Ensign David Robinson walked into a Pizza Hut in northern Virginia with $5 in his pocket early last week. It was the day after he met the Vice-President at the White House, played in a charity golf tournament with Bob Hope and Tip O'Neill and was picked first in the NBA draft by San Antonio.
The multimillionaire-to-be bought two small pies at the Pizza Hut but couldn't quite afford a soft drink. All around him were glasses of carbonated delight. "Two little girls—one had Pepsi, one had Slice—were sitting there looking at me while I'm looking at my [glass of] water," said the 7'1" Robinson. "It's not cool not to have any money. Not cool at all."
Just two years ago Robinson withstood the lure of cold civilian cash. Instead of transferring from the U.S. Naval Academy to get on a fast track to the NBA, the superstar stood by the service. Now, because of that decision and the consequent two-year hitch he'll soon begin serving, Robinson faces more options than a Wall Street broker. In a nutshell, he can 1) sign with the Spurs and still maintain his amateur status for the next two years; 2) not sign with the Spurs, reenter the draft in '88 and sign with the team that picks him then; or 3) shun his '88 suitor also and become a free agent shortly after the '89 draft. "It's a great option to say that two years from now I can play with whomever I want," Robinson said last Wednesday in the Georgetown office of his adviser, Lee Fentress.
The gifted center says he hasn't ruled out the Spurs, who had a 28-54 season and finished next to last in the league in attendance. Not once did Robinson consider firing off a Boz-like letter suggesting that the Spurs—who play in the nation's 45th largest TV market—spend their pick elsewhere. He made winners of strugglers at Navy and enjoyed the process. Furthermore, the Spurs will probably have another lottery pick or two before Robinson comes aboard. "The big factor is my comfort level," he says. "Wherever you go, there's going to be something you don't like, whether it's the traffic on the freeways or the smog during the summer." These references to the Los Angeles landscape might unnerve the Spurs a bit. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's contract with the Lakers will be up in two seasons—when Robinson could become a free agent.
July 5, 1987
San Antonio, for its part, didn't hesitate to draft Robinson, the '87 college player of the year and, to some scouts, the sort of talent that comes along only once a decade. He averaged 28.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.5 blocked shots a game for Navy in '86-87. The Spurs hope that when Robinson visits San Antonio this summer, management and players can persuade him that the team is a caring, growing concern. (When he heard there might be a parade in his honor, Robinson, a conservative type, suggested that wouldn't be wise.) To sign now would mean instant megamillions for the center. Of course, as Robinson himself points out, financial security is just a shoe contract away.
There's a chance that the Spurs might be able to hang on to Robinson's rights through 1989 because of an obscure NBA bylaw known as the Armed Forces List. The 37-year-old rule says that if a draftee is in the service and therefore unable to play, the drafter retains the rights until the player can compete. The NBA Players Association says that since the rule has not been part of the collective bargaining agreement, Robinson—like any player who doesn't sign with his original selector—goes back on the draft list the next year. This all could wind up in court, though San Antonio believes it will sign him and render the issue moot.
While Robinson's NBA future is somewhat cloudy, prospects for his next two years are fairly clear. Sometime on or before July 6, he'll climb into his Pontiac with the mysterious squeak and drive from his home in Woodbridge, Va., to the submarine base at Kings Bay, Ga. There he will be the assistant resident officer in charge of construction, earning $315.23 a week. In mid-July, he'll head to Louisville for practice with the Pan Am team (the armed forces allow time off for international amateur competition), and on the way back to Georgia after the Pan Am Games in August, he'll likely visit San Antonio. After that, except for a two-month stint at Civil Engineer Corps school at Point Hueneme, Calif., this winter and the '88 Olympics in Seoul next summer, Robinson will spend most of his time helping to build the new Kings Bay base. He doesn't intend to play much basketball but will lift weights and run regularly. After his active duty is up in '89, he will serve four years in the active reserve and a year in the inactive reserve. His reserve duties won't interfere much with his NBA play.
For now, Ensign Robinson is putting the service first. "I just want to relax and enjoy my experience in the Navy," he says. He has earned that much. And he will get more—much, much more.