As the clock wound down on the final game of his 14-year NBA
career, David Robinson shimmied. Standing at the end of the San
Antonio Spurs' bench, he shook with pleasure, pumped his fists
and gazed upward at a spot well beyond the ceiling of the SBC
Center. For the ramrod-straight Admiral, that counts as a shimmy.
Moments later his San Antonio teammate Tim Duncan gazed blankly
at the scoreboard that showed 36.5 seconds remained in the final
game of his team's 2002-03 championship season. Duncan raised a
fist to shoulder level, turned and walked toward the sideline,
where he was embraced by his exultant teammates. The big
fundamental does not shimmy.
For the six years that Robinson and Duncan shared the frontcourt
and the spotlight--culminating with a decisive 88-77 victory
over the New Jersey Nets in Game 6 of the Finals six months
ago--they brought their team stunning success with surpassing
tranquility. The Spurs won seven of every 10 regular-season
games, never finished below second in the Midwest Division and
claimed a pair of NBA titles. While other franchises plowed
through the Sturm und Drang of dissension and it's-my-team
lip-flapping, nary a word of jealousy between Robinson and
Duncan ever became public if, indeed, any was uttered at all.
San Antonio, in turn, came to be viewed in sports circles as a
tough place to win but a decent place to be, and be from. Its
residents have long considered the city a special place--"every
Texan's favorite town after his hometown," says former Spurs
owner Red McCombs. There's the mission architecture; the charming
(if somewhat touristy) Riverwalk; and, of course, the Alamo,
where almost 200 defenders died battling Santa Anna's troops in
1836. The two towering, tough-minded Spurs enhanced that
landscape by showing that achievement and citizenship are not
mutually exclusive. It is for being twin pillars of both a
championship team and a community that we have chosen Tim Duncan
and David Robinson as SI's 2003 Sportsmen of the Year.
December 15, 2003
They are the seventh twosome to share the honor and only the
second to have shared a locker room. Robinson exited the SBC
Center on a high note, with 13 points, 17 rebounds and two
blocked shots in the clincher against New Jersey. A 7'1" former
gymnast with Navy-issue posture and cartoonishly oversized
biceps, he averaged 21.1 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.0 blocks
over his career and was a marvel of athleticism until knee and
back injuries slowed him down. When young Spurs such as Tony
Parker and Manu Ginobili see film of the young Robinson, they
watch in wide-eyed wonder as this giant in short shorts with
wheels worthy of a point guard soars above the basket to snare
rebounds, block shots and finish fast breaks. "That's David?"
they ask. "No center in the history of the game," says San
Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, "did the athletic things that David
did in his prime."
The most spectacular thing about Duncan is that he's spectacular
without appearing to be. He is big (listed at 7 feet, he is
actually 6'10 1/2"), but others are bigger, stronger and quicker.
A catalog of the adjectives that describe Duncan's game only damn
him with faint praise--economical, efficient, fundamental. He is
the league's reigning MVP and Finals MVP for the simplest of
reasons: He has no weakness. He can score (22.9 points per game
on 51% shooting), he can rebound (12.3), he can pass (3.2
assists) and he can defend (all-defensive first team for the last
five seasons). Moreover, Duncan is at his best when it matters
most: Every year in the playoffs his scoring, rebounding and
assist averages are better than those of the regular seasons. All
Duncan is, right now, is the best player in the world.
We honor them too for the way they fit together in San Antonio,
one superstar and No. 1 draft pick (Duncan in '97) biding his
time until the other superstar and No. 1 draft pick (Robinson in
'87) was ready to cede the starring role. The mind boggles at the
clamorous scenes that would have unfolded in Los Angeles had
Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant had to share the same spot for
the Lakers. Robinson, a post-up center, and Duncan, a post-up
power forward, figuratively and literally had to make room for
each other, a display of selflessness at which both men shrug
their shoulders. "It was a natural process," says Duncan. "When I
came in, David was the Man and I was just trying to learn the
game, develop under his wing. And when it was time for me to do
more, David understood it without a word being spoken."
Well, maybe a word or two. "Sure, I had a few talks with Pop,
because it was a tough thing for me when the offense started
going through Tim," says Robinson. "But it never got to the
argument stage because how could I not accept it? It was the
right thing to do."
