David Robinson picks up the alto saxophone and holds it upright before him, examining the instrument as if he were trying to figure out a way to improve its posture. Robinson, the San Antonio Spurs' 7'1" pivot-man, has been teaching himself to play the sax since the NBA's regular season began nearly six months ago, and now he begins to blow a recognizable rendition of the old Hall and Oates ballad Sara Smile. It is not a performance that should cause Robinson to rush to give up basketball, yet there is something sweet and uninhibited that resonates in his playing. Standing there with his eyes pressed shut and the saxophone close against his body, Robinson looks like a child clutching a small toy.
"I'm better on the piano, but with the sax I feel so much more creative, so much freer," he says, relaxing his chops. "So if I hear something, I can generally play it just by its sound. No notes."
Robinson walks over to the baby grand piano in the middle of the small apartment in which he has lived since last season, when he was the NBA's Rookie of the Year, and begins to play the Linus and Lucy song from the Charlie Brown TV specials. When David was a boy, his father, Ambrose, taught him how to read music and then play the notes by rote on the piano. "I started with the notes," says Robinson. "I got so focused on them that now when people say to me, "Play this,' I have no idea. If I don't have the music, I don't know where to go."
Robinson learned to play basketball the same way he is learning now to play the saxophone. No notes. He just started playing, and before he knew what he was doing, he found that he was a star. "At first, I didn't have a whole lot of feeling toward basketball—I was just a tall kid," Robinson says. "I didn't feel natural doing it, and I didn't have a particular gift for it. I thought it was just a recreational thing. I never thought this was something I was going to be successful at. It just worked out that way."
April 21, 1991
With the playoffs a week away, Robinson is completing a season that has been for him the equivalent of a symphony, a season for which he must now be given serious consideration for the league's Most Valuable Player award. It is a measure of both his genius and the limitations of his game that he has composed such a masterpiece by relying, for the most part, only on his speed and his skills as a rebounder and shot blocker. "It's funny," he says. "If you're going to be a great musician, you have to have all the basics down and go from there. But with basketball, I don't really think I have all the basics down yet. There are so many things I feel like I need to learn. My effort and athletic ability help me overcome some of the things I don't do as well right now, but soon I'm going to know how to do those things. And I'm going to be a lot better."
Robinson is still a baby grand. At week's end he was averaging 25.8 points a game—eighth best in the NBA—with an offensive repertoire that includes few moves and a no-confidence 15-foot jumper. Unlike most teams with a dominant center, the Spurs do not pound the ball into the post; they run the sort of passing-game offense that was originally devised to be used by teams that have no true center. Robinson gets most of his points as the trailer on fast breaks or by dunking retrievals of his teammates' missed shots.
"He doesn't specifically have a shot, but he's learning some moves he's comfortable with," says San Antonio coach Larry Brown. So far, Robinson's best move is being able to run up and down the floor in a straight line. "I do so much better in transition and when I'm driving the ball to the basket," he says. "When I go into a game, I think, Run, David, move your feet. I really don't have anything past that, to be honest."
Through last week he led the league with 13.1 rebounds a game, and his average of 3.74 blocked shots put him second, only to the Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon. And his lack of a defined offensive game may not be quite the detriment it seems. A pretty fair basketball player named Bill Russell also had shooting deficiencies, but he averaged 22.5 rebounds—the league didn' keep records of blocked shots then—for his 13-year career while scoring a far-from-disgraceful 15.1 points for Boston. The Celtics won 11 championships with Russell at center from 1956 to '69.
Indeed, for all of Robinson's offensive limitations, Phoenix Sun coach Cotton Fitzsimmons says, "He is the greatest impact player the league has seen since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar." Fitzsimmons even believes Robinson has already surpassed Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as the game's most imposing player. "They're all MVPs," Fitzsimmons says. "This guy is more."
Twice this season Robinson has blocked 11 shots in a game. "His presence is such a factor," says Orlando Magic coach Matt Guokas. "He does such a good job clogging the middle. He distorts your whole game." He certainly distorted the already badly bent Denver Nuggets in their most recent meeting with the Spurs: Robinson had four blocks and 31 points—24 of them on dunks.
"Robinson turned things around almost single-handedly," said Denver coach Paul Westhead following the 14-point rout. "He was certainly in the middle of a dunkathon. On a couple of plays, he blocked a shot, outletted, filled the lane and then finished off with a dunk. Most guys just block and outlet, but he's double jeopardy."
"He's different from any center," says Brown. "He has unbelievable speed. I remember when Kareem would dribble to half court and everybody in the Forum would stand up. I've seen this kid dribble the length of the floor as if he were a guard. We take it for granted, because sometimes when you're watching him he looks like he's six feet tall."
Robinson never stood taller than he did during the war in the Persian Gulf, when, by dint of his degree from Annapolis and his two years of active service in the Navy, he became the sports world's unofficial—and uneager—spokesman on all matters relating to the military. "It was kind of weird," he says. "I didn't feel like I was real qualified to be talking about it. I felt more like the average citizen who was concerned about a war."
