Archive 75

David Robinson

By Michael C. Wright·

The San Antonio Spurs took a gamble when they selected David “The Admiral” Robinson with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft. The 7-foot-1 center was the reigning NCAA Player of the Year, but he had attended the United States Naval Academy, which typically required graduates like Robinson to serve a five-year obligation in the military as an officer. According to the league rules in 1987, Robinson would have been able to re-enter the draft rather than sign with the Spurs once his military service was complete. 

The Spurs’ general manager at the time, Bob Bass, with the approval of former owner Red McCombs, circumvented that potential hiccup by guaranteeing Robinson he would never be paid less than the average of the two highest-paid players in the NBA if he agreed to sign with San Antonio instead of re-entering the NBA Draft.

Robinson was too tall to serve as a line officer aboard a ship. Instead, he was commissioned as a reserve officer, lieutenant, junior grade, in the Navy’s Civil Engineering Corps, where he served for just two years before entering the NBA in 1989.

Bass made the team’s intentions crystal clear at the draft lottery, telling CBS’s James Brown, “We’ve waited 14 years. What’s two more years?”

Robinson certainly proved to be worth the wait for the Spurs.

Whether it’s catching lobs, driving to the bucket for monstrous dunks, or swatting away nearly every shot in the vicinity (check out the blocks on Michael Jordan), Robinson quickly proved capable of doing it all. Robinson’s arrival in San Antonio was almost perfect timing for a franchise that had cycled through three different coaches in four seasons, finishing with a record of 21-61 in 1988-89, Larry Brown’s first season with the Spurs after leaving the University of Kansas on the heels of an NCAA championship.

Robinson agreed to play in one of the NBA’s first summer leagues as a rookie, the Midwest Rookie Review, which was hosted by San Antonio at Blossom Athletic Center. Robinson quickly wowed the standing-room-only crowd that assembled every night that summer, flashing an encouraging preview of what was to come.

Robinson averaged 24.3 points and 12.0 points in his first season, winning the Rookie of the Year award. What’s more, is the Spurs finished that season with a record of 56-26 – an NBA-record 35-win improvement -- which at the time registered as the franchise’s best mark in a single season.

In the 56th game of his rookie season, Robinson churned out his first 40-point night with 41 points, 17 rebounds, five blocks and three steals in a 131-115 win over the Golden State Warriors that boosted San Antonio’s record to 38-18.

One of the game commentators nailed it when he said: “I don’t know if you’ll see that again this year or for a few years. Those are some numbers.” In this vintage performance, Robinson became just the fourth player in league history to post a quadruple-double, pouring in 34 points to go with 10 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 blocks in this 115-96 win over the Detroit Pistons.

Guess what? No player in NBA history has accomplished the feat since Robinson’s historic night.

Four days later, Robinson would rack up 50 points in a win at Minnesota.

Even Robinson couldn’t believe it.

Going into the final game of the regular season, Robinson trailed Orlando big man Shaquille O’Neal, a local prep standout from San Antonio’s Robert G. Cole High School, by .06 points per game for the NBA’s scoring title with the team already locked into postseason position. Coach John Lucas, with former Spur and four-time NBA scoring champ George Gervin as an assistant, wasted no time telling the team to feed Robinson in the post early and often. That resulted in Robinson reeling off San Antonio’s first 18 points of the game.

Fighting through double-teams and the occasional triple-team, Robinson played 44 minutes, hitting 63.4% of his shots, including a 3-pointer, to become just the fourth player to reach 70 points or more (71) in a game, and the first center to capture the league’s scoring title since the 1976 season.

Keep in mind there have been just 10 games in league history when a player scored 70 points or more.

With 1:33 left to play, Robinson had scored 64 points, dropping his final seven points over 59 seconds before leaving the game with 34 ticks remaining.

Interestingly, O’Neal was set to hit the floor later that day, and he posted 32 points in leading the Magic to their 50th win of the season.

Robinson finished with a final scoring average of 29.8 points to become just the second Spur to lead the NBA in scoring, while teammate Dennis Rodman took the league’s rebounding crown with 17.3 boards per game.

That season marked the first time a team finished a season with both the NBA’s leading scorer and top rebounder. Robinson still ranks first in Spurs franchise history in blocked shots (2,954), free throws made (6,035), free throws attempted (8,201) and steals (1,388), and he’s third in points scored (20,790).

Deservedly, Hall of Famer Tim Duncan receives much of the credit for establishing the culture of selflessness in San Antonio, but Robinson gave the power forward his first examples to follow.

By the time Duncan arrived in 1997, Robinson had already won an MVP, a scoring title, and earned seven All-Star appearances. The one thing Robinson lacked was an NBA championship. He knew Duncan could help remedy that issue.

So almost immediately, Robinson ceded his starring role to Duncan as San Antonio’s top scoring option. Robinson’s selflessness in that situation provided the ultimate example of servant leadership that the rest of the Spurs would never forget, while spawning the “Twin Towers” era in San Antonio.

“Everybody talks about me sacrificing my game,” Robinson said in 2003, his final NBA season. “I didn’t really think I was sacrificing my game. I just thought, if we want to win, this is the way we need to play.”

Robinson’s intuition and sacrifice helped San Antonio win two titles before he retired in 2003 at the age of 37.

Robinson unwittingly penned the perfect script, announcing just before the start of the season that it would be his last year in the NBA. Having played through back spasms and a plethora of other nagging injuries for several seasons, Robinson up to this point had sat out of just 18 games since 1996-97, a season he played just six games before breaking his left foot.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich decided to limit Robinson’s playing time to keep him fresh for the postseason. The Spurs signed veteran Kevin Willis as a backup, which allowed the Spurs to cut Robinson’s minutes to 26.2 per game.

The lightened workload helped Robinson perform his best on the game’s largest stage, as The Admiral scored 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting and pulled down 17 rebounds to go with two blocks in Game 6 of the 2003 NBA Finals, as San Antonio eliminated the New Jersey Nets for its second championship.

Robinson and Duncan, San Antonio’s Twin Towers, would walk off the floor together one last time victorious.

Lean, strong and athletic at 7-foot-1, Robinson captured NBA Rookie of the Year, NBA MVP, and Defensive Player of the Year awards over his first six seasons as a pro as well as a rebounding title, scoring crown, block title, six trips to the All-Star game and a total of six selections to both the All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive team.

Keep in mind, Robinson achieved this in an era that also featured dominant bigs such as Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing, while winning two NBA titles.

Off the court, Robinson contributed so heavily to the San Antonio community that former NBA Commissioner David Stern announced in 2003 that future winners of the NBA Community Assist Award would receive the David Robinson Plaque. The inscription on that plaque even today reads: “Following the standard set by NBA Legend David Robinson, who improved the community piece by piece.”

In San Antonio, Robinson committed $9 million toward the construction of The Carver Academy, which began in 2001 as a small independent school serving elementary students from culturally diverse communities and is now a publicly funded charter school that enrolls more than 1,100 students, mostly minorities from low-income families. Robinson would later co-found Admiral Capital Group, which controls more than $1 billion in real estate and sets aside a percentage of its profits for donations focused on positive social change.

Robinson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on two occasions, first in 2009 for his NBA career, then again in 2010 as a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team – the “Dream Team.” Robinson won two gold medals and a bronze medal on the U.S. Olympic teams and he’s also been inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

Throughout it all, Robinson’s demeanor and team-first attitude helped him to become not only an iconic center, but also a legendary leader.