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July 04, 1988
July 04, 1988

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July 4, 1988

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Struggling U.S. star David Robinson finally reigned in Spain

The concern on the good ship U.S.A. was that basketball's most famous sailor might have lost it. Not his talent or his grace. And certainly not his wallet, which soon enough will be $26 million thicker, courtesy of the San Antonio Spurs, who have already made him one of the highest-paid team athletes in the world. No, what David Robinson seemed to be missing all of a sudden was motivation, desire, passion for the game. Lacking too was the urge to purge—not only the memories of the U.S.'s embarrassing defeat by Brazil in last summer's Pan American Games, but also the clinging doubts about the nouveau riche Robinson's being the man to lead America to the Olympic gold in Seoul.

This is an article from the July 4, 1988 issue

In other words, was the 7-foot Robinson really Ensign Pulverize? Or was Robby just another swabbie?

Granted, it wasn't easy to determine these past two weeks whether Robinson was the former or latter, given the outclassed assortment of Dutchmen, Brits, Finns, Frenchmen and Austrians the itinerant U.S. Select team of Olympic candidates mashed by an average score of 104-67. But couldn't he have looked as if he was putting out? "David's not been a problem," said Olympic assistant coach and Select tour guide George Raveling. "He does what he's told."

Nothing like going, uh, overboard about a guy. Not a problem? Does what he's told? Well, one would hope so. But this is no ordinary sluggo, remember. This is America's (not to mention San Antonio's and Larry Brown's) savior. He's the midshipman next door, a true-blue student-athlete who once scored 45 points against Kentucky and lit up Michigan in the NCAAs for 50 more. This is the same guy who defended his country on a foreign floor once before, when he outbattled the Evil Empire's Arvidas Sabonis down the stretch of a breathless U.S.-U.S.S.R. championship finale at the 1986 World Basketball Championships in Madrid.

And yet, before the Selects' confrontation with the Spanish national team in Bilbao in northern Spain—the windup game of what was expected to be Robinson's own special tour—America's favorite young officer had been merely a gentle man.

Undeniably, it was difficult for Robinson to pump himself up for teams recruited out of some Continental kennel. In the Selects' 115-46 thriller over Austria on June 23—a Viennese waltz if ever there was one—Robinson awakened briefly for nine points and seven rebounds in only 12 minutes of playing time. "He could get better pickup games in the Navy," said Select guard Steve Kerr, recently of Arizona. But during the only game that presented any sort of challenge, in which the U.S. pulled away from the French national team to win 100-82 in Paris, Robinson wandered into early foul trouble and could only come up with the rare triple quadruple—four points, four fouls, four turnovers—in 19 minutes of desultory play.

Finally, on Saturday against a living, breathing team—namely Spain, though it was hardly the same veteran outfit that had upset Yugoslavia to advance to the gold medal round against the U.S. in the 1984 Olympics—Robinson looked more like the world-thumping center he once was than the naval construction officer he has become.

"Traditionally, I've not done well against lesser competition," Robinson said in Bilbao. "But if the tour's helped me at all, it's shown me how far I have to go, where I'm hurting. My offense is way behind. I need to go to the basket more."

On the afternoon of the Spain game, Robinson told Raveling that this was the one he'd been waiting for. Sure enough, he swamped the Spaniards on the boards and collected 13 points and seven rebounds in the first half (en route to 18 and nine for the game) with monstrous swoop dunks and soft turnarounds as the Selects won 109-87. "Geesh, I guess he just needs somebody good to play against," said Kerr.

Kerr, who lifted his own stock considerably on the six-game trip by canning three-pointers in every outing, had voiced the Selects' worry over Robinson's lethargy just the day before. "Dave's so rusty, and yet he doesn't act like he's into the games at all," said Kerr, who also played with Robinson in the 1986 World Championships. "I don't see how this tour does the rest of us much good, the competition is so ridiculous. But the whole trip was supposed to be for him. That kind of worries us."

