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Scott Ostler

Spurs, by Winning, Wooing Robinson, Broke Laker Hearts

November 11, 1987|Scott Ostler

Well, there goes the dynasty.

David Robinson, the most important basketball player to come out of college since a two-headed phenom named Magic Bird, has signed to play with the San Antonio Spurs.

That terrible sound you hear is Laker hearts breaking.

Robinson's signing with the Spurs late last week drastically upsets the Lakers' decorating plans. Jerry Buss will have to find something else to hang on the Forum wall space reserved for the four or five championship banners of the--trumpet fanfare, please--Robinson era. Something in mourning. Black would be appropriate.

The Lakers, understand, really wanted this guy. So did several other NBA teams, of course, but the Lakers thought they had the kid.

Thought? Man, they were sure.

It was a truly beautiful scenario, one that brought tears of joy to the eyes of Buss, General Manager Jerry West, Coach Pat Riley, Magic Johnson and a cast of thousands.

Robinson, obligated to two years of Navy duty, was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs. A technicality. He would politely decline to sign a Spur contract, and on June 22, 1988--a date circled in red on several calendars at the Forum--Robinson would become a free agent.

He would sign with the Lakers. The Lakers didn't think or hope he would. They knew he would.

Being of sound mind, the young man would decline to play ball in a city that has all the glamour, culture and night life of an aircraft carrier. There were solid indications Robinson was L.A. bound.

It would have been sweet. Magic Johnson has about four all-star seasons left in his aging legs. That would have been two more with Kareem and then two with Robinson, who will take the league apart immediately, making Magic comfortable in his NBA twilight years.

Robinson's impact would be sudden. He is still a growing lad, remember, and for the next two years he'll be getting plenty of experience playing tough international ball.

There's still a chance San Antonio will trade Robinson to Los Angeles. There's also the chance San Antonio will trade the Alamo to Los Angeles for the Tail o' the Pup hot dog stand and a Fotomat booth to be named later.

The announcement that Robinson had signed with the Spurs left the Lakers shocked, stunned, devastated, stupefied and heartbroken, not necessarily in that order.

What happened? Why didn't Robinson wait around, watch his price go up and up, then sell himself to the city of his choice, namely the City of the Lakers?

There are several reasons he chose the course of action that hit the Lakers like a kick to the groin.

He probably relishes the challenge of joining a second-rate team and leading it to greatness. He didn't relish the hassle of spending a year or two speculating publicly and privately about his future. Also, David is said to be an honorable fellow, and the Spurs drafted him fair and square.

But mostly, the Lakers lost David Robinson because they got vanned.

That's a term coined by UNLV basketball Coach Jerry Tarkanian. It means you lost a blue-chip recruit by being outbid by a rival, as in:

"We lost the kid. He signed with State."

"Lost him! But we offered him a new car!"

"Yeah, but they offered him a van."

What San Antonio did was lay its heart on the table, along with its cash. The team and the city gave Robinson a weekend red-carpet whirl that would make the Pope jealous.

The recruitment was headed by San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, reputedly an enormously charming and sincere host, and an entertaining guy.

Robinson was impressed. I don't know if he actually fell in love with the city, but he grew real fond, real fast. He signed a long-term, bargain-basement contract.

He'll get a $1 million signing bonus and will be paid $1 million this season and $1 million next season, both of which he will spend in the Navy. The total value of the deal, as they say on TV, is $26 million for 10 years.

That seems like a lot, especially considering the cost of living in San Antonio, where you probably could buy Cisneros' mansion for about $10,500, nothing down.

But if Robinson is as good as all the scouts say, if he does turn out to be the Kareem of the '80s and '90s, he will also be a steal.

The NBA is a growing league, geographically and financially. In three seasons, a $2.6-million-a-year contract won't put Robinson in the league's top 10. Mike Smrek will be making that much. Robinson may become basketball's Eric Dickerson.

The big question is, how did L.A. let itself get vanned? What did the team and the city do to counteract San Antonio's warm and brilliant recruitment of Robinson?

Not much, apparently, and we're all at fault here. Did anybody send David so much as a brochure of the city? A wish-you-were-here post card from Malibu? A boogie board or free passes to Disneyland?

It probably would have been tampering for the Lakers to get heavily involved in the recruiting, but where were our civic superstar backslappers? Where was Jack Nicholson? Dyan Cannon? John McEnroe? Tom Bradley? Wilt Chamberlain? Steven Spielberg? Michael Jackson? Merv Griffin? Jim and Tammy?

You mean we couldn't put together a weekend package that would at least take the edge off San Antonio's David Robinson Mardi Gras?

It wouldn't have been fair for the Lakers to get Robinson, of course. They already stole a decade of greatness by getting Magic Johnson in a trade, essentially, for an over-the-hill Gail Goodrich.

Had the Lakers landed Robinson, the city and the team would have been envied and despised around the country even more than they are already.

It wouldn't have been fair. But life isn't fair, as I was saying just this morning to my service station attendant, Jerry West.

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