One of the top centers of his era, David “The Admiral” Robinson was a marvel of a basketball player and a respected figure off the court. A lean, muscular, 7-1 athlete, he was fast, strong and agile. In his first six NBA seasons he won Rookie of the Year, NBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards, in addition to a rebounding title, a scoring crown, six All-Star bids, three selections to the All-NBA First Team and three selections to the NBA All-Defensive First Team.
A contemporary of Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing, Robinson posted career averages of 21.1 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game and won two championships -- the second one in his final season -- to stake his claim as one of the legends of the NBA.
Robinson's lasting legacy was also defined by his status one of the pre-eminent philanthropists in all of professional sports. On March 23, 2003, NBA Commissioner David Stern announced that future winners of the NBA Community Assist Award would receive the David Robinson Plaque, with the inscription, "Following the standard set by NBA Legend David Robinson, who improved the community piece by piece."
Among Robinson's charitable achievements was his $9 million commitment toward the construction and operation of The Carver Academy, an independent school for San Antonio students from a culturally diverse community.
By that time, he had become the Spurs' second option due to the rise of the phenomenal forward Tim Duncan. In their first season together in 1997-98, Robinson and Duncan shared the load equally as the elder player posted 21.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.63 blocks per game while the young star from Wake Forest had similar numbers of 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.51 blocks per game.
In their second campaign together, Robinson unselfishly redefined his game to accentuate the skills and strengths of Duncan. Robinson began to play away from the basket at the high post, allowing Duncan the freedom to maneuver down low. Robinson's regular season production slipped to 15.8 ppg and 10 rpg, but the team prospered and he was still an integral part of the Spurs' championship effort.
At the end of a long and distinguished career, Robinson won his second ring in 2002-03. That season, the Spurs tied division rival Dallas for the league's best record (62-20). In the playoffs, San Antonio stopped Phoenix, the three-time reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers and the Mavericks while on the way to a matchup against the New Jersey Nets in NBA Finals 2003.
The Spurs clinched the championship in Game 6 by ralling from a fourth-quarter deficit to take a thrilling 88-77 victory over the Nets in San Antonio. Robinson, less than two months shy of his 38th birthday, reached back for a dominant effort, finishing with 13 points, 17 rebounds and two blocks. Robinson and Duncan teamed up to outrebound New Jersey by themselves as the Spurs enjoyed a 55-35 advantage on the boards.
"My last game, streamers flying, world champions. How could you write a better script than this?" Robinson asked.
"I'm just thrilled that David ended his career with a game like that," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "His effort was really wonderful. He really dug down deep and showed how important it was to him to help us get this victory."
"For a second there on the court," Duncan said, "I really thought, 'You know what, I'm not gonna play with this guy again. I'll have to come out on this court without him.' It's going to be weird."
Robinson is living proof of the old adage that good things come to those who wait. A 1987 graduate with a mathematics degree from the U.S. Naval Academy, Robinson honored a commitment to serve two years in the Navy before joining the NBA.
He was the best thing that ever happened to Navy basketball. A 6-4 player with one year of prep experience when he joined the team, he averaged 7.6 points and 4.0 rebounds as a freshman, but he grew seven inches while at the Academy and became a devastating force.
As a junior, he averaged 22.7 points (down from 23.6 as a sophomore), led the nation in rebounding (13.0 rpg) and set an NCAA Division I record by averaging 5.91 blocks. He blocked 14 shots in a single game that season to set a collegiate record and he tallied more blocks in a season (207) than any player up to that point in the history of college basketball.
As a senior, he averaged 28.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 4.50 blocks to win unanimous selection as Player of the Year. He scored 50 points in his college finale, a loss to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament. He also played on the 1988 U.S. Olympic basketball team that won the bronze medal as the last purely amateur team to represent the U.S. in Olympic competition.
The only question facing San Antonio Spurs management in 1987 was whether they would be able to get to sleep every night for two years while awaiting Robinson's arrival. Robinson was certainly the best player available in the 1987 NBA Draft, but he also had a military commitment to the Navy and thus would not be able to join an NBA team until 1989.
