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Robinson's grace like clockwork


The story in the San Antonio Spurs' postgame dressing room -- President's Day, Feb. 21, 1994, at Target Center in Minneapolis -- was David Robinson, the 50 points he'd scored in a blowout victory over the Timberwolves and the way he capped the matinee performance, stepping back behind the three-point line and letting it fly with about a minute left, smiling broadly after his 18th field goal on his 32nd try in his 38th minute of play.

What I noticed most, though, was his wristwatch.

Robinson, this famous NBA superstar, this MVP candidate and scoring leader, this officer and gentleman and multimillionaire, was wearing the exact same model of watch as I had on my left wrist. It was a rubber watch, a G-Shock digital gizmo from Casio with assorted dials and buttons, half a toy actually, retailing for about $60. In a professional sports world of Rolexes and Cartiers, that Robinson would opt for something so completely utilitarian and unaffected impressed the heck out of me, in ways something shiny, gilded and baubled never would have. Besides, it suited him and his game, all about getting the job done -- whether telling time or outplaying an opponent -- with little extraneous flash or drama. And besides that, I liked the idea of telling people that an NBA big shot wore my watch, when Madison Avenue kept telling us to wear, spend and be like them.

Robinson scored 50 points that day and, come to think of it, very nearly got overshadowed by the chaos swirling around him in both locker rooms. Christian Laettner, the Wolves' arrogant second-year forward, had been banished from the team for the day after his profanity-laced outburst in practice 24 hours earlier at assistant coach Bob Weinhauer. Dennis Rodman, his changing hair colors in a brief Spurs stint providing a glimpse into his Chicago future, improbably scolded Laettner for his behavior. A battle of the J.R.'s -- Minnesota's Rider and San Antonio's Reid -- saw both of them ejected with 23 seconds left in a game decided in the third quarter. And Chuck Person was so disgusted with his diminished role in Minnesota that, with the NBA deadline looming, he demanded a trade ("Somebody's got to go. ... They might as well tie my hands behind my back, leave me on the side of the road and feed me to the [expletive] crows,'' the Rifleman scoffed).

Just another day in the NBA as we knew it, the NBA through which Robinson moved with such class and dignity and maturity. As good as Robinson was -- and he was exceptional, winning two NBA championships, playing for the U.S. team in three Olympics, earning the 1995 MVP award, a scoring title, a quadruple-double and 10 trips to the All-Star Game, securing his spot among the top 10 centers in league history, welcoming and yielding to a younger teammate (Tim Duncan) with as much talent and potential as himself, and establishing himself as a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection -- he never quite managed to make those traits cool. As attitude and glowering took over, Robinson continued to smile. No one had to airbrush any tattoos when he and Duncan got the cover as Sports Illustrated's co-winners of the 2003 Sportsmen of the Year award.

Things sometimes got turned so inside-out in the NBA, as Julius Erving's statesmanship and Larry Bird's and Magic Johnson's ambassadorships gave way to Michael Jordan's ruthlessness or all sorts of noise about street cred, that you started to flinch a little in covering Robinson. With so many alleged heroes and role models falling from grace -- drugs, divorces, police blotters, tabloid fodder -- you wondered if you should tread cautiously around the Spurs' All-NBA center, glorifying him at your own risk, lest some skeleton spring from his closet and send him down from Everest-like heights. He at least had to be corking his biceps, didn't he?

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Being a David Robinson fan, if you didn't live in San Antonio, could feel a little like rooting for John Stockton if you weren't from Salt Lake City. The NBA marketing machinery was geared to hit a target somewhere between a PG and an R, as images and ratings went back then (and now, frankly, if you factor in Charles Barkley's Teflon popularity). Robinson, like Stockton and a bunch of other solid citizens who flew below the endorsements and gossip-column radar, was stuck squarely in G. As in goody-goody. As in generous (he and his wife, Valerie, reportedly have donated more than $11 million to Carver Academy, the San Antonio grade school that Robinson created, funded and had built). As in genuine.

"We were playing shooting games in practice,'' Danny Ferry, now Cleveland's general manager but then a Spurs forward, told me at the 2003 Finals as Robinson's career wound down to a few games (for the record, he had 13 points and 17 rebounds in the Game 6 clincher against the Nets, his NBA finale). "Everyone will cheat a little bit here or there -- it's all in fun, we're not playing for money or anything. But David won't. So if his team wins, we don't question it at all. We're like, 'Aw, David doesn't cheat. They must have won.' If David says something, you believe it.''

Malik Rose was a teammate then, too. He recalled a Scrabble game at 35,000 feet with Robinson and Person.

"I'm going to win. I'm racking up words,'' Rose said. "David's right behind. I misplace a word by one letter, just put it in the wrong spot. He asked me if I really wanted it. 'Yeah, that's what I want.' He cancels the word -- I guess he made up a rule -- he took my word, took the 'S', too, and took like 90 points from me and won the game. That cheatin' bum.''

Rose laughed, his teasing over.

"No, he's very straight up. You don't need to be careful with David. That's one guy you can build up,'' he said. "He could be an ass if he wanted to because he's a superstar. But he's one of the best people you ever want to meet. He's my brother in Christ and like a father figure to me. ... I don't think the NBA or definitely this team is going to realize what it's lost until he's gone.''

A selection committee has given everyone a chance to remember at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony (where Robinson might get overshadowed again with Jordan going in, same night).

Me, I still wear the watch.