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David Robinson picks up the alto saxophone and holds it upright before him, examining the instrument as if he were trying to figure out a way to improve its posture. Robinson, the San Antonio Spurs' 7'1" pivot-man, has been teaching himself to play the sax since the NBA's regular season began nearly six months ago, and now he begins to blow a recognizable rendition of the old Hall and Oates ballad Sara Smile. It is not a performance that should cause Robinson to rush to give up basketball, yet there is something sweet and uninhibited that resonates in his playing. Standing there with his eyes pressed shut and the saxophone close against his body, Robinson looks like a child clutching a small toy.
"I'm better on the piano, but with the sax I feel so much more creative, so much freer," he says, relaxing his chops. "So if I hear something, I can generally play it just by its sound. No notes."
Robinson walks over to the baby grand piano in the middle of the small apartment in which he has lived since last season, when he was the NBA's Rookie of the Year, and begins to play the Linus and Lucy song from the Charlie Brown TV specials. When David was a boy, his father, Ambrose, taught him how to read music and then play the notes by rote on the piano. "I started with the notes," says Robinson. "I got so focused on them that now when people say to me, "Play this,' I have no idea. If I don't have the music, I don't know where to go."
Robinson learned to play basketball the same way he is learning now to play the saxophone. No notes. He just started playing, and before he knew what he was doing, he found that he was a star. "At first, I didn't have a whole lot of feeling toward basketball—I was just a tall kid," Robinson says. "I didn't feel natural doing it, and I didn't have a particular gift for it. I thought it was just a recreational thing. I never thought this was something I was going to be successful at. It just worked out that way."
With the playoffs a week away, Robinson is completing a season that has been for him the equivalent of a symphony, a season for which he must now be given serious consideration for the league's Most Valuable Player award. It is a measure of both his genius and the limitations of his game that he has composed such a masterpiece by relying, for the most part, only on his speed and his skills as a rebounder and shot blocker. "It's funny," he says. "If you're going to be a great musician, you have to have all the basics down and go from there. But with basketball, I don't really think I have all the basics down yet. There are so many things I feel like I need to learn. My effort and athletic ability help me overcome some of the things I don't do as well right now, but soon I'm going to know how to do those things. And I'm going to be a lot better."
Robinson is still a baby grand. At week's end he was averaging 25.8 points a game—eighth best in the NBA—with an offensive repertoire that includes few moves and a no-confidence 15-foot jumper. Unlike most teams with a dominant center, the Spurs do not pound the ball into the post; they run the sort of passing-game offense that was originally devised to be used by teams that have no true center. Robinson gets most of his points as the trailer on fast breaks or by dunking retrievals of his teammates' missed shots.
"He doesn't specifically have a shot, but he's learning some moves he's comfortable with," says San Antonio coach Larry Brown. So far, Robinson's best move is being able to run up and down the floor in a straight line. "I do so much better in transition and when I'm driving the ball to the basket," he says. "When I go into a game, I think, Run, David, move your feet. I really don't have anything past that, to be honest."
Through last week he led the league with 13.1 rebounds a game, and his average of 3.74 blocked shots put him second, only to the Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon. And his lack of a defined offensive game may not be quite the detriment it seems. A pretty fair basketball player named Bill Russell also had shooting deficiencies, but he averaged 22.5 rebounds—the league didn' keep records of blocked shots then—for his 13-year career while scoring a far-from-disgraceful 15.1 points for Boston. The Celtics won 11 championships with Russell at center from 1956 to '69.
Indeed, for all of Robinson's offensive limitations, Phoenix Sun coach Cotton Fitzsimmons says, "He is the greatest impact player the league has seen since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar." Fitzsimmons even believes Robinson has already surpassed Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as the game's most imposing player. "They're all MVPs," Fitzsimmons says. "This guy is more."
Twice this season Robinson has blocked 11 shots in a game. "His presence is such a factor," says Orlando Magic coach Matt Guokas. "He does such a good job clogging the middle. He distorts your whole game." He certainly distorted the already badly bent Denver Nuggets in their most recent meeting with the Spurs: Robinson had four blocks and 31 points—24 of them on dunks.