The Spurs, who won the 1987 NBA Draft Lottery and owned the first overall pick, looked at Robinson’s college accomplishments and decided he was worth the wait.
According to plan, Robinson entered the NBA as a 24-year-old rookie with the Spurs in 1989-90. One of the most gifted and versatile athletes in the NBA, the former Navy midshipmen was the NBA Rookie of the Month all six months of the season, an All-Star at midyear and then an easy choice for the NBA Rookie of the Year Award at season’s end.
Robinson’s success as a rookie was a major factor in the then-greatest one-year team turnaround in NBA history. After the Spurs posted a 21-61 record in 1988-89, they drafted Sean Elliott, traded for Terry Cummings and Rod Strickland and welcomed Robinson. The result was a remarkable 35-game improvement to a 56-26 record and the Midwest Division title. San Antonio then advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals before losing in seven games to the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Admiral had a spectacular postseason as he averaged 24.3 points, 12.0 rebounds and 4.0 blocked shots in 10 playoff games.
Within his first three seasons, Robinson established himself among the best in the league. His early achievements included All-NBA First Team selections in 1991 and 1992, NBA All-Defensive First Team berths in 1991 and the 1992 NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
But the ending to Robinson’s third NBA season was disappointing. A torn ligament in his left hand sidelined him on March 16. The injury forced him to miss the rest of the regular season and the entire postseason. Without Robinson the Spurs struggled, posting a 5-9 record to end the regular season and then suffering a first-round playoff sweep by the Phoenix Suns.
However, he joined elite company by becoming the third player in NBA history to rank among the league’s top 10 in five categories, joining Cliff Hagan (1959-60) and Larry Bird (1985-86). Robinson was seventh in scoring (23.2 ppg), fourth in rebounding (12.2 rpg), first in blocks (4.49 per game), fifth in steals (2.32 per game) and seventh in field-goal percentage (.551).
Robinson also was the first player in NBA history to rank among the top five in rebounding, blocks and steals in a single season. His excellence earned him a second consecutive All-NBA First Team selection and his third straight NBA All-Star berth. The end to that season was highlighted with his selection as the NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
After the season, Robinson traveled to Barcelona with the Dream Team, a spectacular collection of NBA stars including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Bird that would go on to win the gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympic Games.
Robinson was a workhorse for the Spurs in his fourth NBA season. He appeared in all 82 games and played a then franchise-record 3,211 minutes. After averaging 23.4 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.22 blocks and 1.55 steals, he was named to the All-NBA Third Team and the NBA All-Defensive Second Team. He was voted to start for the Western Conference All-Stars for the third straight season and he scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the game.
The Spurs had the misfortune of meeting the NBA’s winningest team, the Phoenix Suns, in the Western Conference Semifinals. Phoenix, led by league MVP Charles Barkley, eliminated San Antonio in six games, though Robinson averaged 23.1 points and 12.6 rebounds in the postseason.
Robinson's game was at its best in the open court. He ran the floor like no 7-footer before as he could grab a defensive board to ignite a fast break and finish with an authoritative slam. And in the half-court offense, he had a soft left-handed jumper. Already recognized as one of the league's better players, the best was yet to come in 1993-94 and beyond.
With the arrival of the NBA’s designated rebounder, Dennis Rodman, taking some of the frontcourt load off his shoulders, Robinson enjoyed his highest scoring (29.8) and assist average (4.8) as a pro in 1993-94. That season, Robinson became the fourth player in NBA history to record a quadruple-double. Against the Detroit Pistons in a 115-96 victory, he had 34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 blocked shots.
Robinson carried San Antonio to a 55-27 record, the team’s fifth consecutive season of at least 47 victories. However, the Spurs lost to the Utah Jazz in the opening round of the postseason in four games. Robinson averaged 20.0 points and 10.0 rebounds in the series.
He also made history with his 71-point explosion against the Los Angeles Clippers on the last day of the season to win the NBA scoring title at 29.8 ppg edging Orlando Magic center Shaquille O’Neal (29.3 ppg). That romp made Robinson just the fourth player ever to score 70 points in an NBA game, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and David Thompson.
