The spurs were lottery-lucky twice in getting Robinson and Duncan; it is their greater fortune that both players chose to stay in black and silver. Robinson, conventional wisdom said, would never come in the first place; Duncan, conventional wisdom said, would not refuse the blandishments of the Orlando Magic when he became a free agent in the summer of 2000. Yet Robinson remained in the Alamo City, and it's hard to imagine that Duncan, who last July signed a seven-year deal worth $122 million, will leave either.
San Antonio had finished 35-47 when it won the top pick and the clarion call went out for " David Robinson of the United States Naval Academy." The Spurs also took a chance: Not only would they be without the Admiral for two seasons while he fulfilled his service commitment at a submarine base in Kings Bay, Ga., but if he didn't sign a contract in that time, he would become a free agent as well. The Lakers, then as now one of the league's elite teams, made it known that if Robinson were to jilt San Antonio, he could succeed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the pivot. Hmm, let's see: Enjoy the sweet feeds of Magic Johnson? Or share a frontcourt with a human corkscrew named Walter Berry?
Moreover, the Spurs were floundering on the court and at the box office after the glory years of George Gervin. There were constant rumors that the franchise would fold or be purchased and moved. "That David would sign here and spurn what he could have had in other places," says Cisneros, who was mayor at the time, "was counterintuitive."
Robinson—a jock who scored 1320 on his SATs, produced music in a home studio and majored in math at Annapolis; a larger-than-life personality who used words like golly and gosh—was a counterintuitive kind of guy. When he went to San Antonio for what amounted to a recruiting visit, he was expecting, as he puts it, "tumbleweeds and horses running down the streets." But he fell in love with the city's welcoming embrace and small-town charm (several people brought him homemade tortillas) and soon announced, "I'm coming." The moment the Admiral climbed aboard, all the talk about hoops being history in San Antonio ceased. "The term franchise player is overused," says McCombs. "But I'm not sure there would be a franchise here without David."
Announcing after his first game as a Spur that he would not allow opponents to venture into the lane "with impunity," Robinson became everything the team could have hoped for. He was the Rookie of the Year who helped San Antonio improve by an NBA-record 35 wins (a mark the Spurs would break a decade later, in Duncan's rookie season). He was humble. He wasn't a teetotaler, and he was anything but celibate—a story in Esquire proclaimed him a prime target for groupies who targeted NBA superstars—but whatever nocturnal activities he engaged in beyond basketball, they never made headlines.
Robinson felt something was missing, though. He had never been religious—"While I was at Annapolis, I went to chapel exactly twice," he says—and on several occasions he'd avoided a young Austin minister named Greg Ball. When Robinson finally spoke to Ball, he suddenly fell to his knees and began sobbing in his apartment. "From that day on I thought, Whatever He wants me to say, I'll say; wherever He wants me to go, I'll go," Robinson recalls. "It was June 8, 1991. The pivotal moment of my life."
Robinson's outspoken Christianity played well in a city founded by missionaries, a city that is home to one of the nation's most successful televangelists, John Hagee, and one of the world's most successful Christian authors, Max Lucado. It took Robinson a while, though, to figure out how to be an evangelical Christian and an NBA Ail-Star. He would proselytize to his teammates, and they didn't like it. He didn't know what to do when others talked or acted in ways he considered unacceptable. During a golf outing in Monte Carlo, where the first Dream Team was training before the '92 Olympics, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler invited Robinson into a foursome. To get Robinson's goat—and because that's the way he talks anyway—Barkley unleashed a stream of profanity over five holes that drove Robinson to go off and play alone.
Still, few ever doubted the depth of the Admiral's beliefs. One of his endearing qualities was—is—his utter absence of guile. Whether he's talking about God; basketball; Carver; his wife of 10 years; or his three sons, who range in age from seven to 10, he comes across like a high school freshman winding his way through an oral report, struggling to find the right words, earnest and passionate. By degrees Robinson grew more comfortable with being a Christian in the locker room, a place rarely confused with a holy sanctuary. "I can stand there all day now and listen to Charles curse, because I respect him and he respects me," Robinson says.
Even those who found Robinson's brand of robust Christianity off-putting couldn't deny that he put his wallet behind his beliefs, that he was, as it says in Paul's letter to the Galatians, "zealously affected always in a good thing." With his wife, Valerie, he established the David Robinson Foundation in 1992, and over the years he has donated time and money to charitable causes, several of which helped the Spurs gain recognition as a model in community service among pro sports franchises.
Carver Academy is the most ambitious educational project ever undertaken by an active athlete. "I spent two hours begging David not to do it," says McCombs, a man who earned billions through his car dealerships and his communications firm. "I told him, 'David, there's nothing tougher than starting a school and seeing it through. You can get bogged down too many ways.' " Robinson listened politely, disagreed emphatically and on Sept. 17,2001, opened the school. Almost all of the 90 students are on full or partial scholarship. Despite his money and the $1 million donated by the Spurs, Carver needs $41 million more to become fully endowed and meet its expansion goals. "I worry that it's too heavy a load for a person to carry, no matter what his celebrity," says Cisneros. "But if anyone can do it, it's David."