Legends profile: David Robinson
One of the top centers of his era, David “The Admiral” Robinson was a marvel on the court and a respected figure off the court. A lean, muscular athlete, Robinson was fast, strong and agile at 7-foot-1. In his first six NBA seasons, Robinson won Rookie of the Year, 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 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 and won two championships — the second in his final season — to stake his claim as one of the NBA’s greatest legends.
Robinson’s lasting legacy was also defined by his status as one of the preeminent 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.
Teammate Steve Kerr said Robinson was quick to remind the Spurs that “Winning a championship doesn’t make you a better person. It doesn’t validate you.” But championships were part of Robinson’s journey through the NBA, his first one coming in his 10th year, during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, with a convincing five-game Finals win over the New York Knicks.
By that time, Robinson had become the Spurs’ second option behind a rising star named Tim Duncan. In their first season together in 1997-98, Robinson and Duncan shared the load equally as Robinson averaged 21.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.63 blocks, while Duncan averaged 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.51 blocks.
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 points and 10 rebounds, but the team prospered and Robinson 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, three-time reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers and the Mavericks on the way to a matchup against the New Jersey Nets in The Finals.
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.
Robinson was the best thing that ever happened to Navy basketball. A 6-foot-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 Robinson grew seven inches while at the Academy and became a devastating force.
As a junior, he averaged 22.7 points, led the nation in rebounding (13.0) and set an NCAA Division I record by averaging 5.91 blocks. Robinson blocked 14 shots in a single game that season to set a collegiate record and he tallied more blocks in one season (207) in the history of college basketball.
As a senior, he averaged 28.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 4.50 blocks to unanimously win Player of the Year. Robinson scored 50 points in his final college game, a loss to Michigan in the NCAA tournament. Robinson 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.
Robinson was certainly the best player available in the 1987 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 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 Rookie of the Month all six months of the season, an All-Star and then an easy choice for Rookie of the Year Award at season’s end.
Robinson averaged 24.3 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.89 blocks, shooting 53.1 from the floor. He set Spurs rookie records in nearly every category, leading the team in scoring 46 times and rebounding 61 times. One of only two Spurs to play in all 82 games, Robinson ranked 10th in the league in scoring, second in rebounding and third in blocks. Robinson had a career-high 12 blocks against the Minnesota Timberwolves and was named to the All-Defensive Second Team.
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, averaging 24.3 points, 12.0 rebounds and 4.0 blocks 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, All-Defensive First Team berths in 1991 and the 1992 Defensive Player of the Year.
But the ending to Robinson’s third 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, Robinson 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), fourth in rebounding (12.2), first in blocks (4.49), fifth in steals (2.32) and seventh in field-goal percentage (55.1).
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 All-Star berth. The end to that season was highlighted with his selection as the 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 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 All-Defensive Second Team. He was voted to start in the All-Star Gamefor 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 best 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. Robinson ran the floor like no 7-footer before and could grab a defensive board to ignite a fast break and finish with an authoritative slam. And in the half-court offense, Robinson 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, Robinson had 34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 blocks.
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 in four games. Robinson averaged 20.0 points and 10.0 rebounds in the series.
Robinson also made history with his 71-point explosion against the Los Angeles Clippers on the last day of the season to win the scoring title at 29.8 points, edging Orlando Magic center Shaquille O’Neal (29.3). 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. Robinson also finished that season as MVP runner-up to Olajuwon.
In 1994-95, Robinson had another great season, winning the MVP award while posting numbers of 27.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 3.23 blocks and 1.65 steals and 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 and then got past the Lakers in six games, setting up a meeting against the defending champion Rockets in the conference finals. However, Robinson’s selection as MVP seemed to motivate Olajuwon, the past season’s winner, 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. Robinson suffered a back injury prior to the 1996-97 season and returned to play in six games before suffering a fractured 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 of that Draft was Tim Duncan. The Spurs won the right to draft Duncan and San Antonio’s version of the Twin Towers 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 points and Duncan in rebounding with 11.9 rebounds and both averaged 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-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 (40.2), bettering the previous season’s mark of .411.
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 a Game 3 defeat, 89-81, the Spurs’ only 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 on to win a crucial Game 5 when Robert Horry’s 3-pointer 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, Robinson averaged 10.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.83 blocks and 1.17 steals.
“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.”
Robinson was enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.