Rear Admiral By accepting (albeit reluctantly) a reduced role in the Spurs' offense, David Robinson has helped lift San Antonio back into the title hunt

April 11, 1999

It is not always easy to tell how badly David Robinson is hurt.
Even his coaches and teammates on the San Antonio Spurs
sometimes have to guess at how he really feels, unsure if he is
giving them an honest assessment of his injuries. Maybe it is
the military man in him that makes him equate throbbing knees
and degenerative disks to alibis and excuses, or maybe he
doesn't want to give more ammunition to those who have
questioned his toughness. Whatever the reason, the rule of thumb
with Robinson seems to be that if he says he's fine, he may very
well be in pain; if he admits to feeling pain, he's in agony.

Perhaps that rule should extend to other kinds of suffering as
well. Robinson, 33, also tends to downplay injuries to his
pride, which, thanks to the change in the Spurs' offensive
system, should probably be in a splint about now. This season
the hub of San Antonio's attack is 7-foot Tim Duncan, who is
essentially a younger (22), healthier and increasingly more
effective version of Robinson. As a result, Robinson's numbers
are unworthy of an eight-time All-Star center who has an MVP
award ('95) and has led the league in scoring ('94), blocked
shots ('92) and rebounding ('91). After entering the season with
a career average of 25.1 points, he was scoring only 14.8 per
game at week's end, and his field goal attempts had dropped from
14.6 a game last season to a skimpy 9.6.

Anyone who is at all familiar with Robinson's distinguished
career, from the Naval Academy through his 10 years in San
Antonio, knows he has too much dignity to pout over his
statistics; even if he were prone to complaining, it would be
unseemly to do so now. The Spurs are the hottest team in the
league, having rallied from a 6-8 start to win 16 of 18 games
through Sunday, a streak that returned them to their rightful
place among the elite teams in the Western Conference. Duncan,
the 1997-98 Rookie of the Year, is again pouring in points (21.8
per game) and pulling down rebounds (11.7) with preternatural
ease, and small forward Sean Elliott is back after two
injury-plagued seasons, bringing his lethal first step with him.
Add the leadership of swingman Mario Elie and the marksmanship
of guard Steve Kerr, off-season acquisitions with five
championship rings between them, and San Antonio finally seems
to have the requisite pieces to win its first title.

But even while Robinson is still an essential part of that
whole, it is hard to look at his more peripheral role and not
feel as though the Admiral has been demoted. Though he has set
up near the free throw line for most of his career, Robinson
seems lonelier and more forlorn as he stands there now, no
longer sure that, on almost every trip down the floor, a pass
will come his way. As hard as he tries to be stoic about it, he
has to admit that it hurts him. And you know about Robinson and
pain.

"It grinds on everything in me that's competitive--my ego, my
pride, everything," he says. "I've always been the focus here.
To feel as though I'm not anymore is difficult, very difficult.
I look at my numbers, and they look so strange. I used to laugh
at the guys who averaged only 12 points and 10 rebounds. Anybody
could average 12 and 10. But now I find myself in that position."

San Antonio coach and general manager Gregg Popovich has been
known to put chalk to blackboard during interviews to back up
his contention that Robinson is not being slighted. Because his
team has so many offensive options, Popovich says, he has asked
Robinson to concentrate more on shot blocking and rebounding
than on scoring. It was a process that began last year, once it
became apparent that Duncan was a special talent, and Robinson
warmed to the change. The Admiral finished as the top shot
blocker and rebounder in the postseason, the first player to
accomplish that double since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1978. "We've
asked David to provide the defense and the board work night
after night because he's the best we have in those areas,"
Popovich says. "David embraced the role fully. He relishes it."

According to Popovich, whispers that he has damaged his
relationship with Robinson by favoring Duncan are fiction.
Robinson concurs, though he doesn't sound quite as convincing,
avoiding eye contact when discussing his coach's choice. When
the Admiral's name came up in rumors before the trading deadline
last month, he told his wife, "When that happens, at least you
know some other team thinks you can play, even if they don't
think so at home." On the surface, though, the diminished role
of one of the NBA's 50 greatest players has caused surprisingly
little tension on the Spurs. "We've always been supportive of
each other," Duncan says. "Things have been rolling pretty well
for me lately, but David can still come out and do anything he
wants on the floor."

One reason Robinson has been willing to adjust is that the old
approach, in which he was the center of the offense, didn't
work, at least not well enough to satisfy his detractors. The
charge that he is too soft or that he lacks the passion to lead
the Spurs to a title (he has never gotten further than the
Western Conference finals) has clearly wounded him. "Winning the
title seems to be the only thing anybody cares about, so if this
is the way we can do it, great," he says. "I'm tired of being
the one with everything sitting up on my shoulders and then
having the disappointment and the blame fall on me when we're
not able to win it. Supposedly we've got some players now, so
let 'em play."

Ask Robinson if he is still capable of scoring 25 a game, and he
will answer, his gaze unwavering, "Definitely. No question."
Though Popovich has benched him in the fourth quarter of tight
games, he does not feel that Robinson is in decline, and there
are those who agree with him. "I've criticized David many times
about passion and things like that, but it's unfair to say he's
lost a lot," says former Spurs guard Doc Rivers, a TV analyst
for many of the team's games. "He's doing what he can do within
the structure of the offense."

Still, the years of pounding against beefier centers might have
taken their toll. Robinson has become almost as much of a San
Antonio landmark as the Alamo, and there have been games when he
has looked just about as mobile. "Even though Dave's got a lot
of pride, he's got to understand that Tim is a terrific talent
and he can do a lot of things," Elie says. "Tim moves a lot
better. I remember the old Dave could go by a guy, any guy. Now
Dave has that some nights, some nights he doesn't. Tim has it on
a consistent basis."

The time may have come for Robinson to make concessions to his
age, but that doesn't mean he's ready to. "One thing I always
used to tell David," says former Spurs coach John Lucas, now a
Denver Nuggets assistant, "is that you never really grow up
until you get your heart broken. This season might be his broken
heart."

If so, you get the feeling Robinson will recover. One thing he
knows how to do is play with pain.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Naval blockade Admirably, Robinson has carried out his orders to be a defensive destroyer, averaging 2.58 blocks.

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