The San Antonio Spurs were on a road trip in Minnesota earlier this season when coach John Lucas, a recovering alcoholic and substance abuser, went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting one afternoon. The session was a few minutes old when a door at the back of the room opened and a tall young man walked in, ducking to keep from bumping his head. It was Spur center David Robinson. He had remembered that Lucas had made a passing reference to the meeting earlier in the day. "David doesn't even drink," says Lucas. "But he has a curious mind, and he's a supportive person, and I knew that's why he was there, to find out what AA was about and to show me his support. That's what makes him such a great leader. The only thing is, you're supposed to maintain your anonymity in the meetings. But when a 7'1" guy in a Spurs sweatshirt walks in, it doesn't take a genius to figure out who he is."
This is an article from the March 7, 1994 issue
If Robinson had needed to introduce himself, he could have put his own twist on the traditional AA greeting and said, "My name is David, and I'm the future NBA Most Valuable Player." He has been playing as though he intends to win the award this season, especially during the Spurs' current hot streak, which has served notice on the Big Three of the Western Conference—the Seattle SuperSonics, the Houston Rockets and the Phoenix Suns—that they now have a fourth. The Spurs, 40-16 at week's end, have won 25 of their last 30 games, including a 13-game winning streak that ended with a double-overtime loss in Utah to the Jazz on Feb. 23, and Robinson has been the league's most dominant player during that stretch. He has piled up a season's worth of accomplishments in two months, including a 50-point game against the Minnesota Timberwolves and a 46-point performance against the Boston Celtics, a quadruple double (34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 blocks), three triple doubles and two NBA Player of the Week awards. Through Sunday he was second in the league in scoring (28.5 points per game) and third in blocked shots (3.43). "The Spurs are playing great, and David's the MVP right now," says Miami Heat forward John Salley. "If he keeps playing the way he's playing, they'll be tough all the way through the playoffs. Dennis will show him the road to victory."
That's Dennis as in Rodman, the power forward with the rotating hair colors, the 6'8" frame that doubles as a canvas for tattoo artists and the two championship rings from his days with the Detroit Pistons. If Robinson is the Spurs' leading man, Rodman is his wacky but faithful sidekick, delivering rebounds and the occasional temper tantrum while Robinson gets the points, assists, blocks and most of the glory. "I've been around Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley and Larry Bird, but I've learned more about winning from Dennis Rodman than from any player I've ever come in contact with," says Robinson.
Rodman, 32, who was acquired from the Pistons in an off-season deal for forward Scan Elliott, arrived just in time to help Robinson reverse a subtle but undeniable decline in his status around the league. His talent and grace had never been questioned, but the feeling was growing that after four seasons in the league he was too much of a finesse player, too reliant on jump shots instead of inside power moves. In short, the thinking was that he was too soft to lead the Spurs to an NBA championship.
It wasn't long ago that Robinson was widely considered the best all-around center in the league, but he gradually began to fall behind other players, such as Hakeem Olajuwon of the Rockets and Shaquille O'Neal of the Orlando Magic, in the estimation of some observers, and his Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood sneaker ads became harder to find on television. "He went from making his own commercials to making cameo appearances in other people's," says Lucas.
But with Rodman handling most of the dirty work under the boards—he leads the NBA in rebounds, with 17.9 per game—the 28-year-old Robinson is playing with new freedom, even a new ferocity. "David Robinson has always been nice," says Detroit's Isiah Thomas, "and their team has always been nice. But do you want a bunch of guys who are nice all the time, or do you want to win championships? If Dennis can keep David angry, they could make it out of the West."
Robinson agrees that Rodman has helped add an edge to his game. "Dennis brings a different kind of fire to the game, a fire you can't help but feel," Robinson says. "I was too much of a gentleman; he was too wild. But he's made the game fun again for me. The best way I can describe it is that I don't feel like I'm going into battle unarmed anymore."
But the always unpredictable Rodman isn't as willing to buy the theory that he and Robinson have rubbed off on each other. "Hell, no! Don't put mc like that, saying I've become like someone else," he says. "I'm Dennis Rodman and won't change unless they take me back to the laboratory and do something." But in the next breath he says, "David's got so much talent it's ridiculous. It's a pleasure to go out and kick butt with him."
If there is a newfound fierceness in Robinson's game, there is none in his demeanor. "I'm still waiting for the first time I see David Robinson angry," says Spur guard Dale Ellis. In fact, Robinson is happier than he had been in years, and, ironically, it's with a team that often seems at odds with his own deeply religious, buttoned-down image. "This can be a wild bunch at times," says Lucas. "We don't have a lot of hard and fast rules, and we keep things pretty loose."
