Alvin Robertson doesn't look like the leading single-season larcenist in the history of the NBA. His skinhead haircut is right out of the GI manual, and he wears braces because he sucked his index finger until he was 19. "Sometimes," says San Antonio Spurs coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, "Al looks like a little ol' fourth-grader staring up at me."
Ah, but turn your back on him, try to sneak a pass by him or push him around a little and this fourth-grader turns into a tough street punk. "He is real, real, real aggressive," says Walter Davis of the Suns, against whom Robertson had five steals last Wednesday night as the Spurs clinched the Western Conference's final playoff berth with a 114-102 victory in Phoenix.
Robertson, 23, a second-year guard, finished the regular season with a record 301 steals, 20 more than former record-holder Don Buse, now a Spurs assistant coach. San Antonio needed every one of those steals, too, as it limped home at 35-47, the second-poorest record among the NBA's 16 playoff teams. For the Spurs to have any chance in the first round against the defending champ Lakers, Robertson must pick the pockets of Magic Johnson, both referees and the official scorer. In other words, forget it.
But don't forget the season that Robertson has had; it could have been even better if point guard Johnny Moore (who was felled by meningitis in December) had been in the lineup to take some pressure off Alvin. Besides his steals, Robertson finished the year with 1,392 points, 448 assists and 516 rebounds, the last a best among NBA guards. He also had 40 blocked shots, a figure surpassed by only four other guards—Clyde Drexler, Julius Erving, Michael Cooper and Marques Johnson, who are more like forwards—and totaled more minutes per game than all but three NBA backcourt men. Robertson was the spark plug that helped the Spurs get off to an excellent start (they were 30-26 on Feb. 18) and the Super Glue that held the team together and kept it from self-destructing down the stretch.
"Alvin Robertson is the next superstar guard in the NBA," says Denver coach Doug Moe. That's pretty much the consensus. Robertson was voted to the Western Conference's All-Star starting lineup, which is amazing for a second-year player primarily known for his defense. And no one suggested that he didn't belong.
Robertson emerged, braces flashing, as a rising superstar back in December when he was named the NBA's player of the month. He had 41 points and a triple-double in consecutive games against Midwest Division rival Denver. He had seven steals in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks on Dec. 14; then he got 13 rebounds when the Spurs routed the Lakers in San Antonio on Dec. 26. Fittingly, he was discovered just as suddenly as America discovered Dire Straits, the British rock group on whose video, Walk of Life, Robertson can be seen flying into the seats attempting to block a shot.
In defensive ability, strength and work ethic, he is compared most often with Boston's Dennis Johnson and Milwaukee's Sidney Moncrief. One player with whom Robertson is seldom compared is George Gervin, the scoring machine and San Antonio legend who was traded by the Spurs to Chicago on Oct. 24. The fact that Robertson prospered after being called upon to take Gervin's spot is perhaps the most remarkable accomplishment of his season. "The Spurs were always known as a high-scoring offensive team led by Ice," says Fitzsimmons, the primary mover behind the Gervin-for-David Greenwood deal. "But we needed toughness and quickness. Alvin gave us that look." Says San Antonio general manager Bob Bass: "Alvin brought the other guys up to his intensity level." The old Spurs were Gervin on ice; now they're Robertson on fire.
Almost without realizing it, Robertson has become the Spurs' community spirit, a role Gervin never assumed. When the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra needed an athlete to guest conduct during a September fund-raiser, Robertson donned tails and grabbed a baton for a rendition of Over the Rainbow. He has been a spokesman for programs sponsored by the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department. And he earns points away from the mainstream every Sunday afternoon when he hosts, gratis, a two-hour program of reggae music on radio station KAPE. Both the records and the rap, which he performs in a Jamaican patois, belong to Robertson, who grew up in Barberton, Ohio. Isn't there something odd about an Ohio skinhead spinning tunes for the dreadlocks crowd? "It's not how you look, mon," says Robertson, flashing a heavy-metal grin, "it's whether you feel the beat."
Only a player like Robertson—frenetic on the court but relaxed and friendly off it—could have so seamlessly replaced Gervin. Somehow Alvin succeeded in winning the hearts of San Antonio's fans, even though Gervin never lost them.
