The Admiral settles accounts with his critics, sizes up his teammates and savors his long-awaited championship
Posted: Tuesday July 13, 1999 11:15 PM
By David Robinson with Phil Taylor
I'm sure a lot of my teammates had a pretty wild party after we won the NBA championship last Friday night, but I'm the wrong guy to ask about it. I celebrated by going back to my room at the Four Seasons in Manhattan and climbing into bed next to my six-year-old son, David Jr. I had promised him that if we won Game 5 against the Knicks, he could sleep next to me. He was at Madison Square Garden, and when we fell behind in the second half, he was crying because he thought he wasn't going to get to do it. After we won, he was one happy little boy, but he's still not quite old enough to really understand what we'd done. The next morning I reminded him that we were the world champs. He said, "You mean, like the Bulls?" I said, "No, son, it's not the Bulls anymore. It's the San Antonio Spurs."
It's going to take a while for me to really comprehend that myself. After we stopped the Knicks on their last possession and the buzzer sounded, all those people poured onto the floor. Everybody was running around and hugging everybody else, but I was just dazed. My mind was saying, Is it over? One minute you're still climbing that mountain, and the next minute everything you've been working for is right there in your possession. The suddenness of it can throw you for a loop. That scene was a tremendous thrill, but I've been at this for so long -- 10 years in the NBA -- that all my emotion just wasn't going to come out in one moment. I still have to get used to the idea that there's nobody left to beat. It's going to take me a month to exhale.
Those 10 years haven't always been fun, but I've always said that I've enjoyed the journey, even the hard times, even the criticism. People try to make you feel bad about your losses, but if you grow from your failures, they become the seeds of your success. I've had to listen to a lot of people say different things about me -- that I was soft, that I would never win a championship because I didn't want it badly enough -- and I'd be lying if I said that it didn't hurt at times. But that definitely makes winning my first title even more satisfying. I'm not big on rubbing people's noses in it, but it is kind of nice, you know?
Before this year, a lot of guys used to get in my face about losing in the playoffs. Charles Barkley would talk his trash and end it by saying, "I've been to the Finals." Well, now I can tell Charles that I've been there, too, and because he lost to Chicago in '93, when he was with Phoenix, I can say that my experience was a little better than his. I'm not taking anything away from Charles or Karl Malone and all the other great players who have never won a title, but it's a fantastic feeling to know that nobody can say I'm not a winner anymore.
It's also a great feeling to have Tim Duncan by my side. He's obviously the best player in the league. Tim was phenomenal against New York, and his Finals MVP award was well deserved. The Knicks had no answer for him, and I'm not sure Patrick Ewing , if he had been healthy, would have slowed him down much. Tim's like me in that he doesn't show his emotions too much, but trust me, he was hyped-up for Game 5. You could see it in his eyes, in the way he moved. Don't ever make the mistake of thinking that he's not intense.
People have compared the way Tim helped me win my first title to the way Terrell Davis helped John Elway win the Super Bowl. But by taking a lot of the pressure off him, I'd like to think I've helped Tim maybe as much as he's helped me. If we lose, the media and fans don't point fingers at him; they point at me because I'm the veteran. That's a nice deal for him. I wish I'd had that when I was younger. Having another high-caliber player on your team makes all the difference. You don't feel so stressed out, like I did early in my career. If Tim goes out and gets 15 points and eight rebounds, that's not the end of the world because I'm capable of picking up the slack. During the eight years before Tim arrived, if I put up those numbers, it was the end of the world -- we were going to lose, no two ways about it. I love Tim like a brother. He's a precious friend and an awesome talent, but I think my presence frees him up to do his thing.
Tim and I knew that with Patrick on the bench because of his Achilles tendon injury, the Knicks were so small up front that we should control things around the basket at both ends of the floor, and that's pretty much what we did. The last play sort of summed up the series. With 2.1 seconds to go and the Knicks down 78-77, they inbounded the ball to Latrell Sprewell under the basket. Against most teams he would have had a layup or drawn a foul, but with Tim and me in the area he just couldn't get off a decent shot. Throughout the series our size took away too many opportunities from the Knicks for them to win.
But New York still played us tougher than any other team in the playoffs. Even though the Knicks were banged up, those guys fought hard. People say they had no chance without Patrick, but, to be honest, I don't see how they could have played any better with him. Without him they had a transition game that made Spree and Allan Houston much more dangerous. Patrick could have helped if he'd been there just rebounding and playing defense and not looking for his shot -- like a more talented version of Chris Dudley -- but if he'd been out there calling for the ball, it would have given the Knicks a whole different look. I don't think they would have been as effective.
