June 22, 1987. David Stern is standing somewhat sullenly behind a chestnut brown podium in the center of the stage. He’s rocking a full head of brown hair, round dark-rimmed glasses, and a checkered red and white tie that looks like a torn off piece of picnic fabric. It’s only the commissioner’s fourth year doing this, and he’s already reported the draft selections of Olujawon, Jordan, Stockton, Pippen, Barkley and Ewing. Stern announces—with little enthusiasm, that the San Antonio Spurs have selected David Robinson with the first pick.
San Antonio was buzzing with the painful excitement of a child counting down to Christmas. “The
Jun 18, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs former center David Robinson waves to the fans during the NBA championship parade at San Antonio River Walk. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Admiral,” as the 7 foot 1 center was called, had already committed to two years of active duty with the U.S. Navy. The Spurs would get to see their young center, but only after a frustrating two year wait. What they didn’t know is that they wouldn’t see his full impact until many years after his retirement.
There was quite a bit of losing in the years before Robinson’s arrival. The Hemmisfair arena was filled with it for four years, including the two seasons immediately after Robinson was picked. It culminated in a horrendous 21-61 1988-89 campaign, the worst record the team had ever posted for a full season. With the new inside presence finally back home and ready to play for San Antonio, some improvement seemed certain. But the fan base couldn’t have been prepared for the turnaround that took place.
35 wins. That was the difference between one year and the next. It was a NBA record at the time. It is true that the Spurs acquired Terry Cummings and Rod Strickland that same offseason, but they also lost their best player from the previous season in Alvin Robertson. Robinson was phenomenal; he averaged close to 4 blocks and 2 steals to go with his 24 points and 12 rebounds.
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Year after year, Robinson dominated down low for the Spurs. His supreme athleticism, proficient post play and humble personality became the face of the Spurs, who were often contending but unable to get to the finals. From his 71 point performance to his inconceivable 4.5 blocks, 2.3 steals per game Defensive Player of the Year season, Robinson’s tenure as the Spurs main star was filled with accomplishments. He made ten all star teams and eight All-NBA defense teams. His metric stats were superior to Jordan in 1991-92, when His Airness (who was awarded the MVP that year) was in the middle of his prime. And with the exception of the year he played just 6 games, Robinson never missed the playoffs. The only knock on him has always been that he wasn’t able to win a championship until Tim Duncan came along for assistance.
What has slipped through the cracks, though, was the impact Robinson had on the franchise as a whole. Duncan and Popovich are normally the guys that are credited for starting the efficient teamwork centered style that runs through the organization from top to bottom. But Robinson’s mentoring of the young Wake Forest product was the first vital piece.. Not only did he show the greatest power forward ever the discipline and quiet leadership necessary to extract the full potential from a roster, he showed Duncan how to gracefully pass the torch to the next man in line. From Duncan, to Ginobili, to Parker and finally to Leonard, the value of Robinson’s willingness to hand the team to the up-and-coming star has survived more than a decade for the team.
Many stars have conflicting egos, personalities that don’t mesh or basketball ideologies that clash in tumultuous ways. The Spurs missed out on all of that chaos. In the twilight of Robinson’s career, the Spurs had four Hall of Fame/future Hall of Fame players in the core of their team. Yet even as the young Tony Parker and inexperienced Manu Ginobili grew into stars in their own right, the chemistry remained just as tight. The big three fit together like grout.
28 years later, David Robinson’s self-efficacy and team-first mindset still shines through Tim Duncan. While The Big Fundamental has reached heights of legendary status that “The Admiral” was never able to achieve, he can watch from the AT&T Center bleachers knowing that he started something that seems to be willing to last forever. The winning spirit of the Spurs started in 1989, when Robinson came aboard for his rookie season. Because of him, it probably won’t ever die.