Robinson, 38, who retired after last season's championship (and
is currently serving as SI's Ambassador of Sport during the
magazine's 50th-anniversary celebration), is the most public of
figures in San Antonio--"Citizen Number 1," as Bob Rivard, editor
of the San Antonio Express-News, calls him. He has been involved
in countless philanthropic projects in the 16 years that he's
been the face of the Spurs, most notably Carver Academy, a school
serving many disadvantaged children that he established in
September 2001 and into which he's sunk (so far) $9 million.
"It's a bit glib to say that someone could be anything he wants
to be," says Henry Cisneros, who served four terms as the city's
mayor in the 1980s. "But it is absolutely the case with David.
I've met every president since Jimmy Carter, as well as most of
the men who ran for president, and David has the kind of
qualities, the personal magnetism, the charisma, the
intelligence, to be presidential timber."
Duncan, 27, prefers to keep a low profile (accompanying story,
page 66), and anyone who considers him presidential timber would
have to ignore his all-occasions wardrobe of jeans and the
loose-fitting short-sleeved shirts favored in his native St.
Croix. But through his eponymous foundation he raises money for
cancer research and youth sports in the U.S. Virgin Islands, in
Winston-Salem, N.C. (he graduated from Wake Forest), and in San
Antonio. His wife of two years, Amy, is executive vice president
of the organization.
Further, in a sports world gone mad with narcissism, Duncan is a
two-time MVP who eyes a camera as if it were a poisonous snake.
He presents a conundrum to the media members pursing him: Though
he aggravates them because he seldom cooperates, he has their
grudging respect because he refuses to play their game. Duncan's
reticence stems from a near pathological aversion to being
elevated above his fellow Spurs. If a teammate, an assistant
coach or even an assistant trainer happens by during an
interview, he will invariably interrupt to yell a friendly
insult. The message: I'm talking to this guy, but I'd rather be
hanging with you. Which is, of course, the truth.
"If we need anything in the world today, it's a little bit more
of a philosophical bent," says Popovich. "We need people who know
what their job is, do it superbly and don't care about the
adulation. That's Tim."
The Spurs were lottery-lucky twice in getting Robinson and
Duncan; it is their greater fortune that both players chose to
stay in black and silver. Robinson, conventional wisdom said,
would never come in the first place; Duncan, conventional wisdom
said, would not refuse the blandishments of the Orlando Magic
when he became a free agent in the summer of 2000. Yet Robinson
remained in the Alamo City, and it's hard to imagine that Duncan,
who last July signed a seven-year deal worth $122 million, will
San Antonio had finished 35-47 when it won the top pick and the
clarion call went out for "David Robinson of the United States
Naval Academy." The Spurs also took a chance: Not only would they
be without the Admiral for two seasons while he fulfilled his
service commitment at a submarine base in Kings Bay, Ga., but if
he didn't sign a contract in that time, he would become a free
agent as well. The Lakers, then as now one of the league's elite
teams, made it known that if Robinson were to jilt San Antonio,
he could succeed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the pivot. Hmm, let's
see: Enjoy the sweet feeds of Magic Johnson? Or share a
frontcourt with a human corkscrew named Walter Berry?
Moreover, the Spurs were floundering on the court and at the box
office after the glory years of George Gervin. There were
constant rumors that the franchise would fold or be purchased and
moved. "That David would sign here and spurn what he could have
had in other places," says Cisneros, who was mayor at the time,
Robinson--a jock who scored 1320 on his SATs, produced music in a
home studio and majored in math at Annapolis; a larger-than-life
personality who used words like golly and gosh--was a
counterintuitive kind of guy. When he went to San Antonio for
what amounted to a recruiting visit, he was expecting, as he puts
it, "tumbleweeds and horses running down the streets." But he
fell in love with the city's welcoming embrace and small-town
charm (several people brought him homemade tortillas) and soon
announced, "I'm coming." The moment the Admiral climbed aboard,
all the talk about hoops being history in San Antonio ceased.
"The term franchise player is overused," says McCombs. "But I'm
not sure there would be a franchise here without David."
Announcing after his first game as a Spur that he would not allow
opponents to venture into the lane "with impunity," Robinson
became everything the team could have hoped for. He was the
Rookie of the Year who helped San Antonio improve by an
NBA-record 35 wins (a mark the Spurs would break a decade later,
in Duncan's rookie season). He was humble. He wasn't a
teetotaler, and he was anything but celibate--a story in Esquire
proclaimed him a prime target for groupies who targeted NBA
superstars--but whatever nocturnal activities he engaged in
beyond basketball, they never made headlines.
