This Middie, this DM Robinson, is essentially a happy-go-lucky guy to whom a missed layup is hardly life or death. "A sweet, sweet person," is how UC Santa Barbara coach Jerry Pimm, an assistant on the U.S. national team, describes him. "David's life doesn't depend on basketball; he's not going to take it too seriously. And that's not a bad outlook to have."
It probably wasn't until Navy's watershed 97-85 thrashing of home-standing Syracuse in the second round of the 1986 NCAA tournament—Robinson had 35 points, 11 rebounds, 7 blocks—that a truly mass audience discovered him and realized to its collective shock that such an enormously talented player had, by committing to his final two years at Annapolis, already ostensibly forsworn a career in the pros. (Academy graduates are obliged to spend the next five years on active duty.)
Rather than transfer after his sophomore season—in which he averaged 23.6 points and 11.6 rebounds and led Navy to a 26-6 record for its first NCAA tournament berth in a quarter-century—what Robinson had done was simply opt to stay at the Academy. "Basically I was scared," he says. Robinson remembers thinking, "Where would I go? Would I be comfortable? Would I play center? What if I transfer somewhere and then Tito Horford shows up?"
However, as he progressed through his junior—or, in the parlance of the Naval Academy, 2nd Class—year, it was obvious that Robinson had become very special. Not only were there the 37 points against Delaware and the 25 rebounds against Fairfield, but Navy—the little-boy-blues, the shorthairs—Navy was playing even Stephen with the likes of St. John's and DePaul and Georgia Tech. Not to mention beating Tulsa, Syracuse and Cleveland State in the tournament. As the Midshipmen kept on winning (toward a 30-5 record and a finish in the NCAA final eight) and as Robinson kept on dominating, the full impact of what the Sultan of Smooth had done—and especially what he had perhaps given up—became more clear.
The Richmond News Leader editorialized on Robinson's "rare commitment to excellence and principle." New York Governor Mario Cuomo lauded his "loyalty and values.... I wonder how many of us would choose these virtues rather than the chance of becoming a multimillionaire, especially if you were a college sophomore...."
The Washington Post
likened him to Thomas Merton, the late American monk "who measured the world's offerings against a rare personal standard and went his own way."
But...at ease. As any glance at Robinson's multifaceted existence would reveal, his future options weren't limited to working on a ship, plane or sub, or even with the Indiana Pacers. He had scored 1,320 on his college boards. From the beginning he had been a gifted child able to master the varying elements of music, literature, computers, gymnastics, carpentry, electronics, the social sciences, et al. No, DM Robinson surely was en route to the boardroom, the Pentagon, the House or Senate, or even the Oval Office itself. Forget the visions of Bill Russell. Didn't this remarkable young man instead recall Bill Bradley and Bertrand Russell? Thurgood Marshall?
As Ambrose Robinson recalls his son telling the family after his sophomore—or, again in Naval Academese, youngster—year: "Basketball is just something else to do, another facet of life. I'm going to be a success at whatever I choose. The Academy prepares me to be that. Plus, I'll still be seven feet tall." By that, Midshipman Robinson meant when he is 27. In 1992. After his five-year hitch.
Ah, but that was youngster talk. "Five years is a long time to wait," Robinson says now. The 1988 Olympic Games? "Two years is a long time. I've already played against the best amateur teams in the world and we won the whole thing. But I figure I've done that now." Which leaves....
"Professional basketball," Robinson says, as if there was any doubt. Well, there had been. "Last year I was up in the air about the pros," he says, "but yes, I want to play now. I like the Navy. It's offered me these great opportunities, and I want to serve. But what I do best is play basketball, and the Navy isn't going to get the best out of me sitting behind a desk somewhere. God gave me the height and ability to play and I want to, very much. How they [the Navy] manage it... that's in their hands. But now, yes, it is very important to me that I play."
The prominence Navy basketball has achieved through Robinson is best evidenced by the fact that the decision of Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. on Aug. 20 to permit Ensign Napoleon McCallum to play pro football with the Los Angeles Raiders on a "not to interfere" basis was considered a mere prelim to an ultimate decision vis-�-vis Robinson. The truth is, Robinson would be the far more legitimate moonlighter. His hole card is his height, which disqualifies him from duty aboard ship or in the air. He has taken a couple of summer cruises on a submarine and a minesweeper—"You spend a lot of time sitting," he says. "Not pleasant experiences"—and once he even sat, knees scrunched to his chest, in a Navy jet. A fighter pilot he won't be, though his girlfriend, Stephannie Johnson, dragged him on his birthday to the hit movie Top Gun.