I can really sympathize with what Patrick was going through: having to sit and watch instead of playing to win his first championship. I know he told the Knicks to get him his ring, but if your team wins without you, how are you supposed to feel? Are you supposed to be happy that they were a better team without you? I know getting the ring is the be-all, end-all thing, but I don't think it would have been a satisfying feeling for me.
The Knicks had plenty of talent even without him. In Game 5 Sprewell looked like he was in another world, he was so hot. But Houston was the guy who really impressed us throughout the series. He was already one of the better two-guards in the league, and we really never found an answer for him. Overall, though, we knew we were the better team and that we could wear down the Knicks, and Game 4 was the one that really showed we have a champion's heart. The Knicks had beaten us in Game 3 after we won twice in San Antonio, and the Garden crowd was really into it; they thought they smelled blood. But before Game 4 our point guard, Avery Johnson , gave us a little speech. He said that the Knicks had won their one game, that they'd had their 15 minutes of fame and that it was time for us to go out and establish control. The key to our 96-89 win was that we had balanced scoring. In addition to Tim's 28 points and my 14, Mario Elie had 18 and Avery and Sean Elliott each had 14. When we get production from our perimeter guys like that, I don't think anybody can beat us.
The series meant an awful lot to Mario, because he's a native New Yorker. The Knicks fans subjected him to some pretty rough treatment with their chanting, but he loved it. We probably wouldn't have won the title without the energy and passion he brought to our team after joining us as a free agent this season, though he ruffled a few feathers along the way, including mine. I didn't like a lot of the things he said early in the season, not just to the press but behind closed doors. Mario would get frustrated after we'd lose a game, and he'd tell the reporters, "These guys will never win." We started 6-8, and Mario judged us before he really knew us. He said this team showed no emotion and didn't know how to win. I told him to just shut up and play. But Mario's going to run his mouth. That's his style. I don't have a problem with that as long as you want to win, which he definitely does. Once he got to know the character of this team, he became an asset to us.
Except for Tim, we're a collection of guys who people thought were lacking some quality or other, but our coach, Gregg Popovich , didn't buy into reputations. Pop made up his own mind about each of us, and he deserves a lot of credit for that. In fact, the two guys I'm probably happiest for, besides myself, are Avery and Sean, because they've had every bad thing you can think of said about them at one time or another. Sean's also been injured a lot, and he went through that nightmare six years ago when he was traded to the Pistons. I wasn't in Detroit, but every time you mention that city, the hair stands up on the back of his neck. He was sick part of that season, and I can only guess at how unhappy he was there.
This championship is gratifying on so many levels, and one of them is that I think Avery and I have given even more evidence that having a strong religious faith doesn't mean that you can't be a tough competitor. I can't overstate how important my faith has been to me as an athlete and as a person. It's helped me deal with so many things, including matters of ego and pride. For instance, I can't deny that it felt weird to see Tim standing on the podium with the Finals MVP trophy. I was thinking, Man, never have I come to the end of a tournament and not been the one holding up that trophy. It was hard. But I thought about the Bible story of David and Goliath . David helped King Saul win a battle, but the king wasn't happy because he had killed thousands of men while David had killed tens of thousands. So King Saul couldn't enjoy the victory because he was thinking about David's getting more credit than he was. I'm blessed that God has given me the ability to just enjoy the victory. So Tim killed the tens of thousands. That's great. I'm happy for him.
I'm not totally caught up in the hardware, though. After the game on Friday night some photographers wanted a picture of me kissing the championship trophy. I told them that I'm not kissing anything that doesn't kiss me back. Everybody thinks the trophy and the ring are the ultimate things, but as valuable as they are, they're just things. They'll wind up on a shelf somewhere, but the experience of winning them, the journey, will be right here in my heart forever. Our guys will take more away from this season than just the fact that we won the title. They'll remember how we won it. They'll think about the way we bonded, the way we trusted in one another day after day, and that's even more important.
Some people said that whichever team won the title should have an asterisk beside its name, because of the shortened season and the fact that Michael Jordan and the Bulls broke up. I say no way. We went 15-2 in the playoffs, we beat everybody we needed to beat, and we beat them mighty convincingly. Would I like to have played the Bulls? Yes. I think we would have matched up so well with them, especially in the frontcourt. I can't say we definitely would have beaten them, but I don't think you can say that they had a clear advantage over us, either.
Before games all year long, we would have our little huddle and say, "What's our goal? Finals!" It's obviously time to reset the goals. Two championships would be nice, three would be even better. I love having the target on my back. It's as if I finally have what everyone else wants. Let's see them try to take it away from me.
Issue date: July 5, 1999
Copyright © 1999 CNN/SI. A Time Warner Company.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.