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Finally, Robinson has shown a strength and physical presence that many NBA observers thought he lacked. While Robinson is lean—he has thin legs and a 33-inch waist—his biceps are huge, almost to the point of being grotesque on one so slim. And though he has not displayed the counterproductive hair-trigger temper that Ewing evinced when he was a rookie, Robinson's demeanor on the court suggests that he will not back down from a challenge.
"My fouls used to be ticky-tacky, but I learned real fast to make them count," he says. "Up here, you've got to protect your own. I expected physical play, but nothing this bad—guys hanging on you every play, doing anything to stop your shot. Sometimes I feel like hitting somebody. You look at the refs and they say, 'We'll take care of it.' I think, Yeah? You won't take care of it the way I'd like to take care of it." One day, perhaps, he will, and someone will find out if those boxing classes Robinson took at the Naval Academy did him any good.
After pondering the total package—brains and brawn, moves and moxie—one should pause and recall that not too long ago there were gnawing doubts about Robinson. They grew out of his less-than-scintillating performances in the international and armed-services competitions in which he participated during two years of active duty after his graduation from the academy and his selection by the Spurs as No. 1 in the 1987 draft. Exhibit A was the 1988 Olympics, in which he averaged 12.8 points and 6.8 rebounds—passable numbers, perhaps, had the U.S. won gold instead of bronze. Out of his sometimes uninspired play grew the belief that he lacked the dedication to become an extraordinary pro. Because he does so many things on the court so well and with such apparent effortlessness, Robinson has always been considered an underachiever despite the fact that he has achieved so much.
"I guess it's true to a certain extent," says Robinson with a sigh. "I was always curious. I wanted to learn a little about a lot of things, and I really had to get pushed to achieve. My mother [Freda] did the pushing. Where I'd be without her, I don't want to think about.
"But, gradually, ever since I went to the academy, I have felt my motivation growing. I'm a student at heart, and right now I'm studying players like Terry [ Cummings], Jordan and Ewing, guys who play hard every night and have the heart to go with the talent. I want to be like them."
He seems sincere. The only rap on Robinson is that at certain points of certain games, he does not get involved. In the Jan. 8 game against Orlando, for example, he remained at the defensive end on at least 10 San Antonio possessions, none of them a fast break, like a soldier (sorry, David) on solitary guard duty. Acres, not exactly a feared pivotman, burned him for 14 points and 15 rebounds. In a 107-102 victory over Miami the next evening, the Heat's center, Rony Seikaly, had 21 points and 18 rebounds while Robinson finished with 20 and 12. Robinson insists that his sometimes lackadaisical play is the result of rookie immaturity and mental lapses rather than poor conditioning or lack of will. "Sometimes I just find myself watching, kind of spacing out, not forcing myself to go down and get in the action," he says. "Don't worry. Coach [Larry] Brown lets me know about it."
Robinson concedes, however, that he's much more likely to space out against an Acres than against a Ewing or an Olajuwon. As with many talented players, the best way to get his motor running is to turn on a spotlight. In two games against Ewing and one against Olajuwon, Robinson has held his own. In the most recent Spurs- Knicks game, on Jan. 17 in San Antonio, Ewing outshone Robinson statistically, finishing with 27 points. 12 rebounds and four blocks to Robinson's 20, six and three, but Robinson made three big plays down the stretch to steal a 101-97 win for the Spurs. First, he made a fall-away jumper over Ewing with 1:27 left, to put San Antonio ahead 92-90. Then, at the other end. he stepped in front of an entry pass intended for Ewing, stole the ball and started a fast break, which resulted in two Anderson free throws and a 94-90 lead. Finally, with 19 seconds to go and San Antonio in front 97-92, Robinson rejected a Ewing shot off a drive to seal the victory.
As he started off the court after the game, Robinson suddenly stopped, trotted after Ewing and slapped him on the back. Ewing turned, and they shook hands. It was a gesture of respect by Robinson, but it also may have been a reminder: "Hey, Patrick, I'm here now. And I'm not going anywhere."
The one lesson Robinson can learn from Ewing is perseverance. Ewing's first two years with bad Knick teams were frustrating, yet he kept his head up and his ears open, always adding something new to improve his game. Robinson is infinitely more fortunate in his first season than Ewing was. First, he is getting foul calls that most rookies only dream about, probably because his finesse-oriented game is appreciated, subconsciously or otherwise, by the zebras. Only perennial All-Star Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz has shot more free throws than Robinson has this season. Second, Robinson is on an excellent team that blends youth and experience. Ewing, and Olajuwon for that matter, have had to take all the tough shots ever since they entered the league. Robinson gets help from Cummings, Cheeks and, sometimes, Anderson.
Cummings has been immensely helpful to Robinson off the court, too. They frequently get together in San Antonio and on the road to work on musical arrangements. Cummings's musicality and excellent voice serve as a good counterpoint to Robinson's classical background and his unpolished though on-key bass. On a recent trip to a San Antonio recording studio, Robinson sat at the keyboard and picked out the Charlie Brown theme and What a Wonderful World (popularized by Louis Armstrong). Cummings sat down and played True Love, a ballad he composed, and a Whitney Houston tune. Each helped the other with chords and lyrics. Cummings, who has sung background vocals on several gospel albums, is the leader of the improvisational duo, but Robinson is coming along. "David's got a good ear," says Cummings.