Inspired by a story from ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz, I've decided to really explore what's made the Spurs who they are, not just the way you or I see them but also the world at large. In part I, there was a glimpse of David Robinson, who was the foundation of everything the Spurs became, having been the cornerstone for the franchise before even Gregg Popovich got here.
When "The Admiral" first entered the NBA in 1989, he was something of an instant rookie sensation. Not only did he possess the kind of breathtaking athleticism and coordination that the league had never seen in someone of his height, but as a cadet he was like something out of a Madison Avenue daydream. Robinson had everything the Don Drapers of the league's marketing arm could want: He was handsome, articulate, a squeaky clean role model in every sense, and he had a fan-friendly game to boot, filled with gravity-defying alley-oop reverse slams and emphatic blocks of even the league's highest of high flyers.
Who remembers the "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood" ad campaign by Nike?
If you weren't quite a Spurs fan back then, you can't quite imagine what a phenomenon Robinson was as a rookie. Remember, he was the first pick of the 1987 draft, but a two-year commitment at the Navy kept him away from the Spurs until the 1989-90 season. As a consequence, they got to cheat a bit and had two top-three picks joining them simultaneously that year, with Sean Elliott, the Wooden Award winner as the College Basketball Player of the Year at Arizona, helping form a brand new front court with Robinson, along with Terry Cummings, a two-time All-Star with the Milwaukee Bucks, who the Spurs dealt guard Alvin Robertson for. They also traded for point guard Rod Strickland (who was superfluous on a Knicks team that already had Mark Jackson) and Willie Anderson, the runner up for Rookie-of-the-Year for the 1988-89 season. A pretty stacked starting lineup for a team that went 21-61 the previous year.
Robinson led the team to a 35-game turnaround and the second-seeded Spurs cruised past the Nuggets in the first round before taking on Clyde Drexler's Trail Blazers in a classic seven-game series in the second round. The home team won each of the first six games, with the Spurs cruising in all of theirs but the Blazers needing two overtimes to eek out Game 5. The Spurs were actually up 97-90 with less than two minutes to go in Game 7, but choked it away. Had they pulled that series out, Robinson and co. would've had a Western Conference Finals match-up against an undersized Suns team that had upset the Lakers. Out of nowhere The Admiral would've had the national exposure of playing in the Finals as a rookie against Isiah Thomas' Pistons.
Good thing, that was the last time the Spurs ever blew an important game in the final seconds that they seemingly had in hand. (Ahem.)
Even though he kept getting better and better individually, Robinson's star began to slowly and surely fade, as the rest of that starting lineup never again approached the collective level they had that first season. Cummings was old and started breaking down. Anderson's career was ruined by knee injuries and problems off the court. Strickland was too petulant, clashed with coach Larry Brown and was shipped out. Elliott never lived up to his considerable potential, as he went on to a couple of fringe All-Star seasons in his career but never approached becoming anything close to a Hall-of-Fame level player and he too was traded away, for Dennis Rodman.
The Spurs were upset in the first round by the "Run TMC" Warriors in 1991, and swept by the Suns the next year, as Robinson missed the playoffs with a broken hand. Robinson got his revenge against the Blazers in 1993, but the Charles Barkley-led Suns got them again in the second round. The supporting cast around Robinson kept changing, coaches kept coming and going, and the NBA's star machine moved right past him, as the narrative changed from Robinson, the multi-faceted "renaissance man" who played the saxophone and the piano and built computers from scratch in his spare time, to a guy who had too many outside interests and was too nice and too soft and "didn't want it" bad enough.
Even with the Lakers dynasty having faded away due to Magic Johnson's premature retirement, the media hype in the Western Conference deviated toward Barkley and guys like Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton at Seattle, people who pointed and strutted after dunks, talked trash relentlessly and were unapologetic about not being role models. By contrast, Robinson was seen as something of a nerd even though, starting with the 1993-1994 season, he approached his two-season apex when he was arguably the league's best player. In fact, if you break the seasons down, those two years Robinson put up were more dominant than any one stretch Tim Duncan had, even though Duncan obviously had the longer peak and by far the more significant career.
When it comes down to it, Robinson's greatest shortcoming was that his prime didn't include Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in the back court, or Popovich holding the clipboard.
Around the same time Robinson started playing his best basketball, he was also going through a personal awakening. Though he was never a club hopper and groupie hound on the level of Magic or Dominique Wilkins, he still enjoyed the perks of being a young, famous and rich NBA superstar early in his career.
For whatever reason, whether it was former drug addict-turned-preacher John Lucas entering his life as his coach or the way the public attention and media narrative of him turned so abruptly, Robinson came to see his celebrity as fickle and empty and had a spiritual awakening. Without much fanfare, the man of science turned to religion and became something of a Bible-thumper, with teammate Avery Johnson also heavily influencing him in that regard.
