The long-awaited NBA debut of David Robinson proved that he's probably the luckiest "franchise" player to come along since Bill Russell. Just as Russell had a brilliant supporting cast—including Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman and Tommy Heinsohn—when he joined the Boston Celtics as a rookie in 1956, so has Robinson with the San Antonio Spurs. He has venerable point guard Maurice Cheeks to get him the ball, fellow rookie Sean Elliott to absorb some of the media and fan attention, and All-Star Terry Cummings to take most of the important shots. But no matter how impressive the credentials of Cheeks et al., there's only one reason that the Spurs are the most talked-about team of this new NBA season, and that is Robinson, the 7'1" Naval Reserve officer, who patrols, with perhaps the most erect posture in league history, the San Antonio pivot.
"Some rookies are never really rookies. Robinson's one of them," said Magic Johnson after the Spurs had opened their season last Saturday by shutting down Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers 106-98 at HemisFair Arena. Magic should know—in 1979 he was one of them too.
Robinson, a lieutenant junior grade (or j.g., as it's usually written), had 23 points and 17 rebounds, to lead his teammates in both departments against the Lakers. He needed exactly one quarter to establish himself as a force. After 12 minutes he had drawn three fouls on the Lakers while battling for offensive position. Rookies normally don't get that call. What's more, he ended up making 11 of 14 shots from the line.
Robinson had only one blocked shot in the game, but it was a big one. Late in the third quarter, with the Spurs leading 72-70, he stood his ground and swatted away one of Magic's layups. The block triggered a 6-0 Spur run, and the closest L.A. got after that was 101-96, with 26 seconds left.
November 13, 1989
Afterward, Robinson outdid himself in the locker room when he was asked about the block. "My job is to keep opponents from taking the ball to the hoop with impunity," he said. When eyebrows were raised, Robinson laughed and added, "I learned 'impunity' in a comic book."
Robinson has a lot of people to lean on, people who weren't in San Antonio when the Spurs drafted him in June 1987, after he graduated from Annapolis and was about to begin his two years' active duty. In fact, only three players—swingman Willie Anderson, guard Vernon Maxwell and power forward-center Frank Brickowski—remain from last season's 21-61 team.
"What we did goes against every principle I've held dear in the 17 years I've been an owner [of the Spurs and the Denver Nuggets]," said Red McCombs. "I always felt if you added more than a couple players, you were treading on thin ice. But some unusual opportunies came to pass, and we jumped on them."
With both feet. After the Spurs lost their final, depressing game six months ago, all McCombs knew for sure was that this season the Spurs would have Robinson in the pivot. Lord only knew who else might be on the roster. So McCombs's assistant, Bob Bass, and coach Larry Brown went shopping. On May 28 the Spurs sent Alvin Robertson and Greg (Cadillac) Anderson to the Milwaukee Bucks and got Cummings in return. Some observers thought that giving up two good young players was a heavy price to pay for Cummings, a seven-year veteran, but as Bass said, "We're one of the few teams in the league to have enough good young players." Anyway, at 28, the 6'9" Cummings is hardly ancient.
On June 27, Bass made Elliott, a two-time All-America at Arizona, the third pick in the draft. Elliott, who is 6'8", was almost sure the Los Angeles Clippers, who had the second choice, were going to take him and trade him. But as one general manager said, "Nobody can ever figure out what the Clippers are going to do."
On Aug. 28 the Spurs got the 33-year-old Cheeks (plus throw-ins David Wingate and Chris Welp) from Philadelphia for Johnny Dawkins (and throw-in Jay Vincent). With the acquisition of Cheeks, the Spurs let it be known that for them, the future is now.
They haven't had a winning record since 1982-83, and attendance has always been disappointing, even in the 10 seasons (1973-74 through '82-83) when the Spurs went to the playoffs. A four-letter word—M-O-V-E—was starting to be heard around town.
The Spurs have sold only about 7,800 season tickets, 2,200 shy of McCombs's goal of 10,000. McCombs said if the goal isn't met, "then, yes, we have some decisions to make."
Decisions like moving the team out of San Antonio? "I don't want to say that yet," he said. "Obviously the team is worth more away from here, but I want to make it work here. Now! And I think we can."
The key is Robinson, and he's thoughtful and sensitive enough to feel the pressure. "All the attention I've received is, well, embarrassing, because I'm still trying to make my place in the league," said Robinson, who will earn about $26 million over eight years. "It's easy to lose your priorities and your identity. Particularly when you don't even have an identity."
However, don't get the idea that the 24-year-old Robinson would rather be working as a civil engineer at the Trident submarine base in King's Bay, Ga., where he was stationed the last two years. "I feel like I'm growing again, changing, expanding as a person, the way I did in college," he said. "I'm reading a lot, teaching myself to play the piano, even writing some songs."
His mentor in matters musical is Cummings, a fine vocalist and a self-taught pianist. Robinson, in fact, bought a synthesizer similar to Cummings's to take on the road and has almost completed a ballad. "Kind of a Lionel Richie thing, written in D-flat," he said.
The world almost certainly doesn't need another Richie-like ballad, but it's always a bit short on 7'1" guys who read books, know how to use the word impunity and can block Magic's layups. Yes, Lieutenant (j.g.) Robinson has dropped anchor, and it looks as if he'll be staying for a while.