YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

He'll Sail Off Into the Sunset, or Go Down With the Ship

May 05, 2003|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

SAN ANTONIO — Let's have a warm Laker farewell for ... David Robinson!

As a token of their affection, they'd like to present you with a 7-foot, 340-pound, fire-breathing dragon, who's still upset you weren't nicer when you gave him that autograph, back in the '80s.

Is this any way to send an all-time great into his dotage?

At 37, with two sore knees, a back that can go out at any moment, the game's most terrifying force headed his way and as little as two weeks left in his career, the most beloved and overlooked of the San Antonio Spurs begins his last stand, happy as a diminished superstar on his way out could be.

"For me, this last stretch, playing against the best teams, that's the way you want it," Robinson said over the weekend. "If you're going to be a champion, be a champion."

And if you're going to be a retiree, what better way to go out than with a title ... or tire tracks across your chest? A career dedicated to competing couldn't end better, or at least that's how Robinson feels now.

Under ordinary circumstances, it's no longer a biggie if he plays or not (the Spurs were 15-3 without him this season, better than their 45-19 record with him). But Shaquille O'Neal is an extraordinary circumstance, making size all-important, requiring both of the Spurs' 7-footers.

O'Neal can name his number against most teams, if so moved, but if there's a full complement of Spurs available, the game actually changes for him.

In his last two regular seasons against them, he averaged 24 points and shot 44%, against overall averages of 27 and 57%.

In the last two playoff meetings, while the Lakers won eight of nine games, the Spurs still held O'Neal to 24 points and 49%, against overall postseason averages of 29 and 55%.

Of course, you don't often get a healthy Robinson in the equation.

Last spring, when Robinson had a floating disk in his back, he missed the first two playoff games against the Lakers, which the Spurs split in Staples Center.

Robinson then returned for the last three but was a minor factor, even in the limited role he now plays, averaging six points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes.

Nor is he all better now. He sat out a game in the series against the Phoenix Suns and had his left knee drained after hurting it in a gung-ho effort for a 37-year-old, drawing a charge on Stephon Marbury.

Put it this way: Do you remember seeing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar throwing his body in front of people, trying to take charges in his twilight years?

Robinson's left knee is actually his good one. The right one is a continuing problem. His back is so stiff, he couldn't bend over to pick up a rebound that fell almost at his feet in one of the games in Phoenix, so a teammate had to come over to get it.

Robinson also averaged 9.6 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 25 minutes against the Suns.

He's still David Robinson, after all, or the next best thing.

Officer, Gentleman and a Scapegoat

Who was he, anyway?

It was easy to characterize him away from the game. He was an Academy-groomed Naval officer. He was nice.

He was generous, donating $5 million to start an inner-city school here named after George Washington Carver, an act so selfless -- not to mention unusual -- it moved Commissioner David Stern to announce that from now on, the league's community-service award would be named after Robinson.

He also was a great player, although how great was widely debated, as in 1994-95. That was the season when he was MVP, Sports Illustrated put him on its cover dressed as an angel and the Spurs made the West finals, the farthest he had been, after which they were upset by the Houston Rockets.

All the other seasons, until Tim Duncan's arrival in 1997, the Spurs were upset even earlier.

"Athletic ability, he's the best I've ever seen or ever played with," Orlando Coach Doc Rivers, a former teammate, once said. "He's more athletically gifted than Dominique Wilkins. He can run faster than most guards, can jump higher than almost anybody in the league. He has a God's gift body. I think the only thing he doesn't have ... is an understanding of the game and a passion for the game.

"He was asked to play basketball. The first time he ever played, he was asked. In high school, the coach asked him to come out his junior year and he actually said no.

"The guy said, 'Why don't you give it a try?' He tried out and made it and then the best player got hurt. And that's the only reason he played."

In another context, it might not have mattered if Robinson grew up in the suburbs of Virginia, and was always tapping away on his laptop, a long time before everyone was carrying them around.

With better luck, he could have gone down as a latter-day Bill Russell, another long, lean, left-handed, defense-oriented center.

However, Russell joined a perfect team, the Celtics, who had lots of offense and needed someone who could play on the other end. Robinson joined the Spurs, who had nothing.

Los Angeles Times Articles