his boys were the only ones to pay full tuition during their stay.
"A lot of the kids we deal with here mainly come from tough situations," Robinson said. "George Washington Carver was a slave. So we can say to them that whatever your situation, it wasn't as bad as his. God has a purpose for you and just trust it. Go in there, take what you have, do something with it and never be satisfied."
Robinson excelled as a student, but The Carver Academy wasn't built as a shrine. Even though he's contributed $11 million of his own money since its inception, it's impossible to walk the halls and find any tangible proof that Robinson is tied to the school. There's not a statue or a No. 50 jersey or Spurs banner to be found.
"It's not about me," he explained. "It's really about this neighborhood and this city. And it's really about trying to build on our history, build on George Washington Carver. He's an icon. I was trying to build on his legacy and I want these kids to build on what I'm trying to give to them. I want them to look back farther than me."
Robinson's calling wasn't basketball, even if he was pretty good at it. The Naval Academy grad always knew his greatest impact would be made outside of the pampered world of professional sports. But the NBA provided a needed and rewarding vehicle for this Midshipman to take the next step.
Make no mistake; Robinson loved his time spent in the NBA. He was the Spurs' No. 1 pick in 1987, a big man who could run and jump like no one had ever seen from someone his size. When he finally broke into the league in 1989, after a two-year commitment to the Navy, he immediately impressed.
"I couldn't believe how athletic and quick he was," said Larry Brown, Robinson's first coach with the Spurs. "He reminded me so much of Russell, who I got to see as a boy. I had never seen anyone like that since."
An assistant coach on that team was equally impressed.
"Imagine him as a young man walking in the gym and doing a [walking] handstand from one end to the other at 7-1," Gregg Popovich said. "He did a handstand from one end line to the other. It took one practice and everybody knew that this was a different deal. That's when the Spurs started winning again."
Robinson's impact hardly ended there. Rumors swirled in the mid-1980s that the Spurs, with attendance dwindling at Hemisphere Arena, were primed for relocation.
"David Robinson is the one that kept the franchise here in San Antonio," said George Gervin, the Spurs' original superstar.
Still, Robinson would have to learn the game. Guys who score 1320 on the SAT and major in mathematics tend to pick things up quickly, but basketball didn't come naturally. Those who thought it did so, based on the Cliff Notes version of his biography -- he didn't play organized ball until his senior year in high school and his growth spurt at Navy turned a likely role player into the consensus collegiate player of the year -- are simply wrong.
"I see it as exactly opposite," he said. "I was this 6-foot-7 high school senior who had never played and there were all these kids who grew up playing and they all wanted to play professionally. And then I get to college, a really highly competitive environment, and I'm the least experienced guy there. Everybody always saw me as a project.
"Even coming into the NBA, it was the same deal. I always saw it as an uphill climb. Did it come easy? Not at all. When I came into the league, everyone expected me to be a Magic Johnson or a Michael Jordan. Basketball was something that was put on me. I grew to be 7-foot-1. I'm highly competitive. I love competing. But this was a different world."
Brown stayed on Robinson that first year, and Robinson followed the orders, averaging 24 points and 12 rebounds a game and running away with Rookie of the Year award. The Spurs won 56 games, setting a record for the largest turnaround in NBA history (35 wins).
David Robinson's combination of power and athleticism redefined the role of an NBA center.
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
"I just told him to rebound every miss, block every shot and just run the floor," Brown deadpanned. "He was so much better than I expected. One, he was receptive to coaching; two, he was as good an athlete as I've ever been around; three, he had unbelievable instincts for the game. He told me he didn't have any bad habits because he hadn't played a lot."
Robinson was also one of the rare elite athletes who appreciated his moment in the spotlight.
"I remember Sean Elliott and myself sitting around at practice just laughing and thinking, 'Are you kidding me? We get to do this every day,'" Robinson said. "And then there's who I got to play against. I got the tail end of Larry Bird and Magic, and to finish up my career I got Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. It was nice to be able to span generations like that.
"I did enjoy it. I guess for me I had a higher calling. I understood that my time in this locker room was more of a means to an end. It's really nice and it's a gift that God has given me that I'm supposed to fulfill."
Robinson's sense of perspective and self wasn't always appreciated in a league that too often celebrates flash over grace. Friction existed, on occasion, within the Spurs' locker room. Doc Rivers joined the Spurs in the mid-90s and was given a locker next to Robinson. The two didn't speak for nearly two weeks.
"When I first got there, I had my own ideas about who David was because of the years playing against him," Rivers said. "I was coming from the big, bad Knicks. I wasn't about to step aside for this guy.
"So one day I'm up on the table waiting to get taped for practice and the trainer says I have to wait, this is the time David gets taped. I didn't give a crap when he gets taped. I'm a veteran. I'm older than him."
