Quotes from George Washington Carver, the scientist and educator for whom the school is named, hang throughout the hallways. WHERE THERE IS NO VISION, THE PEOPLE PERISH, reads one. "God has given me my short-term marching orders," says Robinson. "It's to become as good a husband and father as I can and to make this school work. I have the faith to carry it out. It's going to work."
No matter how the stories about Robinson gradually took on the character of hagiography, there was usually a "but" attached to his playing career. He's gifted athletically but he's too nice to realize his potential. He can inspire people off the court but he doesn't have the fire in his belly to take his team all the way. Whether those doubts were valid or not, the Spurs never came close to winning a title in the eight seasons (1989-90 to '96-97) that Robinson was their lone star.
Enter Duncan. According to the lottery odds, he should have gone to the Boston Celtics, who went 15-67 in 1996-97, a slightly more pathetic record than San Antonio's 20-62. But the Ping-Pong balls bounced the Spurs' way. After a two-hour, pretraining-camp workout with the rookie at Robinson's home in Aspen, Colo., the Admiral had a revelation: "Tim was already a better offensive player than I ever was."
In Duncan and Robinson's second year together—the lockout-shortened '98-99 season—San Antonio won its first championship. Robinson became a complementary player, never mind the scoring title he won in 1993-94, the 71 points he scored in a game during that season, the MVP award he earned the following year, inclusion on the list of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players and the two Olympic gold medals. Duncan, unflappable and unspectacular, became the Man (Part II), the Finals MVP, the go-to guy who gave Robinson a chance to win the ring that most likely would never have come his way.
Even when the Spurs failed to repeat (largely because Duncan missed all of the postseason with a knee injury), the union of Robinson and Duncan remained harmonious. On the court they were a by-the-book bunch, a reflection not only of Robinson and Duncan but also of Popovich, a former Air Force officer. Off the court San Antonio was an extension of the fellowship between the two Super Spurs. "The Milk and Cookies Gang," former guard Steve Kerr called his team.
Robinson and Duncan went out to dinner on the road from time to time but never talked about Robinson's favorite subject. "I have my own faith and my own way of expressing it," says Duncan. "Early on David realized that and respected it." They enjoyed a video-game rivalry, Duncan the aficionado, Robinson the tech geek slumming with the joystick. When Duncan was tempted to flee San Antonio to join a then healthy Grant Hill in Orlando, Robinson flew from his home in Hawaii to San Antonio and helped persuade him to stay.
And so it was on the evening of June 15, 2003, that Robinson and Duncan sat down behind a podium at the SBC Center, 30 minutes removed from their Game 6 victory in the Finals. Robinson wore a tasteful blue suit and a smile as wide as Texas; Duncan wore his usual island-style shirt and jeans, along with the familiar quizzical expression that seems to say, What the hell am I doing here? Informed that he had just missed a quadruple double (21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocks), Duncan replied, "That's cool." He answered a few questions, rose, slapped Robinson on the back and departed, leaving the linchpin of the franchise alone to express, for the last time, his exquisite postgame joy.
In Retirement, Robinson has attended several games—he has four season tickets in the second row across from the Spurs' bench—but admits that he doesn't feel comfortable as a civilian. "It's a new team with some new guys, and, gee, I don't want to take any attention away from them," says Robinson. "It's not the Spurs making me feel like I don't fit in, because I have the run of the place. It's up to me to figure out how much I want to be involved."
And how much more does number 21 have to be involved? With Robinson gone, there are those who wonder whether Duncan, now the face of the franchise, will have to do more. Cisneros says yes. "If I were advising Tim, I would say that he needs to have a little more defined profile," says Cisneros. Robinson says no. "Tim does things in his own way and understands his civic responsibility," says Robinson. "He's not like me and doesn't want to be like me."
Still, Robinson's departure leaves a hole in the soul of the Spurs. "For years David sucked up a lot of oxygen around here," says general manager R.C. Buford. "Win or lose, David took the heat." A trade? Ask David about it. Crucial technical foul called on Pop? Ask David about it. How's a rookie coming along? Ask David about it. His replies would sometimes tumble out disjointedly, but he would always answer, standing there as tall and erect as a monument, the obedient midshipman displaying the patience of Job, one of his favorite Biblical heroes.