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Jack McCallum
January 29, 1990
Rookie David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs is turning a lot of heads in the NBA with his extraordinary quickness and strength
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January 29, 1990

Hands On

Rookie David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs is turning a lot of heads in the NBA with his extraordinary quickness and strength

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As he relaxed in a miami hotel room a few hours before his San Antonio Spurs took on the Heat not long ago, center David Robinson pulled out a portable keyboard, placed it on the bed and said, "I think I have the second movement of the Path�tique down pretty well." That would be Beethoven's Sonata No. 8—Opus 13, if you're scoring. When the word movement is mentioned around the NBA, the subject is usually offense, but Robinson knows of what he speaks. He proceeded to play the Path�tique quite well, his long fingers gliding over the keyboard as expertly as they glide over the basketball while he's sizing up a free throw.

"I've been memorizing it for four months," said Robinson, who learned the basics of piano from his father, Ambrose, but has never had a formal lesson. "Still, I've got a lot more work to do."

Opposing NBA teams would be overjoyed if Robinson, a rookie of 24 out of the U.S. Naval Academy, spent all his time polishing the Path�tique, for he has needed precious little of it to establish himself as one of the league's dominant forces, someone to challenge the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing and the Houston Rockets' Akeem Olajuwon, both of whom are 27, for pivotman supremacy in the '90s. "There's no 'gonna be' about it." said Orlando Magic center-forward Mark Acres after Robinson went for 32 points and 10 rebounds in a 111-102 Spur loss at Orlando on Jan. 8. "He's a great player right now."

Said New Jersey rookie guard Mookie Blaylock after Robinson scored 26 points in a 109-92 victory over the Nets on Dec. 9, "If he's still learning the game, I'd hate to see him when he knows it cold." Veteran Caldwell Jones, Robinson's teammate and defensive mentor, puts it this way: "He has the talent all us big guys only hope and dream for." In other words, as Beethoven might say, the kid can flat-out play.

No, David Delirium is not as big as Michael Mania was during Jordan's rookie season of 1984-85, but Robinson is certainly the most talked-about player in the league right now. And San Antonio is the most-talked-about team. With a 25-11 record through last weekend, fourth-best in the NBA, the Spurs have already won four more games than they did all of last season, and they're on course to become the NBA's most-improved team of all time over one season. ( Boston, with a 32-game turnaround in 1979-80, Larry Bird's rookie year, holds that distinction now.) Preseason talk that Spur owner Red McCombs might move the franchise has been put on hold because of San Antonio's quick start and a 3,136 increase in attendance per game over last season at this time (14,196 versus 11,060).

Of course, Robinson is not the only reason San Antonio has gotten better. The off-season trades that brought veterans Terry Cummings and Maurice Cheeks, both of whom are playing as well as they ever did; the maturation of versatile second-year players Willie Anderson and Vernon Maxwell; and the leadership of Jones are major factors as well.

Clearly, though, Robinson is what makes the Spurs special, even sexy. There is no buzz in arenas around the league when Cummings or Cheeks emerges from the Spur locker room, as there is when the 7'1", 235-pound Robinson appears. Reporters don't crowd around the locker of another heralded San Antonio rookie. Sean Elliott, after every game, as they do around Robinson's. His teammates are already on his case for holding up the bus—because of demands from the media—after road games, and, like Jordan. Robinson frequently must find alternate transportation back to the hotel. His manner, like Jordan's, is open and accessible, so people are drawn to him. What's more, like Jordan he is a world-class talker when he gets on a roll.

Through Sunday, Robinson was scoring 23.0 points per game (to go with a .540 shooting percentage), and he was getting his baskets in a variety of ways, which is not typical of today's centers. His turnaround jumper off the glass is as delicate as his one-handed slam is vicious. He gets out on the break, and thanks to an edict set down early in the season by Cheeks—if the big man runs with you, then you get him the ball—he is scoring in the transition game, too. Robinson is not as skilled as Ewing at carving out his position on the blocks, but he doesn't have to be: His quickness, which is preternatural for a man his size, invariably enables him to get to the spot he wants.

"No other big guy I've ever seen is anywhere as quick and fast as him," says Jones, who has seen a lot of big men in his 17 years in the ABA and NBA. "That's what sets David apart." All that, and he's lefthanded to boot, which gives him a slight advantage against defenders who are used to playing righties.

His defensive instincts are—there's no other way to put it—Russellesque. With 2.75 blocked shots per game, he trails Olajuwon (4.21), Ewing (4.0), Benoit Benjamin of the L.A. Clippers (2.80) and Manute Bol (2.77) of the Golden State Warriors, and he would surely lead the league in another category—big men who catch up to the break and knock the ball from a guard—if the NBA kept such a statistic. Teammates estimate that he has done it at least a dozen times this season. Robinson has left no doubt that in an era when a team's leading rebounder is often a power forward, he will take care of that department, too, thank you very much. At week's end he was averaging 11.4 rebounds—third in the league behind Olajuwon (13.4) and New York forward Charles Oakley (11.8)—and was well ahead of the Spurs' second-leading re-bounder, Cummings, who was averaging 8.1. Centers should rebound like that.

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