Robinson felt something was missing, though. He had never been
religious--"While I was at Annapolis, I went to chapel exactly
twice," he says--and on several occasions he'd avoided a young
Austin minister named Greg Ball. When Robinson finally spoke to
Ball, he suddenly fell to his knees and began sobbing in his
apartment. "From that day on I thought, Whatever He wants me to
say, I'll say; wherever He wants me to go, I'll go," Robinson
recalls. "It was June 8, 1991. The pivotal moment of my life."
Robinson's outspoken Christianity played well in a city founded
by missionaries, a city that is home to one of the nation's most
successful televangelists, John Hagee, and one of the world's
most successful Christian authors, Max Lucado. It took Robinson a
while, though, to figure out how to be an evangelical Christian
and an NBA All-Star. He would proselytize to his teammates, and
they didn't like it. He didn't know what to do when others talked
or acted in ways he considered unacceptable. During a golf outing
in Monte Carlo, where the first Dream Team was training before
the '92 Olympics, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler invited
Robinson into a foursome. To get Robinson's goat--and because
that's the way he talks anyway--Barkley unleashed a stream of
profanity over five holes that drove Robinson to go off and play
Still, few ever doubted the depth of the Admiral's beliefs. One
of his endearing qualities was--is--his utter absence of guile.
Whether he's talking about God; basketball; Carver; his wife of
10 years; or his three sons, who range in age from seven to 10,
he comes across like a high school freshman winding his way
through an oral report, struggling to find the right words,
earnest and passionate. By degrees Robinson grew more comfortable
with being a Christian in the locker room, a place rarely
confused with a holy sanctuary. "I can stand there all day now
and listen to Charles curse, because I respect him and he
respects me," Robinson says.
Even those who found Robinson's brand of robust Christianity
off-putting couldn't deny that he put his wallet behind his
beliefs, that he was, as it says in Paul's letter to the
Galatians, "zealously affected always in a good thing." With his
wife, Valerie, he established the David Robinson Foundation in
1992, and over the years he has donated time and money to
charitable causes, several of which helped the Spurs gain
recognition as a model in community service among pro sports
Carver Academy is the most ambitious educational project ever
undertaken by an active athlete. "I spent two hours begging David
not to do it," says McCombs, a man who earned billions through
his car dealerships and his communications firm. "I told him,
'David, there's nothing tougher than starting a school and seeing
it through. You can get bogged down too many ways.'" Robinson
listened politely, disagreed emphatically and on Sept. 17, 2001,
opened the school. Almost all of the 90 students are on full or
partial scholarship. Despite his money and the $1 million donated
by the Spurs, Carver needs $41 million more to become fully
endowed and meet its expansion goals. "I worry that it's too
heavy a load for a person to carry, no matter what his
celebrity," says Cisneros. "But if anyone can do it, it's David."
Quotes from George Washington Carver, the scientist and educator
for whom the school is named, hang throughout the hallways. WHERE
THERE IS NO VISION, THE PEOPLE PERISH, reads one. "God has given
me my short-term marching orders," says Robinson. "It's to become
as good a husband and father as I can and to make this school
work. I have the faith to carry it out. It's going to work."
No matter how the stories about Robinson gradually took on the
character of hagiography, there was usually a "but" attached to
his playing career. He's gifted athletically but he's too nice to
realize his potential. He can inspire people off the court but he
doesn't have the fire in his belly to take his team all the way.
Whether those doubts were valid or not, the Spurs never came
close to winning a title in the eight seasons (1989-90 to '96-97)
that Robinson was their lone star.
Enter Duncan. According to the lottery odds, he should have gone
to the Boston Celtics, who went 15-67 in 1996-97, a slightly more
pathetic record than San Antonio's 20-62. But the Ping-Pong balls
bounced the Spurs' way. After a two-hour, pretraining-camp
workout with the rookie at Robinson's home in Aspen, Colo., the
Admiral had a revelation: "Tim was already a better offensive
player than I ever was."
In Duncan and Robinson's second year together--the
lockout-shortened '98-99 season--San Antonio won its first
championship. Robinson became a complementary player, never mind
the scoring title he won in 1993-94, the 71 points he scored in a
game during that season, the MVP award he earned the following
year, inclusion on the list of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players and
the two Olympic gold medals. Duncan, unflappable and
unspectacular, became the Man (Part II), the Finals MVP, the
go-to guy who gave Robinson a chance to win the ring that most
likely would never have come his way.
