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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

San Antonio Salutes Its Admiral One Last Time

March 30, 2003|Michael Wilbon | Washington Post

SAN ANTONIO — There's been no diva in a mermaid dress serenading David Robinson that we know of. No teammates debated whether he should start the All-Star Game or come off the bench because he didn't make the all-star team in the first place. There's probably only one place where Robinson's retirement isn't a footnote to Michael Jordan's retirement, and that's here in San Antonio, where the celebration is passionate yet controlled, something befitting a one-time officer and always a gentleman.

Robinson is playing his 14th and final NBA season, all of them with the Spurs. Tuesday night was David Robinson night here, the one over-the-top party Robinson would allow anybody to throw. His teammates, knowing it would be a waste of time to present him with a Harley-Davidson or a yacht or some other ostentatious gift, presented him with a check for $100,000 for the Carver Academy he started here in San Antonio with nearly $10 million of his own dough. The baseline bums, notorious over the years for their rowdiness and shabbiness, wore Naval caps and saluted Robinson during a timeout, and the Naval Academy alum saluted them back.

Even in the most frivolous and peaceful of times, Robinson would have been uncomfortable receiving so much attention. But combine his basic selflessness with his Naval Academy training and service (which he has completed) and the Tuesday night ceremony was just overwhelming. "It's like that scene from 'Jerry Maguire,' " Robinson recounted before Thursday night's game here against Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets. "You know where he's saying, 'You're not going to make me cry, Roy. You're not going to make me cry!' And I was OK for a while. I got myself composed. And then, I just couldn't help it."

Robinson cried. Well, really he openly wept. "It was so much more than anything I could ever have imagined," he said.

In so many ways, this is the perfect time to celebrate Robinson's career, when excess is so intolerable, when global conflict threatens the psyche of every community in the United States. Robinson, from the time he left Osbourn Park High in Northern Virginia for the Naval Academy, through two years of Navy service, through three tours of Olympic basketball duty, through 10 all-star seasons and one championship season, has been the model of restraint and dignity.

Steve Smith, the veteran swingman who has played against and now with Robinson, said of Robinson's retirement, "He's done everything the right way, the unselfish way. He could have left this market when it wasn't a great market to be in. He turned it into a viable franchise. Nobody that I knew of wanted to come here years ago. People talked about going to New York or wherever. ... There's no need for David to play anymore when he can't control the issues with his back, and none of us wants to see him unable to play with his children. But the fact is, his retirement is a loss to the NBA community. The time and commitment he has put in.... "

On the court, the Spurs' vice president of marketing, Bruce Guthrie, says Robinson "saved this franchise when he came aboard.

"In 1989-90 attendance was struggling. David galvanized everybody and became that rock the community needed. What I don't even want to think about was what it's going to be like when he's not here."

Off the court, Robinson is very likely the most beloved, certainly the most admired man in the city's history. He's like John Elway to Denver without the melodrama. There's a big following here of University of Texas and Texas A&M sports, and plenty of Cowboys fans. But the Spurs are San Antonio's alone. Tim Duncan may someday be remembered as a better pure basketball player. Rookie Emmanuel Ginobili, from Argentina, speaks Spanish, which endears him to a largely Hispanic community. But Robinson's arrival in 1989 (he was drafted No. 1 in '87 but belonged to the Naval Academy for two years) set the table.

Robinson is the man you want to hear talk about the war in Iraq, not Tyronn Lue. Robinson talked about his appreciation for living in a society where debate about whether to go to war or not is "not only tolerated" but encouraged. He is also devoutly religious. But as one might expect of a Navy man, Robinson said once that decision is made, there is nothing to do but support his country and the men and women who were trained, as he was, to serve and protect. It's still a sight to behold when Robinson stands there at the bench, all 7 feet 1 of him with his hand over his heart at the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. We're talking about a man who two years ago was given the Patriot Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

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