Since he had not signed a contract, NBA regulations stated that Robinson could have reentered the draft after his naval service. Although there was speculation that he might choose not to sign with the Spurs, Robinson agreed to move to San Antonio for the 1989-90 season, but the Spurs agreed to pay him as much as the average of the salaries of the two highest-paid players in the league each year, or release him to free agency.
The Spurs had spent the second half of the 1980s as an also-ran, bottoming out in 1988–89 with a 21-61 record, the worst in franchise history at the time. While it was widely thought that the Spurs would become respectable again once Robinson arrived, no one expected what happened in his rookie season. Robinson led the Spurs to the greatest single season turnaround in NBA history at the time (a record the Spurs themselves broke in 1997-98, after drafting Tim Duncan, which was then broken by the Boston Celticsin the 2007–08 NBA season). The Spurs leaped to a record of 56–26 for a remarkable 35 game improvement. They advanced to the second round of the Western Conferenceplayoffs where they lost in seven games to the eventual conference champion Portland Trail Blazers. Following the 1989–90 season, he was unanimously named the NBA rookie of the year, and subsequently Sega produced a game featuring him entitled David Robinson’s Supreme Court.
The Spurs made the playoffs seven more seasons in a row. Robinson also made the 1992 US Olympic Dream Team that won the gold medal in Barcelona. During the 1993–94 season, he became locked in a duel for the NBA scoring title with Shaquille O’Neal, scoring 71 points (breaking George Gervin‘s single-game franchise record of 63) against theLos Angeles Clippers to win it.
Robinson went on to win the MVP trophy in 1995, and in 1996 he was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. Still, from 1991 to 1996, Robinson was thwarted in his quest to claim the one prize that had eluded him: an NBA title. During that span the Spurs were eliminated from the playoffs by the Warriors, Suns (twice), Jazz (twice), and Rockets. The loss against the Rockets was particularly painful for Robinson because it occurred in the Western Conference Finals with Robinson playing head-to-head against his chief rival, Hakeem Olajuwon. By his own admission, Robinson was outplayed by Olajuwon in the series, their only meetings in post-season play.
Early in the 1997 season, Robinson’s dreams of becoming a champion seemed to vanish when he hurt his back in the preseason. He finally returned in December, but six games later broke his foot in a home game against the Miami Heat, and ended up missing the rest of the regular season. As a result of the injury to Robinson and other key players (most notably Sean Elliott, who missed more than half the season), the Spurs finished the season with a dismal 20–62 record. However, his injury proved to be a blessing in disguise. Despite having only the third-worst record in the league, the Spurs won the NBA Draft Lottery—and with it, the first pick in the next year’s NBA draft. They used that pick to select Tim Duncan out of Wake Forest University, who was, after a few years, the final key to Robinson’s quest for an NBA title.
Before the start of the 1998–99 season, the NBA owners and NBA commissioner David Stern locked out the NBA Players’ Association to force negotiations on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. This lockout lasted for 202 days, well into the regular NBA season, before an agreement was finally reached. After playing a truncated 50-game season, the Spurs finished with an NBA-best record of 37–13, giving them the home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Spurs blitzed through the first three rounds of the NBA playoffs, beating the Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Lakers, and Portland Trail Blazers by a combined record of 11–1 to reach the NBA Finals for the first time ever. In the Finals, the combination of Robinson in the post and second-year, 6 ft 11 in (2.11 m) Tim Duncan proved overpowering, the Spurs beat the underdog New York Knicks in five games to become the first former American Basketball Association team to win an NBA title. Duncan was named Finals MVP.
Robinson announced he would retire from basketball after the 2002–03 season.
On June 15, 2003, in the finale to Robinson’s career, the Spurs won another NBA title with an 88–77 victory over the New Jersey Nets in Game 6 of the 2003 NBA Finals. Turning back the clock, Robinson scored 13 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in his final game for the Spurs. He and the year’s regular season and NBA Finals MVP Tim Duncan sharedSports Illustrated magazine’s 2003 Sportsmen of the Year award.
Robinson averaged 21.1 points per game, 10.7 rebounds per game, 3 blocks per game, and 2.5 assists per game over 987 games in his NBA career. Also, he is one of only a very small group of players to have scored over 20,000 career points in the NBA, as well as being one of only four players to have recorded a quadruple-double (with 34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, and 10 blocks against the Detroit Pistons on February 17, 1994).
He is also one of the only five players to record more than 70 points in a single game with 71 points against the Los Angeles Clippers on April 24, 1994. Only Elgin Baylor (71 points), Wilt Chamberlain (70, 72, 73 twice, 78, 100 points), David Thompson (73 points), and Kobe Bryant (81 points) have scored more than 70 points in a single game.
Robinson is also noteworthy for his harmonious relationship with Tim Duncan. Sportswriter Chris Sheridan noted that it was rare for someone like Robinson to have welcomed and mentored Duncan as willingly as he did.[
Smallthoughts:Old School Tuesday salutes …The Admiral David Robinson.