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Q&A: David Robinson reflects on 9/11 tragedy

The military veteran shares his thoughts on today being 20 years since the devastating Sept. 11 attacks.

Brian Martin, for NBA.com

David Robinson looks on during Veterans Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 11, 2013 in Washington, DC.

There are few people within the NBA family with a more unique perspective on the 20-year anniversary of the devastating attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 than David Robinson. After playing collegiate ball at the U.S. Naval Academy, Robinson was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft by the San Antonio Spurs. But his professional basketball career would have to wait, as he fulfilled his two-year active-duty obligation to the Navy. His service earned him the nickname of “The Admiral” and his play on the court earned him MVP and Hall of Fame honors.

Robinson spoke with NBA.com’s Brian Martin to discuss his thoughts on the anniversary of the attacks, how he as a player and the NBA as a whole reacted in the moment, how players continue to use their platform in times of crisis, the pride he had in representing his country in the Olympic games and more.

Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.

Brian Martin: What are your initial thoughts when you think about it being 20 years since the events of September 11, 2001?

David Robinson: Wow. It is hard to believe that it’s been that long. There are those moments you have in your life that you will always remember where you were and what you were doing when you hear about them and, and for me certainly this was one. In your lifetime, you hope you never hear about a war starting or being in a war. But to be hit on your home soil, it’s like someone breaking into your house. I mean, it’s intensely personal and it’s hard to explain all the feelings that we’re kind of going through my head at the time, both military and just as an American. And even as an athlete, you feel like is what we are doing even important?

But I think it was important. I think it’s important for morale, I think it’s important to kind of keep people feeling some sense of normalcy. There’s a lot of things that we were doing that did kind of make sense for people. But it’s a hard thing to even think about, and 20 years having passed now, it’s just hard to compute.

Brian Martin: Can you take me back to what that day was like for you – from your perspective as both an NBA player and as someone that served in the military prior to your basketball career?

David Robinson: Yeah, it was a tough day. I remember I was playing, and I just thought about all the people that I had served with, all the people that I knew that would be in harm’s way. And it was very, very sobering. Any kind of a wartime situation is a horrific thing to even imagine, and seeing it become a reality was almost surreal for me.

Brian Martin: I remember just sitting there and watching the footage on the news all day long. Was it similar for you on that day?

David Robinson: No question. When you’re in the military you’re training for this; this is what you’re constantly preparing for, although it’s a day you never want to see. So, it reminded me of all those days of training. And knowing that was going to become a reality for many, I just I thought about those people. They were certainly in my prayers.

Brian Martin: Can you discuss the NBA’s response and what it was like to be a player in the league at that moment? I know everyone wore patches on their jerseys and it was a very much a time of people coming together and leaning on each other. What was it like in the league at that time for you?

David Robinson: I think the league did a great job. They mirrored what was happening in society; people were appreciating the military. Certainly, people were very, very supportive. And the league did a very nice job of really reaching out to the military folks, particularly at home, the families that were still supporting their loved ones out in the field and trying to be good partners with them. So, I just think that the response across the board was pretty strong.

Brian Martin: Earlier you spoke about the importance of sports in providing a distraction and a release for people while the country was going through such a tough time. It makes me think of the past two years with the pandemic and the calls for social justice and the role that sports, and athletes have played throughout these bigger societal issues. I’m curious to know your thoughts on what today’s athletes have gone through in the past few years.

David Robinson: There’s been a lot of crazy things happening and I think that athletes have spoken up and used their platform. I’ve watched sports over the last 25-30 years become such an important platform from a social perspective. People listen to the athletes, they listen to celebrities, and I do think that particularly basketball players, but pro athletes in general, have stepped out of their comfort zone a little bit more to speak up. And I think that’s fantastic.