Even when the Spurs failed to repeat (largely because Duncan
missed all of the postseason with a knee injury), the union of
Robinson and Duncan remained harmonious. On the court they were a
by-the-book bunch, a reflection not only of Robinson and Duncan
but also of Popovich, a former Air Force officer. Off the court
San Antonio was an extension of the fellowship between the two
Super Spurs. "The Milk and Cookies Gang," former guard Steve Kerr
called his team.
Robinson and Duncan went out to dinner on the road from time to
time but never talked about Robinson's favorite subject. "I have
my own faith and my own way of expressing it," says Duncan.
"Early on David realized that and respected it." They enjoyed a
video-game rivalry, Duncan the aficionado, Robinson the tech geek
slumming with the joystick. When Duncan was tempted to flee San
Antonio to join a then healthy Grant Hill in Orlando, Robinson
flew from his home in Hawaii to San Antonio and helped persuade
him to stay.
And so it was on the evening of June 15, 2003, that Robinson and
Duncan sat down behind a podium at the SBC Center, 30 minutes
removed from their Game 6 victory in the Finals. Robinson wore a
tasteful blue suit and a smile as wide as Texas; Duncan wore his
usual island-style shirt and jeans, along with the familiar
quizzical expression that seems to say, What the hell am I doing
here? Informed that he had just missed a quadruple double (21
points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocks), Duncan
replied, "That's cool." He answered a few questions, rose,
slapped Robinson on the back and departed, leaving the linchpin
of the franchise alone to express, for the last time, his
exquisite postgame joy.
In retirement, Robinson has attended several games--he has four
season tickets in the second row across from the Spurs'
bench--but admits that he doesn't feel comfortable as a civilian.
"It's a new team with some new guys, and, gee, I don't want to
take any attention away from them," says Robinson. "It's not the
Spurs making me feel like I don't fit in, because I have the run
of the place. It's up to me to figure out how much I want to be
And how much more does number 21 have to be involved? With
Robinson gone, there are those who wonder whether Duncan, now the
face of the franchise, will have to do more. Cisneros says yes.
"If I were advising Tim, I would say that he needs to have a
little more defined profile," says Cisneros. Robinson says no.
"Tim does things in his own way and understands his civic
responsibility," says Robinson. "He's not like me and doesn't
want to be like me."
Still, Robinson's departure leaves a hole in the soul of the
Spurs. "For years David sucked up a lot of oxygen around here,"
says general manager R.C. Buford. "Win or lose, David took the
heat." A trade? Ask David about it. Crucial technical foul called
on Pop? Ask David about it. How's a rookie coming along? Ask
David about it. His replies would sometimes tumble out
disjointedly, but he would always answer, standing there as tall
and erect as a monument, the obedient midshipman displaying the
patience of Job, one of his favorite Biblical heroes.
Duncan doesn't do Job; he just wants to get home. If there's one
man in America who seems comfortable in his own skin, he's it.
Says Amy, who has known him since their days at Wake Forest,
"It's very difficult--even for me sometimes--to tell the
difference between Tim's best day and Tim's worst day."
Yet Duncan does become a little defensive when asked about the
paragon of virtue that preceded him. Last week he was suspended
for the first time--one game, for inadvertent contact with a ref
during the course of action--thereby surpassing Robinson's career
total. "I feel no pressure to be like David, because I can't be,"
he says. "He was an incredible role model, especially off the
court, and I can only aspire to be a fraction of what he's meant
to the community. But I have to do it my way, affect people in
the only way that I know how. And that is not by giving speeches
and preaching to the masses. That's not me."
But this phlegmatic man is most assuredly the heart of the Spurs,
the acknowledged leader, the man who makes magic every night but
never wants to take a bow. Popovich is asked if he misses
Robinson. "As a defensive force we miss him terribly," he says,
"and as a human being I miss him much, much more." He smiles and
points to the practice court where Duncan is quietly imparting a
word of advice to Rasho Nesterovic, Robinson's successor in the
pivot. "To lose somebody like David and still have another around
like Tim--it just doesn't happen that way," Pop says. "There's
only one way to describe it: Around San Antonio we've been twice
Nary a word of jealousy between them ever became public if,
indeed, any was uttered at all.
When young Spurs see film of the young Robinson, they watch the
soaring giant in wide-eyed wonder.
"David," Cisneros says, "has the personal magnetism, the
intelligence, to be presidential timber."
"We need people who do their jobs superbly and don't care about
adulation," Popovich says. "That's Tim."
"I feel no pressure to be like David, because I can't be," Duncan
says. "He was an incredible role model."