David Robinson is one of the greatest players in NBA history, but he’s also one of the humblest legends of all-time. He’s not one to boast about his accomplishments or argue about his place in history. In fact, he downplays his tremendous success by bringing up other extraordinary players or redirecting credit to his teammates and coaches. Because the 52-year-old won’t run through his some of his achievements and stats, we’ll do it for him.
Over the course of his 14-year career, the Hall of Famer averaged 21.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3 blocks and 1.4 steals. The two-time champion was also Rookie of the Year in 1990, Defensive Player of the Year in 1992 (averaging a 4.5 blocks and 2.3 steals!) and Most Valuable Player in 1995. Michael Jordan is the only other player to win all three awards. Robinson led the NBA in scoring (1994), rebounds (1991) and blocks (1992), joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only two players to lead the NBA in all three categories.
HoopsHype sat down with the legendary San Antonio Spurs center to discuss his time at the Naval Academy, his work with the Wounded Warrior Project, his relationship with fellow military man Gregg Popovich, how much the NBA has changed since his playing days, his favorite big men to watch today, the dominant one-two punch he formed with Tim Duncan and much more.
I want to start with your growth-spurt story and path to the NBA because it must sound like an urban legend to younger fans. For those who don’t know, David was 5-foot-9 in junior high and 6-foot-6 as a senior in high school. Then, he entered the Naval Academy and grew to 7-foot-1, which made him too tall for duty since he’d have trouble fitting aboard ships, aircraft or submarines, according to a Navy statement. In what ways was that late growth spurt an advantage for you?
David Robinson: I’m a bit of an unusual case, especially these days because kids are identified [as top prospects] when they’re 12 years old! I was a guy who came into my senior year of high school without much basketball experience and I hadn’t even considered the thought of playing college sports. I figured that academics was going to be my ticket. That’s where I think [my late growth spurt] helped me the most – it gave me a proper focus and allowed me to understand that going to college was a real privilege and real opportunity for me to grow in ways that I could have never imagined.
I think when we talk about college and student-athletes in this era we live in now, [people overlook] the value of being on a college campus and the value of growing as an individual during that time. I think that’s the true value of college, especially because 99 percent of these kids aren’t going to play in a professional league anywhere. I thoroughly enjoyed my time on a college campus. Now, I have three boys and I told them, “That time is going to be the best time of your life, so go enjoy it!”
You scored 1320 out of 1600 on your SAT and majored in mathematics at the Naval Academy. Along the same lines of what you were just saying, a lot of young players don’t focus much on academics because they’re on the NBA radar from a young age and know they only need to attend college for one year. How important is it for young players to focus on academics and have a backup plan in case pro basketball doesn’t work out?
DR: There’s no question that everybody needs a backup plan, even the top athletes that we’re talking about. Look at it like a game-plan in basketball. When you go into a game, there isn’t just one game-plan that you refuse to alter. No, you have a game-plan and then you make adjustments when your game-plan starts to fail and isn’t working the way you were hoping. The game-plan rarely works the exact way you want it to, and it’s the same way in life. You can always have that game-plan and say, “I want to make it to the NBA.” But you better have adjustments that you’re ready to make if the time comes. And obviously, getting an education is going to give you the strongest foundation for that backup plan. When I talk to kids all over [the country], I tell them, “The opportunity to get a scholarship and the opportunity to go to college is so valuable.” The pie in the sky is playing in the NBA, but getting that college education is a real value. I tell them to take advantage of it. Don’t go into college thinking, “Okay, I’ll go to class for three months or six months and then I’m not going anymore.” Take advantage of this opportunity because that’s going to lay the foundation for your plan B. And, for many kids, that plan B is probably stronger than plan A.
You played many years for Gregg Popovich, who graduated from the Air Force Academy, played basketball there and then served five years before returning to Air Force to start his coaching career. Did you bond over your military background immediately? You don’t see that often in the NBA.
DR: Yeah, we definitely bonded over that. When you have the whole military mentality and then you transition to sports, in my case the NBA, it already makes you a little bit odd (laughs). Coming from that type of structure, I know a lot of people in the locker room were wondering, “What in the world is this young, military-minded kid going to be like when he comes in and joins the team?” But Pop and I absolutely bonded because we understood the focus [it takes to succeed] and we understood being a part of something bigger than ourselves, just like in the military. Together, we were really able to bring that focus and mentality to the Spurs. There’s no question that has been a part of Pop and I’s bond over the past 25 years, and he’s brought that discipline, focus and mission-oriented mindset to the team.
You and Reese’s are teaming up to host an event for members the Wounded Warrior Project where you’ll be handing out Easter baskets to veterans and their families. Given your Navy background and the fact that you come from a military family, I know you care a lot about this cause. Can you share the importance of the Wounded Warrior Project to you?