No NBA city has a greater concentration of military than San Antonio. Fort Sam Houston, headquarters of the Fifth Army, and the Brooke Army Medical Center are there; Randolph, Lackland, and Kelly Air Force bases are nearby. Robinson, whose active-duty service commitment of five years was reduced, upon his graduation from Annapolis, to two years because of his height, was designated by the Navy two years ago as an Individual Mobilizations Augmentee, which basically means he would be called up only if a slam-dunk competition were to break out. Everywhere he went, reporters wanted to know how he felt about the war (he felt badly), whether he would be willing to serve his country if called (of course) and if he was concerned about his friends.
It was that last question that affected him most. "It was pretty intense for me," he says. "I turned on the news, and the announcer said the guys on the first planes had left that morning for a bombing run over Baghdad, and my stomach just dropped because I imagined those guys must be scared to death. That made playing basketball seem insignificant."
Getting Robinson to think of basketball as significant has sometimes been difficult, even in peacetime. He used to tell friends he didn't like the game, and he concedes now that "basketball had to really grow to get to the top of my list of priorities, because it wasn't before." Even in this season of his ascendancy there have been questions raised in San Antonio about whether he is exerting enough leadership, but Robinson remains typically unconcerned. "You look at a guy like Magic, who's been all basketball for such a long time, and now he's starting to do other things," he says. "People pat him on the back for that and say, 'That's so great, you're starting to expand your horizons.' One of the main criticisms of me coming out of college was that I had too many interests. Coach Brown wasn't sure I'd be able to focus and become one of the best players. It's funny, most of the time they want people to take a little bit more interest in the rest of their life."
Brown still seems uncertain of Robinson's resolve and knows the Spurs can go only as far in the playoffs as he is determined to carry them. "He can be in the Hall of Fame," Brown says. "When I see Patrick Ewing or Hakeem Olajuwon play, David isn't there yet. He's got to decide how badly he wants it, how good he wants to be. He's trying, but I don't know if it will ever happen."
"I don't care who people compare me to, I really don't care about that at all," Robinson says. "People know you need a surrounding cast. They always gave Hakeem Olajuwon all the benefit of the doubt, you know, when I always thought the Rockets had a pretty good squad around him, even though they've just started playing great."
The Spurs have rarely played up to their capabilities this season, and, despite a one-game lead in the Midwest Division, they continued to suffer troubling setbacks last week, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers 105-100 at home and to the SuperSonics 100-99 at Seattle before winning at Phoenix 109-101 on Sunday. The defeat at the hands of Portland was particularly vexing, because it was the Blazers who eliminated San Antonio from the playoffs last year in a seventh game decided in overtime.
"I figured we'd be more stable this year," Robinson says. "The thing we're lacking is cohesiveness and confidence. We should be a lot better team this year, but I don't think we are."
The Spurs have been troubled by injuries to point guard Rod Strickland and forward Terry Cummings, who are both playing again, and the team has been unsettled by bickering between Brown and Cummings, whose intensity and shot selection Brown has openly questioned after nine seasons. "When you get an older player who's been doing the same things for a long time and he's had some success with some teams, it may be a different story trying to change him," Robinson says. "Last year he fit in great. What's the difference between last year and this year?"
That question may continue to hang over San Antonio in the coming weeks, as will another one: Can a team whose go-to player has no go-to shot prosper in the half-court bump-and-grind of the NBA playoffs? Here the comparison with the ever-confident Russell breaks down, because not even Robinson is sure he has the tools to lead his team to a title. And as he notes, a supporting cast is important. "When we lost Rod and Terry, the team was looking to me to score at the end of the game," Robinson says. "That was a time when I did need a go-to move and I didn't have it, so it made it kind of tough. I definitely think it would be a big, big advantage if I had one."
If Robinson considers himself to be at a disadvantage in anyway, he does not show it. On the court his expression is imperious, one eyebrow perpetually arched so that his supercilium is now as bulked up as his biceps. Away from the game Robinson creates a protective cocoon for himself by rarely making eye contact; he looks down at others out of the corner of his eye and from a very great height. One member of the Spur front office grew increasingly certain that Robinson, to whom he had been introduced, had forgotten who he was when each subsequent encounter produced nothing but a blank stare. "We've all gotten used to that look," says another member of the Spur staff. Finally, one day Robinson walked up to the front-office guy and began talking, and he didn't stop for 30 minutes.
Robinson chooses his audiences carefully now, determining the time and place of each new performance, measuring who is worthy and who is not. "It's an opportunity for me to express what's inside of me," Robinson says, referring to his game and to his music and to his life. "All the moves have been made thousands of times before, and everything you play has already been played. But you're doing it with your own flair, and that makes it all yours. You see, it's not really for anybody else. It's for me, just for me."