The streak-breaking game against the Jazz was a case in point. Tip-off was 30 minutes away, and to the uninitiated the team might have looked unprepared. Rodman was nowhere to be seen, but then he attends pregame warmups only slightly more often than most people go to the dentist. Lucas was unconcerned about his tardiness, partly because Rodman always manages to appear by game time and partly because the coach was too busy trading trash talk with rookie guard Chris Whitney in a playful game of one-on-one. Before long, Ellis and guard Negele Knight stopped their warmups to grab a microphone and provide Lucas and Whitney with play-by-play commentary, the gist of which was that their coach talks a far better game than he plays.
It isn't exactly a traditional pregame approach, but it works for the Spurs, who are, well, different. In addition to having a coach who works up more of a sweat in warmups than some of his players, the Spurs have an offense that calls for Robinson to shoot jumpers while 6'4" guard Vinny Del Negro posts up near the basket. One of their key players has a resume that reads like alphabet soup—forward Lloyd Daniels has played in the CBA, the USBL and the GBA—and another, swingman Willie Anderson, is playing with steel rods in both legs. "And then there's Dennis," says Del Negro. "Any team he's on is automatically unusual."
But Lucas has created an atmosphere that leaves room for Rodman's peculiarities, and the team and the town have embraced him in all his odd splendor. The Spurs are the only team in the league whose media-relations department breaks down the team's record according to its power forward's hair color. For the record, San Antonio is nearly unbeatable with Rodman as a blond (22-3 through Sunday), very tough when his hair is "purplish" (9-2) but mediocre when he goes for red or blue (a combined 6-7).
When he arrived in San Antonio, Rodman—who spent most of a recent road trip in worn canvas hightop sneakers and a pair of calf-length pants with an American-flag design—told Lucas he hoped there wasn't a dress code because he wasn't a big believer in suits and ties. "Just keep your shoelaces tied," Lucas told him. Rodman's presence at shootarounds and pregame warmups is also permanently optional.
"I have no desire to make him conform, to try to fit him into a little box," says Lucas. "When we traded for him, I told the guys I was going to allow him to skip some practices and do some things other people wouldn't be allowed to get away with, and no one had a problem with it. I still check in from time to time to see if everyone still feels the same way, and they do. They know that even if they don't always know what Dennis is going to do for 21 hours of the day, they know that for those three hours that we're in battle, he's going to be right there, leading the charge."
The relationship between Robinson and Rodman is central to the team, but the Spurs have taken off because other players have hammered out their complementary roles. Ellis, 33, has been rejuvenated this year, partly because he went to Houston during the summer to work out with Lucas. "When I took over last year, I couldn't believe Dale had lost so much confidence in himself," Lucas says. "But he came back this year in the best shape of his career, and he's given us the outside threat that helps open things up for David."
Ellis, the Spurs' second-leading scorer (16.2 points per game), who is in his 11th year in the league, has quietly shed his self-described "bad boy" image. That image was largely a result of three-plus turbulent years with Seattle during which he had three major car accidents and 17 moving violations; in one of the accidents he suffered a punctured lung and three broken ribs and was convicted of drunken and reckless driving. "I think I've matured, and Dennis has helped me just by coming here," Ellis says. "People can only focus on one bad boy at a time." The focus on Ellis is back on his shooting, which is as deadly as ever. Through Sunday he had 983 career three-pointers, the most in NBA history, and he was sixth in the league in three-point percentage this season (.411).
Along with Ellis in the backcourt the Spurs have either two point guards or none, depending on your point of view. Del Negro is the closest thing they have to a traditional playmaker, but he spends a great deal of his time posting up smaller point guards under the basket. On defense Anderson often switches from small forward to match up against the opposing point guard because he's still a fine defender, even with the rods in his shins to help prevent a recurrence of his chronic stress fractures. It's no coincidence that the Spurs began to take off when Del Negro was inserted into the starting lineup in late December, but the backcourt is still considered the Spurs' great weakness, and there is the lingering feeling that a quick point guard like Kevin Johnson of Phoenix or Gary Payton of Seattle could eventually cause San Antonio's downfall.
Lucas acknowledges the Spurs' shortcomings, but he believes he can obscure them by maximizing their strengths, which begin, of course, with Robinson. Lucas has structured the offense around Robinson's preference for facing the basket rather than posting up, and he has become Robinson's personal MVP campaign manager, promoting him, prodding him, cajoling him at every opportunity. He sent Robinson back into that game against Minnesota late in the fourth quarter even though the Spurs had things well in hand, because he wanted Robinson to reach the 50-point mark. "He looked at me like I was crazy when I told him I wanted him to go back in," says Lucas. "But I want him to be a little greedy, because that can make us better. I want to have to hold the team bus because he can't get through all the people who want his autograph—because the bigger he gets, the better we get."
Robinson is getting bigger, and the Spurs are getting better, but they haven't reached the conference finals since he has arrived, and none of their success will be taken seriously until they go deep into the playoffs. "The Spurs have always been a team that got their 50, 55 wins and didn't do much of anything in May and June," says Rodman. "We're fixin' to change that. I can clear us a little path, but David's the one who's got to lead the way."