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David Robinson
Robinson says he "worked some new things" into his game after watching rival players last season. Photograph by D. Clarke Evans/NBA Photos
Mr. Robinson Means Business

NBA Inside Stuff
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
November 1997

The admiral is back, leaner, meaner and really glad Tim Duncan's on his side.

"WHAT'S THAT?" TIM DUNCAN ASKS, his eyes concealed by a pair of sinister-looking black Ray-Bans. He's pointing to a 3-inch scar running along David Robinson's right biceps.

"It's from the game when I scored 71 points," says Robinson, wearing an identical pair of shades. "I was going to the baseline, and two guys just tackled me."

As NBA tutorials go, this one is a bit strange. Robinson, San Antonio's seven-time All-Star center, is instructing No. 1 draft pick Duncan, his new teammate and protege, on the finer points of NBA life. The two big men, along with backup center Will Perdue, have just completed a grueling, one-week training session in a high school gymnasium near Robinson's summer home in Aspen, Cob.

Now, between setups for an NBA INSIDE STUFF photo shoot in which they're dressed as Men in Black ("Protecting the NBA from the scum of the universe," as Robinson puts it), the Spurs' two franchise players are getting better acquainted.

Continuing the medical tour of his anatomy, Robinson nods toward the scar on his stomach. "This is from my hernia operation. For four weeks, I couldn't do anything. That's what got my back in such bad shape."

Suddenly, the conversation veers. Out of nowhere, Robinson asks, "Did you see Air Force One? It was awesome."

Duncan shakes his head.

"Contact?"

He shakes his head again. "I didn't think I'd like it at first," Robinson says. "But it was on my mind for three days. Traveling through space and through wormholes – it was a neat concept."

The photographer cajoles Robinson and Duncan to strike another pose. Duncan flexes his arms and wiggles his hips; Robinson reclines on the floor. Duncan razzes him: "You look sexy."

"Huh?" Robinson responds, feigning disgust.

"You look sexy."

"I'm supposed to be thoughtful," Robinson replies. "I've got a whole 'nother look for sexy. But we're getting close."

GETTING CLOSE - BUT NOT CLOSE ENOUGH. That's been the knock on David Robinson his entire career. Robinson was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1990, Defensive Player of the Year in 1992 and Most Valuable Player in 1995. From 1994-95 to 1995-96, no NBA team won more games than the Spurs. Yet only once has Robinson's team made it as far as the conference finals. And last season... well, that's one he would like to forget completely.

Robinson's troubles started when he suffered a mild hernia near the end of the 1995-96 season. Then, while leading the1996 Dream Team to a gold medal at the Olympics in Atlanta (he was the team's top scorer), Robinson aggravated both the hernia and a previous back ailment. He had surgery to repair the hernia but was unable to work out while recuperating, causing his back to deteriorate even more. He ended up missing the first 18 games of the 1996-97 season. He came back on Dec. 10 but played only six games before breaking his left foot in a game against Miami. Robinson returned to the injured list, where he remained for the rest of the season.

In his absence, it became obvious why Robinson is the team's franchise player. Without him, the Spurs – who were further devastated by injuries to Sean Elliott, Chuck Person and others – tumbled to 20-62, the worst mark in franchise history.

Now, watching a giddy Robinson as he leaves the photo setup to shoot baskets in the darkened gym, it's clear that he is anxious to make up for lost time. For starters, Robinson swears the back and the foot are fine. And only a blind person could fail to see how much he has bulked up, his bulging biceps threatening to rip through his skin. The biggest difference, though, is the guy standing next to him in the dark sunglasses, wearing No. 21.

No doubt about it, the luck of the draw in last May's draft lottery has dramatically improved the Spurs' prospects. Robinson knows that if things fall into place, San Antonio may be the team most likely to bust a dynasty. (Hear that, Michael?)

More important, the addition of a second franchise player has changed Robinson's outlook. As the team leader, he still bears the burden of carrying the Spurs. But Duncan's presence lightens his load considerably.

"You need other All-Stars," Robinson says. "That's what wins. Look at Chicago. You've got Michael Jordan, but you also have Scottie Pippen and Dennis [Rodman]. The other guys are good players and fill the holes, but you have to have the guys willing to stand out front. It looks like Tim's one of those guys. He's got all the skills. Just playing against him in the summer has convinced me it's going to be an awesome situation."

CERTAINLY THE SPURS HAVE NOWHERE TO GO BUT UP. Robinson grows agitated when discussing the frustration he felt on the sidelines during last season's debacle. "Just sitting there watching the games was tough," he says. '"But even tougher was watching teams [come] in and act like it was an automatic victory. Even the bad teams were [getting] a little attitude when they beat us."

Robinson tried to make the most of his bench time. "I studied and practiced different things I wanted to improve on," he says.

Normally, when you're playing so much, it's hard to try a [new] move. But last year, I watched a lot of players I admire to see what they do, and I got a chance to work some new things into my game. Most of all, [though,] it reminded me how much I enjoy playing."

It also reminded him how accustomed he had become to carrying the load by himself. And that's a burden he's anxious to share, now that Duncan is around. In fact, expect to see Robinson occasionally relinquish his traditional role as the Spurs' go-to guy. The goal is to give opponents a severe case of double vision.

"We have scenarios of David and Tim playing high and low post with them switching [between the posts] on both defense and offense," says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "It will be a happy problem to work out."

Spurs forward Elliott, for one, is eager to take the floor with his frontcourt mates. "We have more scorers now and great inside defenders," he says. "This will open up the offense and really open up my game."

Duncan, who played center exclusively at wake Forest, has no problems shifting to the 4. "I think [David and I] are both willing to adapt to whatever works best for the team," he says. "We're smart enough players to figure out how to complement each other without clashing too much. David will help me a lot, take a lot of stress off me."

It only took a few strenuous workouts together in Aspen for the Admiral to give Duncan his seal of approval. "[What's] important is that Tim [had] the desire to spend the extra time here with me, straight off rookie camp," Robinson says. "Most of what you do on the floor comes from preparation. That's what I've wanted to get Tim to understand: to know what it takes to train your body, to get yourself healthy and strong, and then to go out and perform."

Robinson should know. Since he resumed working out in earnest, he's been undergoing an aggressive conditioning and rehab program, with the focus on stabilizing his troublesome back. Since a strong back starts with a strong stomach, Robinson does between 500 and 1,000 sit-ups a day. "The back is so key on your hamstrings, your solar abs, everything," he says.

As the 32-year-old Robinson begins his ninth NBA season (he spent two years serving in the Navy), he can hear his body clock ticking. He may be stronger, leaner and more committed, but he also realizes that if he's going to lead the Spurs to a championship, he must do it now. "I don't know how many more years I've got - maybe five, maybe six. I don't see myself playing 20 years like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. The years have gone by quicker than I thought they would. [need] to take advantage of this opportunity."

All signs in San Antonio this season point back to the playoffs. But for the Spurs to become champions, Robinson understands that even with a healthy team and a potential superstar at his side, the Spurs' fortunes ultimately rest with him. And if all goes well, when June rolls around there might be more to remember in San Antonio than just the Alamo.

"I think if Tim comes out and plays the way he's capable of playing and I stay healthy and play the way I'm capable of playing, it's there for us," Robinson says. "We just have to go take it."

- Additional reporting by Glenn Rogers

[NBA Inside Stuff]


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