He also finished that season as a the NBA MVP runner-up to Olajuwon.
The next year, 1994-95, Robinson had another great season. He won the NBA Most Valuable Player Award and posted numbers of 27.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 3.23 blocks and 1.65 steals per game while pacing the Spurs to the NBA’s best record at 62-20. And at midseason he played in his sixth consecutive All-Star Game.
As the No. 1 seed, the Spurs swept Denver in three straight games and then got past the Lakers in six games to meet the defending champion Rockets in the conference finals. However, Robinson’s selection as MVP seemed to motivate Olajuwon, the past season’s MVP, as Olajuwon got the better of Robinson in the clash. In the series, Robinson averaged 23.8 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.17 blocks while Olajuwon averaged 35.3 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.17 blocks and the Rockets won in six games.
Following the season, Robinson played for 1996 U.S. Olympic Team, which won a gold medal at the Summer Games in Atlanta.
The next season, while at the peak of his game, Robinson would suffer the darkest moments of his career. However, it laid the foundation for the remainder of his days in the NBA and the future of the franchise.
Robinson suffered a back injury prior to the 1996-97 season and returned to play in six games before suffering a fractued left foot. The Spurs slumped to 20-62, but the silver lining for the Silver and Black was a chance to grab the No. 1 selection in the 1997 Draft Lottery.
The prize that draft was Tim Duncan. The Spurs won the right to draft Duncan and the San Antonio version of the Twin Tower would win two rings over the next five seasons.
Robinson and Duncan played exceptionally well together in their first season and the team achieved a 36-game win improvement, which surpassed the Spurs' previously greatest NBA turnaround in the 1989-90 season by one game. Robinson led the team in scoring with 21.6 ppg and Duncan in rebounding with 11.9 rpg and the two each recorded more than 2.5 blocks per game. However, the team lost to the Utah Jazz 4-1 in the Western Conference Semifinals.
In their second season as teammates, the Robinson- and Duncan-led Spurs put it all together. They finished atop the Midwest Division and, along with the Jazz, held the league's best record of 37-12 in the shortened season. For the second consecutive season the Spurs also set an NBA record for lowest opponent field goal percentage, bettering the previous season's mark of .411 to .402.
The Spurs raced through the playoffs, losing only twice and recorded an NBA record of 12 consecutive wins at one point while becoming the first former American Basketball Association team to win an NBA championship. The Spurs defeated the Knicks, who lost Ewing to an Achilles tendon injury in the Eastern Conference Finals. Robinson tallied 25 points to lead the Spurs in scoring in a Game 3 defeat, 89-81, the sole Spurs' loss in the Finals. He also grabbed 12 boards in the series-clinching victory in Game 5.
Over the next three seasons, the Lakers, led by O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, would reign as champs. Although Robinson played in at least 78 regular season games per season during that span, he would miss valuable time in the postseason because of back ailments or other injuries. Duncan also missed the entire 2000 postseason due to injury as the Suns defeated the Spurs in the first round. And in 2001 and 2002, the Lakers would handle the Spurs relatively easily, sweeping them in the 2001 Western Conference Finals and needing just five games in the 2002 Conference Semifinals.
Robinson's final season, however, was full of rewards as the Spurs defeated their nemesis, the three-time defending champion Lakers, en route to the NBA title. During that Western Conference Semifinals matchup against Los Angeles, the Spurs held onto win a crucial Game 5, 96-94, when Robert Horry's three-point shot rimmed out and Robinson snared the rebound. That shot, if good, would have capped a 25-point comeback victory and may have derailed the Spurs' championship hopes. San Antonio, however, went into Los Angeles and won Game 6 and the series.
The Spurs then went on to to defeat the fast-paced Mavericks in six games before taking care of the Nets. In the six-game Finals series, he posted 10.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.83 blocks and 1.17 steals per game.
"One of the greats we get a chance to say goodbye to, tonight, David Robinson, " NBA Commissioner David Stern said at the start of the trophy presentation. "Thank you."
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