|Here's to you, Mr. Robinson|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
All the talk here in the ATL before the NBA All-Star Game is about Michael J. Jordan. People want to see how he will go out, if he will start, how he will finish, whether or not Kobe will dunk on his bean and melt him like butter.
While this is going on Sunday, another unique player in the league is on his way to retiring this year, nursing a bad hip as his teammates ran off five wins in a row on the road to hit the break smoking, making them a quiet, unspoken threat to do massive collateral damage in the playoffs.
I like Mailman, but he's lucky he played with Stock.
David Robinson wouldn't compare himself to Jordan, or to Mailman, or to anybody else, probably. He's probably the only Aw Shucks Guy left in the whole league. That's his nature. Bullying was in Malone's nature. Total worldwide dominion was Jordan's. His will, and flexibility, and glove size told the difference between him and David Robinson.
Not that much difference between excellent and great. But that difference is the spice of life, what we seek. For all the talk about the NBA, for all the analysis, the fact is, the ninth guy on an NBA team is one helluva basketball player.
David Robinson was nobody's ninth guy.
David Robinson was on Tom Joyner the other morning giving the same kind of benign benediction to his career with which he seemed to conduct it; you probably missed it, just as you probably missed David's impact on the NBA game, if he had any; seems like he made only the slightest dent; but then again they all look that way in the Valley of the Shadow of His Airness. Jordan was the ultimate NBA carnivore. Bill Russell is his only peer in the way I'm talking about. He left almost nothing on the carcass for anyone else's career or rep to feed off. Unlike the other team sports, the great measuring stick is NBA titles won; that is the way, perhaps the only way, to account for and to measure true ball genius in the game of basketball.
Hakeem Olajuwon, last year's illustrious retiree, barely got some nice parting gifts from his own franchise, let alone league-wide note. Patrick Ewing nearly had to slink off stage. Everybody was too busy wondering if MJ would come back for the encore to the encore performance. At this rate, the whole league will retire one by one to little notice as all the fanfare is if Jordan will come back for "one more year." Yeah, the same way FDR came back for "one more year." At this rate we're going to have start calling Jordan Popa Doc, or the Bald Head. El Presidente, for Life, baby.
Well, the people down Alamo way wanted the Admiral on that wall, and needed the Admiral on that wall, and had the Admiral on that wall. David Robinson played 14 seasons, counting this one, and averaged 22 points per game in the altogether, 25 a game in his peak years, and together with Tim Duncan won an NBA title for the San Antonio Spurs in 1999. One NBA title might not seem like much in the shadow of Air's six, but one is as good as Bill Walton and Dr. J did, although they are icons while the Admiral is not, because, for one, the Admiral played in the Time of Air, and for the other, Walton, being a hippyish white fellow of superb abilities, and Dr. J., dropping out the skies like a brother from another planet, had their trademarks. But the Admiral also had his trademark. He was military.
Road Dog says the Admiral's sweet, Colin Powell-like, owlish disposition has something to do with it, his own perpetual impatience with David's game. Dog is cold. So he wishes the Admiral would have been cold. A killer. The Admiral has killed, but he's not a killer. For that Dog calls Dave, "Ad-mee-rral," in a manner of Chekov speaking of Captain Kirk to Khan, in "Star Trek II." And then the disbelief in Khan's voice: "Ad-mee-rral? Ad-mee-rral?"
Dog likes to say it like that about David. A man can't even have a nickname without someone joking about it. Well, having lived near Annapolis at the time, I can tell you the Admiral is an icon over there, at least, him and the former Navy running back Napoleon McCallum, along with Chad Hennings the last stars of the service academies to go pro and stick; I knew them both, the Navy guys, went over to Annapolis to interview McCallum for the Illy, went over straight up and down. That's what the environment does to you. A Navy official, AD J.O. Coppedge wrote a letter to the Illy saying that I was a fine example of the straight up and down. All because I saw the truth in a guy. Saw that Nap played running back the way a Greco-Roman wrestler might, with his upper torso, with forward body lean; Saw David Robinson played basketball the way a drum major might, everything straight up and down, perfect upright posture, chin up, and a little too exposed, as it turned out.
Remember when the Mailman KO'd the Admiral with a 'bow? Clocked, the Admiral saw stars, dropped like an anchor, like Eddie George, like an early Tyson vic. Got knocked the flock out. But, the thing is, David eventually woke up, came to, shook the stars, thunder and pain out of smallish head, maybe took a couple of Tylenol, then came back and kept playing without a single whine of complaint.
