September 10, 2009
It would seem to smack in the face of someone's well-earned, championship, Hall of Fame legacy to try and attempt a career-defining column on the subject that deals almost entirely with how the Hall of Famer in question was unlucky to miss out on the prevailing sense of martyrdom that we tend to associate with current NBA stars in the over-exposed, Internet age.
It seems a smack in the face of all tenets of responsible journalism and storytelling to start off a column with a ridiculous lede like that, but considering what else that's been churned out this week; I figure I have a pass. At least until Monday.
David Robinson never got a break, literally and figuratively, until he broke his foot. He never got a team, either, until he was on the down side of his career. And then, not only did he get a team, but he got a teammate that was better than him. By that teammate's second season, it was enough to lead his team to the championship. With Robinson as a clear second-fiddle.
Boo-hoo, right? Blessed with a 7-2 frame, superior smarts, athleticism, hops, dexterity, flat-topness. We should feel bad for him that he had to wait a decade before winning a ring?
Well, yeah. We felt bad for Kevin Garnett(notes), and rightfully so. Felt bad for Paul Pierce(notes), for Allen Iverson(notes), for Elton Brand(notes). Even felt bad for the guys on great teams — Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Chris Webber(notes) — who just fell short. And we should throw a little fit for Robinson, too.
His teams weren't lottery-awful, but this brilliant, brilliant player kept these really, really substandard teams in the playoffs — deep into the playoffs — just about every year.
His second fiddle, for so long, was Sean Elliott — a clear number three if I ever saw one. In fact, I remember the first rumblings about Elliott perhaps being better served as a third-option before the 1996-97 season started, and it was almost sacrilege. Elliott's a star! A third option? Well, yeah. Nothing against Sean, he was a hell of a player and a dogged competitor, but he's been overrated to a point.
1996-97 didn't matter, anyway. The season started with Bob Hill as Spurs coach — it shouldn't have started with Bob Hill as Spurs coach — and GM Gregg Popovich drew deserved criticism for firing Hill the day that Robinson (on the shelf with a foot injury) came back for his first game of the season with the Spurs at 3-15. It looked pretty callous, it was, and it was Pop's great mistake to not fire Hill six months earlier. It would be his last mistake.
Robinson busted his foot again a few games later, and missed the rest of the year. The Spurs lucked into Tim Duncan(notes), TD had to play understudy to Robinson during his rookie year, and you know the rest.
But do you remember what came before that? Before the Hill brouhaha, before the "tanking!" cat-calls. Before Tim Duncan supposedly saved David Robinson's career?
You had a center playing a ridiculous brand of basketball, on both ends. Averaging well over 25 a game. Heaps of rebounds, tons of blocks. Brilliant in all areas. Hell, in 1994, Robinson averaged over 40 minutes a game and ... you just don't get that from centers, anymore. The genius that is The Painted Area did a fantastic job detailing this a few days ago, but it deserves to be re-read. Robinson was so, so good.
And he had so, so little help.
Avery Johnson. We love him, we admire him, but he was probably best served as a backup. Same with Vinny Del Negro, minus a bit of the love. Elliott, we've discussed. Dennis Rodman?
Look, there aren't many basketball players I miss more than D-Rod. There aren't any, actually. He knew how to play the game. He was tough as hell. He took elbows from Shaq to the face, and laughed. Dennis had some issues, but he won games.
But as a San Antonio Spur? Despite some jaw-dropping stats, he was also a selfish lout who was undergoing some major personal issues at a time when the Spurs needed him to focus on basketball. That's OK. We can have it both ways, here. Dennis is to be commended for working through his issues, however publically, and the Spurs are correct to expect Rodman's mind to be where it should be.
Could John Lucas(notes), Hill, and Pop have handled him better; both on court and off? Sure. Could Dennis have handled himself better? Definitely. Meanwhile, David Robinson's over there, in his prime, tapping his foot. Waiting for the kids to figure it all out while D-Rob is saying "please" and "thank you" and dropping 30 a game.
And then, yes, Robinson gets spun like a fool by Hakeem Olajuwon. The Spurs never win. Rodman leaves, and wins. Robinson gives an interview to Sports Illustrated that makes it seem as if basketball isn't the most important thing in his life (shock, horror!). Then he breaks his foot, Duncan shows up, and the legacy is defined.
That's OK. I'm cool with that sort of legacy, and I'm pretty sure Robinson is as well. As it was with John Stockton, with Michael Jordan, he just doesn't care what we think. He knows he tried, he knows how good he was, how faulty his teams (in just about every organizational facet) could be, and two rings will always help things go down a little smoother.
I'm just asking you to dig a little deeper. Don't limit your memories of the guy to that trophy he had to hoist up with TD, or that embarrassing May. Don't look at those 50-win seasons as some sort of birthright. Understand what this man had to do to get there. Understand what he put in, when few were watching.
Understand just how special a player David Robinson was. He deserves that much, from us. He's earned it.