With a nickname like “the Admiral”, it should come as no surprise that David Robinson was a commanding player both on and off the court. Robinson’s intimidating inside presence as a stalwart for the San Antonio Spurs made him one of the most respected stars of his era.
He earned his nickname for his service with the United States Navy, where he was a Lieutenant and played his college basketball. Little about Robinson’s career followed convention, and his physical makeup was no different. After entering the Naval academy standing at 6-feet 4-inches, the Admiral shot up to 6’11 by his senior year. His size helped him post a Division I record 5.91 blocks per game his junior year, including a record 14 blocks in a game. He led the NCAA in blocks his junior and senior years.
Robinson averaged a double double as a senior, posting 28.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. Named Naismith Player of the Year, he led Navy to a Colonial Athletic Association Championship. The Midshipmen entered the NCAA Tournament as an eight seed and lost in the first round to ninth seeded Michigan.
San Antonio chose Robinson first overall in the 1987 NBA Draft, despite him committing the next two years to honoring his Naval service. When he debuted in the NBA during the 1989-90 season he won the league Rookie of the Year honors. He was second in the league in rebounds per game (11.9) behind only Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon (14.01). Robinson was also the only rookie to finish in the top 10 in scoring that season, tallying a 24.3 point average. His arrival helped the Spurs win the Midwest Division title and its first round playoff series, 3-0 over Denver. The team also added Sean Elliott and Rod Strickland that season.
The 1994-95 season was a highlight for Robinson individually. After hitting a career high in scoring the season before with 29.8 ppg, the Admiral was named Most Valuable Player. He finished second behind Shaquille O’Neal in total points scored (2,238) while setting the bar in player efficiency rating (29.1) and win shares (17.5).
Start of a dynasty
Perhaps one of Robinson’s lowest moments as a pro turned into a redefining moment in Spurs history. The big man suffered a broken foot early in the 1996-97 season, causing him to be shut down after six games. Without him, the team floundered to a 3-15 start, prompting the firing of head coach Bob Hill. Gregg Popovich stepped in to replace Hill and remains the team’s coach to this day. Still, San Antonio struggled to a 20-62 record, setting the franchise up with the first overall pick and the chance to select Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan.
The duo of Robinson and Duncan quickly made San Antonio a formidable threat in a wide open title picture. In 1998-99, the team cruised through the playoffs and capped it off with a 4-1 series victory over the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals. Robinson averaged 16.6 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3 blocks in the series.
Robinson would reach the mountain top with San Antonio once more in 2003. His role was declining, but the Admiral still chipped in more than 8 points and 7 rebounds per game in limited minutes during his final season. The Spurs knocked out the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers on the way to the finals, then topped New Jersey 4-2 for the championship.
Honors and awards
In 14 seasons, Robinson was named to 10 all-star teams and only missed the playoffs twice. He was named to the all-defensive team eight times and was the 1991-92 Defensive Player of the Year. In 2009, Robinson was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame after his retirement. He has also been recognized for his philanthropic efforts, as NBA Community Assist Award winners receive the David Robinson plaque for their contributions to the community. The plaque reads in part: “the standard set by NBA legend David Robinson, who improved the community piece by piece.”