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It was a June night in 1999, and David Robinson had been an NBA champion for all of 90 minutes. As he dressed, reporters and TV crews massed around his stall in the visitors' locker room of Madison Square Garden, notebooks and cameras at the ready. But they had to wait while he answered questions from another source.
"How do you tie a tie, Daddy?" asked David Jr., six years old at the time. "Well, you bring this part around here and tuck this in here, and then you pull down here," Robinson answered softly, as he performed each step. "Is it hard?" David Jr. asked. "Not once you know how to do it," said his father. "Don't worry, I'll teach you."
They went on like that for a few minutes, a father chatting with his son as though they were the only two people in the room. On the night that he reached the peak of his profession, Robinson was content to be David Jr.'s dad, which should come as no surprise to anyone who followed him during his four seasons at the Naval Academy or since he joined the San Antonio Spurs, in 1989. The 7'1" Robinson has often been called an extraordinary man, but in truth he is an ordinary one, in the best sense. He values his family and his faith; he tries to do good works and spread good will. He measures himself by how much he gives, not by his two Olympic gold medals or his 10 All-Star appearances or the mind-boggling digits on his paycheck.
"There are other things in my life that validate me beyond basketball," he says. "Criticism or losing a playoff series never really crushed me. At the end of the day I knew I'd given my best."
That sense of perspective allows Robinson, 37, to prepare for his exit from the NBA with such equanimity. He intends to retire at the end of the Spurs' playoff run, and though his farewell season has been overshadowed by Michael Jordan's, the Admiral may be as difficult to replace. There are few athletes in any sport who can match his combination of talent, dignity and social conscience. He and his wife of 11 years, Valerie, started Carver Academy for economically disadvantaged children in San Antonio in 1997, and they have poured more than $9 million into the school. Robinson's work at Carver is just one reason that the NBA's community service award now bears his name.
Although he appreciates such honors, the man who served his two-year hitch in the Navy as a civil engineer feels uneasy about being given a hero's send-off while a war rages in Iraq. "For people to acknowledge my contributions to the league means a great deal to me," he said. "But honoring my career was already a little uncomfortable. Now it's really uncomfortable."
Still, the recognition is better than the slings and arrows Robin-son used to take before he finally won his championship, criticism that would have made a less gracious and grounded man turn bitter. Some of those barbs came from me. "It is difficult to believe that a man whose torso bulges with such marblelike muscle," I wrote in 1994, "could be so squeezably soft when the playoffs arrive." Robinson no doubt read those words and others like them, yet a smile and a handshake were always waiting for me the next time we met.
He gained his revenge on all of his critics when he and Tim Duncan led the Spurs to that championship in 1999. But Robinson's real last laugh will echo for years to come, as he devotes himself to his family, his faith and his charitable works. In an era of ego-driven athletes to whom the big picture extends no further than the sidelines, we will miss him far more than he misses us.