DR: The Wounded Warrior Project is obviously near and dear to my heart. Being a Navy veteran myself, and with my father being a retired Navy senior chief and my brother going to the Naval Academy and then joining the Air Force, my family has very, very strong ties to the military. Reese’s partnered with me to go deliver Easter baskets and really encourage the families there with the Wounded Warrior Project and, to me, that’s so exciting. That’s what life is about, man. It’s about really supporting the true heroes.
I want to talk about when the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan with the No. 1 pick in 1997. You were an eight-year veteran at that point and you welcomed him with open arms. Some players may have felt threatened by this new superstar, worrying about how he could replace them or how he may affect their game or role. Did you ever have those kinds of feelings early on that you had to get past?
DR: I never felt threatened. When you have confidence in yourself, you just do what you know how to do and don’t worry about that stuff. I think time has really proven that my thought process was correct: When somebody like that comes in [to your organization], they can only enhance what you’re doing. They can only hurt you [if there’s resistance or tension]. It’s sort of like swimming. If you jump in the water and try to fight the water, you’re going to drown. The water needs to be your friend. That was how I felt with Tim coming in, that playing together was the best thing for both of us. I think we both understood that. It’s like any business: If you help the young guys who come in become better leaders, it’s only going to help your business. That’s what happened in San Antonio.
Tim was maybe the best thing that happened to me in my whole career. Obviously, having owners like Red McCombs and Peter Holt was fantastic and coaches like Larry Brown and Pop were phenomenal. But I can say that Tim is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. He helped me as an individual to grow up and be a better a player. He helped us achieve the long-term goals that we set, winning championships. And he helped us become the model franchise over a 25-year period. He was kind of that last piece of the puzzle. It’s honestly a no-brainer when you think about the synergy between the two of us and what it allowed us to accomplish.
Do you feel you and Tim get enough respect when people talk about the greatest duos of all time? I think because you’re both humble and team-focused, people overlook you guys a bit. You two are mentioned as one of the best big-men duos, the best “Twin Towers,” but I feel like you should be mentioned more as one of the best one-two punches ever – regardless of position. Do you agree?
DR: No, not at all! If anything, we probably get too much credit (laughs). We had a blast and it was so much fun playing with Tim. But how do I compare myself or Tim to someone like Bill Russell? I mean, come on! That guy was ridiculous. Or how about Wilt Chamberlain? That guy changed the way we play the game! There have been some incredible guys who came before us and I appreciate what they brought to the table. I do think Tim and I added something to the game and that was fun. But you’ve known Tim and I for a long enough time to know that we don’t seek that out. That’s not who we are. What we did was what we did, and it was so much fun. I think we added some fun to the game of basketball, to the NBA and its rich history, but we were just blips on the radar screen (laughs). You know? It just keeps evolving, and that’s what so fun about the NBA.
When you look at how the game has evolved, what do you think of today’s NBA? Now, you have many 7-footers or near 7-footers playing on the perimeter, and teams are shooting way more threes and pushing the pace. How do you feel about the modern NBA?
DR: I love the NBA today. It’s very different from the one that I grew up in; we were a much more physical NBA. But, rightfully so, the rules have changed to take away some of the physicality that was excessive when I played and I think that’s a good step for the NBA. I think it’s so exciting now. We were a defensive-oriented team back in the day when I played on the Spurs and I loved making stops, but now it’s definitely fun to watch these guys run around and score a bunch of points! It’s interesting to see a guy like Kevin Durant out there shooting threes. You’re thinking, “What’s this 7-footer doing out there handling the ball and shooting threes?!” But the game is so much fun. I do enjoy it.
I’m not one of those guys who sits back and says, “Ehh, back in my day we did it right!” We did it, yeah, but I don’t know if we did it right all the time! I do think that the NBA tends to go in cycles, though. Right now, it’s a fun, wheel-and-deal, shoot-crazy-shots time. But it’s to going shift back to the fundamentals and playing solid defense and making stops and getting the big guys who can control the paint. It’ll go back and forth. I see this new era of big guys coming into the league and that’s exciting for me because I think a piece of my days are coming back again.
Speaking of your days, you played against so many great big men throughout your 14-year career. Who were the toughest defenders to face?
DR: Wow, hmm. Well, I think the hardest time I had was with teams that had really good defensive schemes [designed to slow me down], not so much the individuals. I loved when I played against a Hakeem Olajuwon or Patrick Ewing or Rik Smits or Roy Tarpley or somebody like that because that usually meant it was a one-on-one battle. I loved that challenge and it was better than having multiple guys swarming around me. For example, Golden State used to give me fits because they were a bunch of 6-foot-8 guys who were all quick and all running around me and double-teaming me. Those nights were actually the hardest for me. It sounds strange, but when I saw Hakeem, it was almost a sigh of relief because I’m thinking, “Okay, at least now I get a chance to go up against one guy.”