"Tell me one thing," he would say to his normal friends after these trips to the star scene. "Tell me if I ever change, if my head ever starts to get bigger."
Two years into his career his head was getting bigger. His friends didn't see it—no one said he was becoming a jerk—but he felt it. He was hanging around with people who told him only things he wanted to hear, mostly how great he was. He easily won the NBA Rookie of the Year award in '90. He was an All-Star already. He was rich. He was surely great. He believed that.
In a way.
"What surprised me was that I wasn't happy," he says. "Here I had everything I ever wanted—I had graduated from a good school, had a good family behind me, was doing things I never dreamed I'd do—and I wasn't happy at all. I looked at myself, and I didn't like the person I was becoming. I felt I was so important. I had a selfishness and arrogance. It was that thing: 'Oh, I'm 30 minutes late, but that doesn't matter, because they can't start without me. I'm the one who counts.' I found myself doing that more and more, and there were people encouraging me."
He was neither a smoker nor a drinker, but he found himself in clubs on the road, vaguely searching for a "nice girl." (What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?) He wanted more, yet he had everything. So what was more? He didn't know. He had felt in college that he always was learning and growing. He felt in the NBA that he was regressing, forgetting lessons he had learned.
Religion never had been a big part of his life. He had been a nominal Christian, forced to go to church on Sunday by his mother, Freda, but he had never shown great interest in the faith. He was cordial with Joe Sahl, the Spurs' chaplain, but never paid much attention to him. When Greg Ball, a locker-room evangelist from the group Champions for Christ, showed up, Robinson put him off for several months. Talk about Jesus? Talk about the Bible? Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the day after. Ball persisted.
"What do you want from me?" Robinson asked.
"Just some of your time," Ball said.
Their conversation was supposed to last a few minutes, but it stretched to five hours. Robinson always had been a tinkerer, a gadget guy, interested in learning how to use the latest computer and programs. He had taught himself how to play several musical instruments in his spare time. His idea of reading for fun was to read a manual, to see how some product really worked. Ball handed him a Bible. He told Robinson it was "the manual for life."
"His purpose, his life focus, wasn't established," Ball says. "Here was this wonderful person, this superstar, but he was unhappy. He was a god of his own life. All these guys in the NBA are gods of their own lives. I told him it doesn't matter if you get all the Ferraris and Mercedes that are made—if you don't have a focus, you're still an empty Coke bottle rolling around the backseat of a '57 Chevy. It's like you're standing in front of a painted fire, trying to keep warm."