The David Robinson Shakedown Cruise actually began in March, after Bill Stein, the athletic director at St. Peter's College in Jersey City and an Olympic assistant coach, saw Robinson's U.S. Navy team struggle in the Armed Forces tournament. A 118-71 trouncing by the Army, during which Robinson played for only 16 minutes, prompted Stein to sound the alarm to his boss, Olympic coach John Thompson. "David couldn't get down the court three times in a row," Stein said.

Some crash basic training with his old coaches back at Annapolis helped; at the Olympic trials in Colorado Springs in May, Robinson at least didn't humiliate himself. Moreover, it was decided that a group of players from Thompson's Georgetown and Raveling's Southern Cal teams would accompany Robinson on a European tour in June to get him back in competitive fettle.

However, when the trials produced other crises—Thompson couldn't make up his mind on the point guards, and Rex Chapman, the sharpshooter from Kentucky, couldn't hit the broadside of The Broadmoor—the tour took on a different shape, and Robinson's supporting cast was revised. "The trip became an extension of the trials," says Raveling, "a mechanism to get some questions answered about a number of guys."

In its final form, the operation resembled a Georgetown University foreign study program; fully one third of the 21-member U.S. traveling party—including coaches, trainers and players—had connections to Thompson's Washington, D.C., base. Then, in the game in Bilbao, Dan Majerle, a recent graduate of Central Michigan, looked for all the world like a Georgetown product when he engaged in fisticuffs with Spain's Jose Montero; whereupon former Hoya guard Gene Smith led the charge from the bench and future Hoya star Alonzo Mourning went around raging and yapping in every Spanish face he could find.

Meanwhile, Chapman, formerly a hero in Kentucky, was no longer the smiling, carefree mega-talent of his undergrad days. Seven weeks after announcing that he was leaving Lexington for the NBA after his sophomore season, Sexy Rexy (as he was called in the Guardian of London) had taken on a hard, grim look—obviously struggling under a severe confidence drain. "I don't think the kid ever wanted to turn pro," said a member of the U.S. party. Chapman was out of control in Paris (one basket in four minutes of playing time). And despite a trio of three-point baskets in Vienna, he arrived in Bilbao to be greeted by a newspaper report in Egin, a Basque daily, conjecturing that he was on the U.S. team only "por conditión de blanco"—because he is white.

But Chapman came alive on Saturday with four more threes as well as the play of the game, a lefthanded, lightning wraparound entry pass to the Jerri-curled Tennessean Dyron Nix ("Your famous Creole man," said a Spanish journalist), who converted with a vicious dunk.

"I felt so much more relaxed," Chapman said afterward. "The shot's back." And so, surely, will be Chapman himself—back at Georgetown in mid-July to compete with the other Olympic candidates who stayed Stateside while the Select team was in Europe. Besides the Robinson rehab, another goal of the tour was to find a few more players who could adapt to the punishing grind of travel, the barbed-wire style of international play and the standards (or lack thereof) of foreign officiating.

Select-team members Robinson, Majerle and Georgetown's Charles Smith (22 points against France and 13 against Spain) were among the original 16 candidates who made the Olympic cut. Selects Chapman, Kerr, Mourning, Shelton Jones, who played at St. John's, and exquisite defender Stacy Augmon, who will be a sophomore at UNLV will surely join them in D.C., where the final squad of 12 will be chosen.

"Nobody is a lock yet," said Raveling before Saturday's game. "Many people think Robinson had the team made before this trip. I didn't share that view. He hasn't played with intensity like we want him to, or dominated like he can. Great centers lead teams to championships because they play hard every minute. It's not fair to the other players to give him minutes at their expense when he isn't playing up to his ability."

But after Robinson rained all over Spain, Raveling sounded a new note, saying simply, "All the questions have been answered."

Robinson, however, still had a few. "I didn't feel that much behind at the Olympic trials," he said. "But the more I play, the more I see about myself, the more I notice deficiencies that I'd rather not talk about. I'm only 70 percent of where I want to be."

The home team in Bilbao could only wonder where another 30% would take Robinson. By midnight Saturday the Americans were smiling like a board of admirals who had seen their most promising young ensign return from an inexplicable unauthorized leave.

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHORobinson was flat against weaker European competition, but got up for the Spaniards.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOMajerle and Montero had an international disagreement and settled it Hoya-style.