The Phoenix Suns were on their team bus a few weeks ago when David Robinson's name came up.
A few of the young Suns said they thought Robinson was pretty good.
Forward Tom Gugliotta smiled and shook his head.
“I was like, ‘When that guy was in his prime he was more than good,’ ” Gugliotta said. “He was phenomenal.
“When I first came into the league there was Michael Jordan, but David Robinson was up there just behind him. His size, his speed, his quickness, he had the ability to do just about everything on the court.”
Yet, as Robinson plays his final regular-season game at America West Arena today, it is not the 1995 Most Valuable Player Award that defines him nor the NBA championship he helped the San Antonio Spurs win in 1999.
Nor is it the 10 All-Star games, the three Olympic teams, the Rookie of the Year Award, the Defensive Player of the Year Award, the fact he and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the only players in NBA history to win a scoring title, a rebounding title and a blocked shots title.
David Robinson will be remembered for being a better man than he was a player.
“The closest thing,” said Orlando Magic coach Doc Rivers, “the NBA has to Arthur Ashe.''
Robinson's victory lap around the NBA has been all but ignored for two reasons: Michael Jordan, and that's the way Robinson wants it.
“He doesn't want people making a big deal about him leaving,” said ESPN analyst and former Spurs teammate Sean Elliott. “He wants it to be dignified.”
“David is a low-key guy,” added Dallas Mavericks reserve guard Avery Johnson, who played alongside Robinson in San Antonio for nine seasons. “He doesn't want the spotlight. He never really did.”
Yet, if there's anyone who deserves the spotlight, it's Robinson. He epitomizes what professional athletes should be about.
While many athletes pretend to lead a dignified public life but in private are desperate souls, Robinson is an officer by virtue of his matriculation from the U.S. Naval Academy and a gentleman by nature.
“The thing I admire most is that he walks the walk,” Elliott said. “He backs it up. He's not a hypocrite. He stands for everything he says.
“Look at today's players, they're almost anti-David Robinson. There's a lot of self-promoting narcissists out there. It's all about them. It was never about David.”
It's hard to know where to start in describing Robinson's accomplishments on the court and virtues off it. Perhaps, though, a couple of small gestures say as much about the man as anything.
Suns vice president Mark West banged bodies with Robinson for a decade. Both men are deep-rooted in their Christian faith.
“I'd try to avoid profanity and I'd curse like a sailor,” West said. “He's a sailor and he didn't curse. Ever.”
Johnson had to think for a moment when asked to recall an anecdote that typifies Robinson. Then he smiled.
“When David gets bad service at a restaurant,” Johnson said, “he still leaves good tips.”
A MAN OF CONVICTIONS
Robinson, 37, recently chastised anti-war protestors, saying, in essence, they should love America or leave it.
Some were shocked by his vitriol. They had forgotten that Robinson played college basketball at the Naval Academy then fulfilled a two-year commitment as a civil engineer in the Navy before joining the NBA in 1989.
Once a military man, always a military man.
"I think they obviously have no recollection of history and how this country was formed," Robinson said. "You've got 35 other countries that are supporting us. Obviously, somebody thinks this is the right thing to do. I mean, it's not like we're out there by ourselves.
"If it's an embarrassment to them, maybe they should be in a different country. This is America, and we're supposed to be proud of the guys we elected and put into office. "It isn't like Saddam Hussein's in office and we've got to put up with what they're doing. All of us have a part in what's going on. If they're not proud of it, then they probably ought to think about being in another place."
Johnson said one of the reasons he respects Robinson is because his convictions run deep.
“Even though people may not tend to live that same lifestyle or believe what he believes, at least he's consistent about it,” Johnson said.
It's nearly impossible to quantify what Robinson has meant to San Antonio. Start with the Carver Academy, an elementary school for economically disadvantaged families he and his wife, Valerie, founded and opened in 2001. Robinson has donated more than $9 million to the school.
The Robinsons also created the David Robinson Foundation in 1992 to help families with their physical and spiritual needs.
In 1998, Robinson was inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.
“He set such a high standard for the team and the community that it’s going to be awfully hard for people to accept knuckleheads coming in here,” Elliott said.
Johnson and others believe Robinson saved basketball in San Antonio. The Spurs became an afterthought when George Gervin retired in 1985. The average attendance for the 1986-87 season was 8,009, and there was talk of the Spurs leaving San Antonio.
That all changed when the Spurs got lucky in the ’87 lottery and chose Robinson with the first pick in the draft.
He wouldn't play for two seasons because of his Naval commitment, but his impending arrival excited fans again.
“He put the Spurs back on the map,” Johnson said. The team's re-emergence helped San Antonio land the NBA All-Star game in 1996 and the NCAA Final Four in 1998.
“I don’t think anyone will ever mean more to San Antonio than David Robinson,” Rivers said. “At the end of the day Tim (Duncan) might be a better player, but no one is going to embrace the city the way David did. . . . He did more for a city than any single basketball player.”
Johnson's charity work did not spare him from criticism. By the late 1990s, he was labeled a soft player who never would lead the Spurs to a championship.
Robinson did need Duncan to help him get a ring, but then, Jordan needed Scottie Pippen.
“Yeah, he wasn't a physical player,” said Suns coach Frank Johnson. “His game was based on quickness and defense. To have someone who was that tall who could run like that was unbelievable.”
Robinson's critics said the championship validated his career. Those who played with him and against him knew better.
“For a time, David was the dominant center in the league,” Elliott said. “But I guess everybody has to have a chink in their armor until they do something. They talked about Michael like a dog until he won a championship.”
On March 27, Robinson's past caught up to him. The Spurs played the Houston Rockets that night, but the highlight of the evening was the halftime and postgame ceremonies honoring Robinson.
NBA commissioner David Stern announced that future winners of the league's Community Assist Award would win the David Robinson Plaque. Spurs team chairman Peter Holt pledged an $8,000 scholarship to the Carver Academy for the next 25 years, and teammates, coaches, trainers and team officials donated another $100,000.
Robinson was in tears during the ceremonies. “I'll never forget it,” he said.
Robinson is certain, though, that he soon will be forgotten.
“When I leave, it’s just going to be like a glass of water,” he said. “You can take a little bit of water out, but there’s always more to fill back in.”
Others know better.
“We’re certainly going to miss him on the court, that’s the first thing,” Holt said. “Secondly, he sets the tone for the team, the character of the team. Thirdly, he’s our voice.
“He’s the guy that stands up there whether it’s a good game or a bad game. And then he’s really been our main representative in the community. We’re going to lose all of that. . . . and it won’t hit us until we don’t have him next year.
“How many David Robinsons are out there? There just aren’t any.”