Robinson hardly noticed the slight or how Rivers felt until their first icebreaking moment.
"He looked over at me and said, 'I really used to dislike you.' I thought that was such an odd thing," Robinson recalled. "He didn't really even know me, how could he dislike me? I couldn't understand it. He thought I was stuck up and arrogant. When would you ever get impression?"
Robinson quickly won over Rivers with his team-first approach. But the Celtics' coach is quick to point out that Robinson was also a trendsetter on the hardwood.
"He changed the game in some ways," Rivers said. "I always called him a scoring Bill Russell. It's almost unfortunate David scored as much as he did. He could have been the best defensive center of all time.
"It's almost fitting he's going in the Hall of Fame with Jordan. The weekend is going to be all about Mike. David is such a humble guy, I know he doesn't mind. He probably prefers it that way."
Though he seems to take more pride in having the NBA's Community Assist Award named after him than being inducted in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Sept. 11, Robinson is honored to take his place among the game's all-time greats. The 2009 class includes arguably the two best guards in NBA history, Jordan and John Stockton, and Robinson, a center who revolutionized the position much as Mikan, Russell and Chamberlain did a half-century ago.
"You don't grow up dreaming you're going to be in the Hall of Fame. I guess some people do," Robinson said with a laugh. "But, really, it's not really a goal you can shoot for. It's just something that comes from what you do on the floor. I never really thought about it that much until they called me up and said you're a finalist."
Robinson asked Brown to be his introductory speaker at the ceremony in Springfield, Mass. Gervin is the other.
"I feel so fortunate I got to spent time with him," Brown said. "He cares about kids and he understands the responsibility he has. He's so shy. I don't think he realizes what a positive effect he had on the game and the people around him. When I look back on my career, I realize I've been blessed in so many ways, and to know I was involved with that kid is mind-boggling."
With Tim Duncan by his side, David Robinson and the Spurs were a nearly-unstoppable team.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
Robinson's NBA accolades and accomplishments are staggering: 1995 MVP, two-time NBA champion (1999 and 2003), 1992 Defensive Player of the Year, 10-time All-NBA, 10-time All-Star, he led the league in scoring in 1994, in rebounding in 1991 and in blocked shots in 1992. He rewrote the Spurs' record book.
He also played in three Olympics, taking home two gold medals, including one as part of the legendary Dream Team in 1992. Robinson's welcoming nature made for a smooth transition later in his career when another No. 1 pick, Tim Duncan, joined the fold and became the Spurs' focal point. Robinson won his two championships beside Duncan, retiring after the last one in 2003.
"Tim was one of the best guys at not trying to make me into something that I wasn't," Robinson said. "Tim came and was like, 'I love you and appreciate you,' and he came alongside of me right away. He made things a lot easier."
Robinson holds the relationships and friendships he made during his 14 years in the league sacred. He rattles off the names of former teammates and sounds fortunate to share the same Silver & Black uniform. The man who could have gone the route of pop-culture sensation -- remember those Mr. Robinson commercials for Nike? -- instead became the ultimate partner.
"At the beginning of my career, it really was all about me," he said. "When it's about you, you just ride this roller coaster. One day everything is so great and you're on top of the world, and the next day you're a bum and everybody hates you. That's frustrating. It's always on your shoulders.
"Even if you do well, they just raise the bar. 'You won one championship, so what? Michael Jordan won five.' Now you've got to jump a little higher. You end up being not satisfied. How can a guy like Charles Barkley or Karl Malone be disappointed with their career? You can't. They had phenomenal careers. They didn't win a championship ... that doesn't happen for everybody. That's why they're special."
Popovich called Robinson "beyond special" and, even though the words sound trite and have been used many times before, said, "He's a way better person than he was a basketball player." Robinson's priorities now revolve around service. He heads up fundraising for The Carver Academy, remains active in his church and takes a hands-on approach, along with his wife Valarie, in raising three teenage boys.
"Fortunately my faith gave me the balance to back away and realize this is a journey and enjoy the journey," he said. "If you never win, you never win. You don't have control over that. What you do have control over is when you go in that locker room every day, the energy you put out, the effort you put out and how you encourage these guys. That's going to last longer than any ring sitting on your shelf."
The kids that surround Robinson, like those books on the library shelves, feel the same encouragement. They don't see a Hall of Famer when he stops into a classroom. Most don't even remember his playing days. They want to show him what they've learned that day.
"They just know me as Mr. Robinson," he said. "That's fun. That's fun because what I want to be to them is an example, a light, and I think that's how they see me. Mr. Robinson is just this guy that's helping us get where we want to go."
Is there a better guide?
If you have a question or comment for Art Garcia, send him an email.