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Scott Howard-Cooper

David Robinson wasn't afraid to mix it up under the basket during his storied career.
Brian Bahr/NBAE via Getty Images

Despite image, Robinson was as tough as they come

By Scott Howard-Cooper,
Posted Sep 10 2009 9:46AM

David Robinson was chased by charges he was soft, dogged by the image of being in Hakeem Olajuwon's Dream Shake blender, shadowed by the suggestion he couldn't win on his own and reached the pinnacle only because of Tim Duncan rather than with Tim Duncan.

He is the misunderstood member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2009 and arguably the misunderstood superstar of his generation. Startling for a first-ballot inductee, but true. Robinson is a two-time NBA champion, a college Player of the Year, a seven-time All-Star, a three-time Olympic medalist, the epitome of dignity, the ideal representative for any organization... and yet he is maligned.

David Robinson is soft.

Those were the claims during a 14-year career as a center for the Spurs and an ambassador for the NBA. He knew it. Those around him knew it.

This just in:

Not true.

Robinson averaged 10.6 rebounds in his career even with five consecutive seasons of decline before retiring in the glow of the 2003 title. Discounting his 1996-97 that lasted just six games because of back and foot injuries -- the history-changing season that led to Gregg Popovich naming himself coach and the Spurs getting the No. 1 pick and Duncan -- Robinson posted double-digit boards nine years in a row. He had one run of 11.7 or better in five of seven seasons. He knew how to push back in the mosh pit.

Robinson graduated from the Naval Academy. Way to hit the chicken switch. He could have taken that 1,320 SAT and polished halo most anywhere and rarely been challenged physically, emotionally or academically. But instead he chose a military school and showed a special level of toughness that's required to attend such an institution.

Robinson, the 1992 Defensive Player of the Year, was named first-team All-Defense four times and second-team four other times. Those teams are voted on by coaches, not the media. Soft players don't become defensive stars and soft players especially don't become defensive stars when they're stationed inside.

The image problem is Robinson's fault, of course. He was far from a power player on offense, and the rep carried. More than that, he played the piano, would talk math and the Bible as easily as recite strategy from whatever game just finished, and was polite in a way few peers could come close to matching.

We had a long talk about it once. It was late at night, after a game in San Antonio, and became so late that Robinson was the last Spur to leave the locker room as he considered the disconnect between perception and reality at the end of his career. A staffer, an equipment guy or deputy assistant trainer or something, eventually came by with a throat-cutting motion to end the questioning, as if a 7-foot-1, 250-pound finely-tuned professional athlete couldn't decide on his own with a foot stomp when the interview was over. Robinson just kept talking.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

I asked about the national anthem. Robinson was Hall of Fame with the anthem too -- head up, chin out, eyes locked on laser mode, back straight, arms snapped straight down, shoes nearly together at the heels and pointing out at an angle, his entire body still. Nobody did "The Star Spangled Banner" like the Spurs, with Robinson and coach Gregg Popovich, an Air Force Academy grad, ready for inspection.

The question: What do you think about during the anthem? What is going through your mind in that stretch of teammates and coaches near the free throw line before every game?

The answer: Dead people. Robinson got himself ready to play by thinking about those who gave their life in war so his family could prosper in a free America. He thought about blood in the battlefields.


"I think the biggest misconception about David Robinson is that he's not a competitor, because he has other interests and he has other things that are important to him," Alvin Gentry, a former Spurs assistant coach, has said a couple weeks earlier. If he's not totally married to basketball, people take that as not having a love for the game. And I disagree with that. I think he's had Hall of Fame stats. If you take a book out and look at his stats and then throw in the fact that his team has done well every year that he's had these stats, then I don't know what more a guy can do. He can't win championships by himself. Michael Jordan couldn't win championships by himself. Shaq couldn't do it by himself."

Robinson admitted he was bothered "at times" by the image issue, especially early in his career, before the titles provided a vindication -- "You feel like they're saying you're not tough enough to win the championship. To me, that was always garbage."

Fast forward to September 2009, after the career and after the reflections from an analytical man who doesn't do quick-draw reactions. David Robinson is about to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. No misunderstanding there.

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