Tim Tebow is the exception that proves the rule, but generally nothing makes the sports media more uncomfortable than athletes who want to talk about their relationship with God in every interview. Robinson was already seen as square before being Born Again David Robinson, but by the mid-90's he had become, in the eyes of the league's marketers, something even worse, a soft, un-hip, boring do-gooder. Whatever press he got was directly in a cliche good-cop/bad-cop "odd-couple" narrative with Rodman, whose counter-culture, rebel, punk persona was just starting to turn heads and grab headlines.
It was typical for Rodman to get more post-game attention and "SportsCenter" highlights for grabbing 17 rebounds and deliberately refusing to shoot at all than Robinson got for scoring 32 with 14 boards, five assists and five blocks in the same game. It was madness, and I'm ashamed to say I was hooked and seduced by the Rodman era not just during his Spurs run but also during that second Bulls three-peat thereafter. How stupid we were.
The "soft" label never left Robinson, as wrong and unfair as it was. Nobody could accept that he was an incredible talent who was surrounded by mediocre supporting casts and in-over-their-head coaches. The '94 team was solid defensively, but had no secondary scorer with Elliott off to Detroit (Robinson scored more than twice as many points as the team's second-leading scorer, Dale Ellis), no athleticism at the wing, and no real point guard. The Jazz dispatched them in the first round, helped by Rodman's suspension that kept him out of Game 3.
Robinson's only real chance to be the best player on a championship team was 1995, as he led the Spurs to the best overall record during his MVP year. That team had Avery at point and had re-acquired Elliott. The bench was solid and deep with guys like Anderson, Cummings, J.R. Reid, Doc Rivers and Chuck Person. If you look at the series against Houston objectively, Robinson played pretty well. Not at an MVP level, certainly, but pretty well outside of Game 1. But Olajuwon was simply out of his mind, a total monster all series except for Game 4. It sure helped that the Rockets persistently doubled Robinson since they knew Rodman wasn't going to hurt them and the Johnson-Del Negro backcourt wasn't striking fear into anyone's heart. On the other side Rodman refused to double Olajuwon or to guard Robert Horry at the three-point line, preferring to hang close to the rim for his precious rebound opportunities. Rodman's frequent clashes with coach Bob Hill were a constant distraction throughout that postseason.
Few remember that the pivotal game of the series was actually the opener. The mentality of the fifth-seeded underdogs might have been completely different had they ever trailed in the series. They were down 93-91 very late and Elliott, an 80-percent foul shooter that year, was at the line with a chance to ice the game. Instead, he bricked both freebies and then Horry hit the first backbreaking three of his career on the other end to give Houston a shocking 94-93 win. (Horry did pay us back a few years later, of course.)
The '96 team again lost out to Karl Malone and John Stockton, and again Robinson suffered the criticism, even though the third-best player on that squad was freaking Vinny Del Negro. Robinson went off in the post-game presser on ref Steve Javie, whom he claimed had a longtime bias against him and who had whistled Robinson for three quick fouls in the first half of Game 6, which helped bury the Spurs under an insurmountable halftime deficit. He sounded like a guy who was completely fed up by the narrative of his career, fed up by the rapidly declining supporting cast around him, incredulous that he was wasting the prime of his career and completely bitter and distrusting of the national media.
Of particular interest in that Sports Illustrated story was a quote from Popovich, the Spurs' then second-year GM...
"We all know there's a difference between the playoffs and the regular season," says San Antonio general manager Gregg Popovich, "but there's absolutely no reason for a team that won 59 games to lose three games [in the series against Utah] by an average of 26 points. It's humiliating. And it's unacceptable. I'm dumbfounded by that. It requires some tough questions that can't be swept under the rug."
Asked what specifically he had in mind, Popovich replied, "If I know what's good for me, I won't answer that now. I'll meet with the coaches and the players first. But I'll tell you one thing: You can't chalk this up as a growing process. That's total bull."
By now we all know that the next season that followed, 1996-97, would be the worst of Robinson's career, and (of course Pop's as well), as he missed all but six games with first a bad back and then a broken foot. The Spurs finished 20-62 and let's just say they weren't trying their hardest to win toward the end and that perhaps they were being overly conservative with Robinson's rehab and perhaps Elliott's as well.
The nice guys quite literally finished last.
And that's when a humbled, chastened, grumpy and disillusioned Robinson met the fellow whom the team tanked so egregiously for, a big-man from the Virgin Islands who had spent the previous four seasons at Wake Forest and who, like Robinson, was mature beyond his years and had gotten serious about basketball relatively late in life.