The concern on the good ship U.S.A. was that basketball's most famous sailor might have lost it. Not his talent or his grace. And certainly not his wallet, which soon enough will be $26 million thicker, courtesy of the San Antonio Spurs, who have already made him one of the highest-paid team athletes in the world. No, what David Robinson seemed to be missing all of a sudden was motivation, desire, passion for the game. Lacking too was the urge to purge—not only the memories of the U.S.'s embarrassing defeat by Brazil in last summer's Pan American Games, but also the clinging doubts about the nouveau riche Robinson's being the man to lead America to the Olympic gold in Seoul.
In other words, was the 7-foot Robinson really Ensign Pulverize? Or was Robby just another swabbie?
Granted, it wasn't easy to determine these past two weeks whether Robinson was the former or latter, given the outclassed assortment of Dutchmen, Brits, Finns, Frenchmen and Austrians the itinerant U.S. Select team of Olympic candidates mashed by an average score of 104-67. But couldn't he have looked as if he was putting out? "David's not been a problem," said Olympic assistant coach and Select tour guide George Raveling. "He does what he's told."
Nothing like going, uh, overboard about a guy. Not a problem? Does what he's told? Well, one would hope so. But this is no ordinary sluggo, remember. This is America's (not to mention San Antonio's and Larry Brown's) savior. He's the midshipman next door, a true-blue student-athlete who once scored 45 points against Kentucky and lit up Michigan in the NCAAs for 50 more. This is the same guy who defended his country on a foreign floor once before, when he outbattled the Evil Empire's Arvidas Sabonis down the stretch of a breathless U.S.- U.S.S.R. championship finale at the 1986 World Basketball Championships in Madrid.
And yet, before the Selects' confrontation with the Spanish national team in Bilbao in northern Spain—the windup game of what was expected to be Robinson's own special tour—America's favorite young officer had been merely a gentle man.
Undeniably, it was difficult for Robinson to pump himself up for teams recruited out of some Continental kennel. In the Selects' 115-46 thriller over Austria on June 23—a Viennese waltz if ever there was one—Robinson awakened briefly for nine points and seven rebounds in only 12 minutes of playing time. "He could get better pickup games in the Navy," said Select guard Steve Kerr, recently of Arizona. But during the only game that presented any sort of challenge, in which the U.S. pulled away from the French national team to win 100-82 in Paris, Robinson wandered into early foul trouble and could only come up with the rare triple quadruple—four points, four fouls, four turnovers—in 19 minutes of desultory play.
Finally, on Saturday against a living, breathing team—namely Spain, though it was hardly the same veteran outfit that had upset Yugoslavia to advance to the gold medal round against the U.S. in the 1984 Olympics—Robinson looked more like the world-thumping center he once was than the naval construction officer he has become.
"Traditionally, I've not done well against lesser competition," Robinson said in Bilbao. "But if the tour's helped me at all, it's shown me how far I have to go, where I'm hurting. My offense is way behind. I need to go to the basket more."
On the afternoon of the Spain game, Robinson told Raveling that this was the one he'd been waiting for. Sure enough, he swamped the Spaniards on the boards and collected 13 points and seven rebounds in the first half (en route to 18 and nine for the game) with monstrous swoop dunks and soft turnarounds as the Selects won 109-87. "Geesh, I guess he just needs somebody good to play against," said Kerr.
Kerr, who lifted his own stock considerably on the six-game trip by canning three-pointers in every outing, had voiced the Selects' worry over Robinson's lethargy just the day before. "Dave's so rusty, and yet he doesn't act like he's into the games at all," said Kerr, who also played with Robinson in the 1986 World Championships. "I don't see how this tour does the rest of us much good, the competition is so ridiculous. But the whole trip was supposed to be for him. That kind of worries us."