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Admiral Won't Be Setting Sail Anytime Soon

Robinson has found more than a home in San Antonio because the residents treated him like family.

June 08, 2003|Michael Wilbon | Washington Post

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — David Robinson once belonged to the East Coast, to Osbourn Park and Manassas, Va., to the Naval Academy and Annapolis, Md.

"My first couple of years here," Robinson said Thursday in San Antonio, "I would think, 'I'm from D.C. I'm from the East Coast.' "

But quickly after the birth of his children and after his presence ensured the once terribly shaky Spurs would remain in San Antonio, it was clear to Robinson than San Antonio was his home for life, a place that would be identified through him.

"Almost right away, I embraced it as home," he said, "because the people embraced me right away. I just thought that it was a great place to come to, after being at the Academy where it's a small, family-like atmosphere, similar to this city."

Should the NBA Finals series end quickly, in either four or five games, Friday's Game 2 of the NBA Finals was Robinson's final game here, after 14 years, after leading the Spurs to a championship in 1999, after literally saving the franchise.

There have been better players in the NBA, more marketable players. There have been players more critical to the profile of the league. But there probably hasn't been a player more important to the place where he played than Robinson is to San Antonio.

"There are a thousand ways you can define a hero," former team owner Red McCombs said Thursday in a conversation about Robinson and his final days as a basketball player, "and he fits every one of them."

Had Robinson decided after his stint in the U.S. Navy that he didn't want to live in San Antonio and signed elsewhere, the Spurs would have been sold and relocated, according to any and everybody familiar with the club's dire situation at the time.

"When we drafted David in 1987," McCombs said, "there was a big question of whether the Spurs would even survive. David Robinson actually made it possible for the Spurs to stay, grow and flourish."

City and team officials were so concerned that a mid-Atlantic, big-city kid like Robinson might not like San Antonio, they assembled a welcome weekend with thousands of local well-wishers to appeal to him. Then-Mayor Henry Cisneros and McCombs let out a sigh of relief when at the end of the weekend Robinson told them, "Maybe it's better that I'm more comfortable being a big fish in a little pond."

And the rest is history, a 14-year love affair between a small place (relative to big-time professional sports markets) and a spiritually guided, chiseled-from-stone, officer, gentleman, philanthropist, basketball star who has never caused a moment's worth of trouble or ruffled a feather in his life.

So quite happily, San Antonio a long time ago drafted Robinson as the city's captain, the man who should represent them, be the public face of San Antonio and even its conscience when it comes to most things, from fair play to education.

He spends no time whatsoever worrying about future endorsements, or whether he's going to get the credit he deserves for passing the baton to Tim Duncan without ego-driven drama. "When I think about my career," Robinson said, "I don't think I deserve any more credit than I've gotten. It's been pretty fun. I'm not going to look back and say, 'Well, people have really overlooked me.' I just don't think that's happened. It's not what people say about you; it's what you've left behind. It's the impact you've had on people's lives."

His impact here could never be more evident that it was Thursday, on the day off between Games 1 and 2 of this NBA Finals. The Governor of Texas (Rick Perry), NBA officials including Commissioner David Stern, and a posse of prominent Texans gathered at the Carver Academy to unveil the league's latest Reading and Learning Center.

Robinson created the Carver Academy, financed it, saw it through from inception to completion against staggering odds. McCombs, a man devoted to education, said Thursday, "I begged David not to try to build it. I said to him, 'I strongly urge you not to try this. It's almost an impossible task, for one man to build a school. David, work as a mentor. Be as involved as you can. But please don't start to build that school.' "

Robinson thanked McCombs for his advice and said he was going to try anyway. And sensing Robinson's resolve, McCombs said, " 'David, I'm going to be your first donor,' and I gave him a quarter-of-a-million dollars. Praise be to God that he continued."

As teammate Malik Rose said, "David basically went door to door to raise money to build that school, and also put $10 to $11 million dollars of his own money into it. It's ironic that he built that school essentially so that children who might not otherwise have the chance can build a solid foundation for themselves through education, and he is the foundation of this team. He's a great man."

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