Lynn Swann should be so stoic, and quietly heroic.
David was a warrior of a different kind -- the kind that goes to the front, into the hot zone, rappelling into the drop area and does what he has to do even though he's intelligent enough to realize he might not be making it back. Not a crazed, obvious, mouth-breathing warrior, the kind that we usually make all the fuss about, but a civilized warrior.
While it's true, that you win with thugs, you do feel better about things when you can also win with David Robinson.
The Admiral played for coaches ranging from Larry Brown to Luke to Popa; not one offered up any complaints about him; which might make him unique among big men in recent NBA history. He never slapped around women or drove state-to-state with a key of Humboldt county sense in the trunk or cattily bitched and sniped about his teammates.
If Tim Duncan had come in and stolen the thunder of, say, Shaq or Kobe, or, God forbid, Jordan, there would've been some spitting and hissing and back-arching hissy-fitting.
He's the NBA, too. Yeah, David Robinson gave the troops over at Fort Hood someone to relate to, and cheer. They won't be forgetting 1999 over there, not any time soon. And for all I know, they won't be forgetting 2003 either.
Oh I know, you don't think of D-Rob balling spectacularly, or maybe even that well. He's had his share of detractors - "You're right about that, Dub, I sure don't, and I sure am," muttered Road Dog. Sometimes I get tired of Dog being in my head like Michael Jordan was once in the whole entire league's collective skulls, sometimes I roll my eyes at Dog's cynicism, but he's in there, in my head, making his snide but often accurate little comments, flinging his darts, so what are you going to do? I credit him for having a cruel but reasonable take, then try to get him past the censors.
"So according to you, what was his problem, Dog?"
"Stiff. No flexibility. None. And something soft about him. Great upper body, though. From waist up, great, seemed like he could handle Shaq even. Waist down, totally different guy. Like the Rock on top, Alex English underneath. Skinny, narrow-ass base. Bowling-pin game."
David Robinson's game was efficient and effective, not ethereal or sublimely inspirational; he couldn't move the spirit -- certainly not Dog's spirit -- but he could move the lights on the scoreboard. Remember when he dropped 71?
"He dropped 71, but on the L.A. Clippers."
"I don't care if it was St. Vincent/St. Mary's, it's still 71."
"Remember when Shaq and Kobe made him and Tim B. Dunkin disappear in the playoffs in 2001; blowed em right out of the water when everybody was settling in for some epic big-time run? Remember Disappearing Acts II?"
I also remember when Larry Brown was coaching up the Spurs into the playoffs back in the early '90s; the Admiral carried them into the playoffs; they played against Portland when the Blazers were buff. The Admiral went up for a playoff rebound, a different sort of gold to go get, and about four elbows crashed upside his head and shoulders at the same time. When he came down -- without the ball, by the way -- he wore the strangest face. Like, "So this is war." And also something like, "What the hell have I gotten myself into here. ... I should have asked for more money." He looked at the ref, Blaine Reichelt, or Jess Kersey, I don't remember, but whoever it was pointed nonchalantly the other way, the NBA basketball sign language for "Play on." And saying without saying, "This is what it is, kid." It was at that point that Ralph Sampson folded his card table and went home.
David Robinson, the Admiral, played on.
Not that you would have noticed, in the Age of Air.
"David ain't even in my Top 10 centers all-time," Dog said.
"He's 26th all-time among NBA scorers, was All-NBA first team four times, only 19 guys were first-team All-NBA more, any position. He's in my top TWO power forwards of all time, Dog, along with the guy on the other side of him, Duncan. I'd take either one before McHale, or Mailman, in spite of his points and his Sonny Liston thing."
"So take THAT, Dog."
"Uh, 13th, but that's not the point."
"Not if it's a rebound it ain't, not to David."
Dog notwithstanding, the Admiral got his ring.
He can't help it if Air got six, and our adoration fixation.
We all know Jordan was inside our collective head and the NBA's too, for lo these many years. But what's inside his?
That's REALLY why we're in the ATL to find out, amid the decadence, topless bars and 250,000 incoming visitors, minus one relieved Admiral, one David Robinson.
We will speculate about what's really inside Michael Jordan's head, and a few other matters, next Monday, in the NBA All-Star Game Uncensored Thought Balloons.
Meantime, let's all hope Ray Lewis stays home.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."