"Let's face it, we wouldn't be in business without George Gervin," says Spurs president Angelo Drossos, Ice's off-season hunting buddy, who can hardly speak of the trade without becoming emotional. But it was time to move Gervin. Robertson was too talented to sit on the bench, and Ice refused to be a sixth man.
Robertson, for his part, never popped off about replacing Gervin, but neither did he doubt that he could. "I can't be like Ice and I'm not trying to be," he says. "When I met him he was like a god. He did things so smooth, so calm. He's still the main man around here. Nothing will change that. But, honestly, I felt I outplayed him every time in the preseason. Every time. That's just the way it was."
Smooth and calm are not the adjectives to describe Robertson's game. His shoot-it-on-the-way-up jumper is as ugly as they come and he can't begin to match Gervin's ability to score from outside or slither around picks. "The only way you can play him is to lay off him," says the Suns' Davis. "Make him shoot it outside and he's in trouble. That's the only weakness in his game." Still, Robertson shot .514 from the floor. "So he's not a great shooter?" says Utah's Frank Layden. "He's got poise and a feel for the game. They're much more important."
Offensively, Robertson is most dangerous on the open floor. When he comes down with a defensive rebound, his instructions are to take it and go, even if the point guard (who in Moore's absence has been Wes Matthews or Jon Sundvold) is open. In a spread offense against pressure, Robertson stations himself at the top of the circle so he can receive the pass, turn and drive the lane, looking to dish off or draw a foul. (That was Gervin's spot, too, only his job was to find a way to shoot, which he usually did.) Robertson's drives to the hoop are most evocative of—don't laugh—Erving, because he cups the ball and holds it high above his head on dunks.
Defense is his specialty, though. "That's where he's in a class by himself," says Golden State guard Geoff Huston. Not really. Not yet. There are still better man-to-man defenders, like Cooper and perhaps Milwaukee's one-two punch of Moncrief and long-armed Paul Pressey. Dennis Johnson and Denver's T.R. Dunn might be better at checking stronger players, and Cheeks can pick more pockets.
But Robertson does a little bit of everything, and he is still a few years away from his physical peak. Right now, he is the best free-lance defender in the league, as all those steals attest. His quickness enables him to double down on big men and his strength enables him to slap balls away from them. "Sometimes I do some real karate chopping out there and get away with it," says Robertson, whose naiveté is charming in a league in which no one ever admits to committing a foul. He also has a knack for turning around at precisely the right moment and stealing the lazy inbounds pass for an easy basket. The TV production crew that films the Spurs' games has missed so many of those plays that it has been instructed not to swing the camera automatically upcourt after a San Antonio basket.
Robertson is a different kind of thief than Buse, who was a master at stealing the ball off an opponent's change-of-direction dribble. "Alvin's more of a foot-quickness defender than a hand-quickness defender like I was," says Buse. "I still think he gambles a little too much, though, and next year he'll discover that players will be more careful with the ball around him. Right now I consider Michael Cooper the best all-around defender in the league. But Alvin could be that good, no doubt in my mind."
No doubt in Fitzsimmons's mind, either. "If Alvin hadn't come through like he has this season," says Fitzsimmons, "I would've needed the Alamo to protect me." And we all know how well the Alamo held up under siege.
Robertson approaches his radio show with the same energy that he puts into defense. Says "Real" Mike Kelly, the KAPE disc jockey and program director who got him on the air: "If he ever took this up full-time, I'd be worried about a job."
Alvin first heard what he calls "the sounds" on a campus radio program during his sophomore year at Arkansas. At the 1984 Olympic trials he found a true "bredren" when Jamaica-born Patrick Ewing sidled up to him and said, "Wopnin', mon?" "Fillin' irie, mon," answered Robertson. After both made the U.S. team, he listened to Ewing's reggae tapes. Robertson augmented his knowledge of the Jamaican language and culture last summer at Sun Splash, a reggae festival in Montego Bay.
He insists that he does not abide by Rastafarian philosophy and the heavy marijuana smoking associated with it. "It's just the music," he says. He has no plans to trade in his Volvo and become an expatriate in Jamaica. "Basketball's too important," says Robertson, flashing a grin. "For right now, anyway."
Spurs fans should be fillin' irie about that.