Especially as long as you do the other things that support that, right? Where’s your money going? Where are you spending your time? It’s one thing just to run your mouth, but a whole other thing to say I’m committed to this change. Seeing somebody like Colin Kaepernick put everything on the line for that, to me, that’s an important statement. That’s something that’s a very strong move. Other athletes have put a lot of their money and energy behind [specific issues] – LeBron James and education. There’s a lot of men and women who are out there putting their lives on the line for other people. I saw Naomi Osaka talk about giving her winnings in her next tournament to Haiti [following August’s devastating earthquake]. So, people are committing themselves to what’s happening in the world, and I think that that’s fantastic to use the platform that way.

Brian Martin: Last month you presented the NBA with ESPN’s League Humanitarian Leadership Award. How much does it say about the league that you have represented for so long is still making that impact for the greater good?

David Robinson: I feel good, because I feel like I was a part of that heritage. Obviously, we had folks like Bill Russell and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], and those guys kind of putting it down and making sure that that people weren’t too content with what was happening in the world. And clearly now we can’t let things just settle. America has a rich history in many ways, but it also has a terrible history in many ways. And we’ve got to be realistic about who we are as a country, and who we want to be and what it’s going to take for us to get there.

We talk about one nation under God. That’s a nice thought, but it also requires some work underneath the hood. So, I’m really happy to see the athletes now kind of take a serious stance to say we need to make an impact. I always focused on education. For 27 years that was my thing. How do I change what’s going on in the world? How do I create more opportunity for kids who are born in bad situations and bad neighborhoods? We put a lot of energy [into it], we built hundreds of schools, and hopefully, we began to make a difference. But I see that in today’s athlete, that they care about what’s happening around them.

Obviously, with the amount of money that’s going into sports, now not only can it change the athlete’s life and their family’s life and their community’s life, but on the bigger picture, they’re trying to play their role in making America a better country. And I think that should be applauded.

Brian Martin: You’ve represented your country in terms of military service and you’re also a three-time Olympian. What was it like when you put that jersey on that has USA across the chest?

David Robinson: It’s a huge responsibility. I mean, it’s just like military, right? When you wear U.S. across your chest, right? It’s you representing a lot more than just yourself. And in the way you carry yourself, the words that you speak, everything is important. Everything matters.

Even as that last college team [in 1988], and we won the bronze medal, which I was still very proud of, because we went out there and we played hard. We didn’t win it, but it was still a tremendous experience. And then being able to be a part of that first pro team that came back, that Dream Team, was phenomenal.

Brian Martin: We just had the Tokyo games with the men winning their fourth straight gold, the women winning their seventh straight. As someone that is a part of that USA Basketball tradition, what is it like for you to watch these teams come home with the gold?

David Robinson: Tremendous pride. To see our guys come together, and see our women come together in a way with that pride of wanting to represent this country. It’s certainly not easy. People can say, ‘Oh, you should win. Look, you’ve got Kevin Durant and Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker, you should win.’ But that doesn’t mean anything. There are mature, talented teams out there that can beat you on any given night. So, to see my old partner [Coach Gregg] Popovich out there doing his thing and kind of filling in the spots in his resume, he’s been amazing. He kept those guys calm and focused. I felt a tremendous amount of pride that I’ve been able to be a part of that legacy, but to watch these young guys add on to that.

Brian Martin: I wanted to bring it back toward 9/11 with this year not only being the 20th anniversary, but it’s also the same night as the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony. I wanted to get your thoughts – being that you are both a Hall of Famer and former military – on having those events happening on the same day. It’s both a celebration of something great combined with remembering something that was so tragic.

David Robinson: I’m glad they are. We tend to be a people with short memories. So, to celebrate current achievements, and to remember the past is important. As long as you give honor to both – give honor to the present and give honor to the past – I think it’ll be fine. It’ll be something that we can both remember and celebrate.

Sports has really taken a very important place in our society, and it is a tremendous platform. I’m glad to see the NBA take so seriously this platform that we have, that we’ve established, and try to use it as a force for good and not just for entertainment. So, I think that particular occasion of the Hall of Fame induction is a perfect opportunity to speak on a larger stage.

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