David Robinson was a Fine Role Player
Back in 1996, David Robinson couldn’t understand why Michael Jordan was coming out of retirement. When asked whether he would like to be Jordan, Robinson replied:
“I don’t understand what Michael’s doing…Why did he come back? He has a beautiful wife and three kids. What’s he trying to prove that he hasn’t proved already? Is it that he’s the best we’ve ever seen? We know that. It seems to me he’s just chasing his own tail. Why isn’t he enjoying this time with his family?”
I sometimes felt that way about David Robinson. As a young, healthy player, David Robinson was the best pivot of his generation and one of the most statistically dominant players of any generation. Had Michael Jordan not been Michael Jordan, we might have taken greater notice.
Imagine that LeBron James finishes the upcoming season with a statline of 30, 11, 5, 2 and 3, or thereabouts. Imagine for a moment that LeBron James puts up a quadruple double in February, and then, a couple short months later, registers 70 points in the season finale. Brett Favre could retire and unretire ten times over and still couldn’t steal those headlines, right? That’s an all-timer MVP season.
All that LeBron might do stuff, David Robinson did. Yet he remained a tiny flicker against the luminous lamp that was, and still is, Michael Jordan. And he didn’t win the MVP award that season, Hakeem Olajuwon did.
David Robinson was a world-beating leader of men—an elite statistical giant of never-before-seen athleticism and a penchant for prayer. And he is, at best, the second best player of his generation.
There was a period of about three years when I wanted nothing more than for him to retire, something like 2000-2003. I couldn’t understand, watching him labor under a failing body, why he continued to play, other than to honor a contract. He was the very best kind of basketball player, one who had loftier aspirations in life than playing basketball. A happy man, with a lovely family, and plenty of purposeful pursuits to fill his time. David, the next stop is for you, I thought.
But I was naive. David Robinson’s most meaningful seasons were his last. Those seasons wherein, in his mid-to-late 30s, he still draped a double-double and a thick defensive presence over his 36 minute averages. Those seemed like the numbers of a mere mortal to me, back before I understood that most men write statistical greatness into the sand only to see it vanish with the next tide of headlines. Despite a strangle hold on historians and history books, statistical measures are fleeting. We recall the numbers later to prove our points, but it’s the iconic stuff that grabs us and holds us and won’t let us go. There is something more transcendent about David Robinson’s final years than his early ones, something we continue to feel in every Spurs game.
David Robinson did more for the Spurs as a role playing compliment to Tim Duncan than as a scoring champion MVP. He was older and veteran-worn, but his contribution carried further. His greatness was lost in the late career half-light, but his willingness to stand within in it dimmed and diminished allowed the current Spurs dynasty to emerge. That simple, evangelical bumpkin ethos of last shall be first which David Robinson adopted in mid career helped motor the Spurs toward their dynastic accomplishments.
David Robinson transformed himself from statistical colossus to role player exemplar in the seamless space of one season: Tim Duncan’s rookie season. His humble subservience to the team’s collective narrative define the franchise’s chase for championships down to the present. The foundation of what we call “Spurs culture” was erected upon the career of David Robinson, and built and polished to luster in people such as Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, and Bruce Bowen.
Character counts. This was David Robinson’s embarrassing conviction, and it’s his enduring legacy.
This is why my most cherished David Robinson memory is not from, say, 1994. I was too young to remember it well, and in hindsight those years only carry the magnitude of an attention-grabbing subplot. No. I remember his last game most fondly.
37 years old, 31 minutes. 6 for 8 from the field. An efficient 13 points to bolster a game-changing 17 rebounds. He came up big late, but Tim Duncan was still, rightly, the game’s most celebrated player. His numbers were unwordly, or most worldly, depending on how you parse it. Duncan’s numbers were ripped from the world David Robinson used to call his own. Tim Duncan dropped 21 points, 20 rebounds, 1o assists and 8 blocks on the New Jersey Nets that night. The Spurs won their second championship. Robinson retired an undisputed winner, and the Spurs have just kept on winning.
By the Spurs’ third championship, Tim Duncan was no longer putting up near-quadruple doubles. That championship depended on role-accepting, Robinson-like heroics from Robert Horry and spectacular play from Manu Ginobili, who, despite not winning the Finals MVP award, was the series’ best player. The Spurs forth championship saw Tony Parker claim the MVP award as a masterfully efficient, still-remarkable Tim Duncan performed happily alongside the match-up dominating Tony Parker. The Cavs got rolled by the ghost of David Robinson.
This past summer the Spurs publicly confessed to something most of the basketball watching world already knew. Their core of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili was no longer good enough to get it done on their own. They needed help. And not a single voice from that basketball watching world speculated about chemistry issues or whether the Big 3 could accommodate a forth or fifth option.Â No one wondered whether Manu Ginobili would resent the addition of another scoring wing or if Tim Duncan would give up minutes to upstart DeJuan Blair or productive vet Antonio McDyess. Everyone knew that there was too much David Robinson in these Spurs for that.