Jun 142017

As the NBA Finals and it’s multiple superstars wrapped up this week, I was reminded of some of the star basketball players I cheered for while growing up.

Of course, I am a Philadelphia 76ers fan so my loyalties reside there and many of my favorite players were Sixers.  I caught Julius Erving (Dr. J) only at the tail end of his career yet he remains my all-time favorite player.  There were some other Sixer greats from that era – Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, etc. – who hold a special place in my heart.  And then overlapping with the end of that era was one, Charles Barkley, who I got to see for his entire career.

So while Charles Barkley was my favorite active player for much of my childhood and adolescent years, there was a contemporary of his who held my fascination.  I was hardly alone in that fascination, because seemingly everybody wanted to “Be Like Mike”.  Yes, I was also a Michael Jordan fan.  How could a kid not dream of being Michael Jordan?  The guy was so cool and so great and had so many amazing and gravity-defying moves. Once he and his Chicago Bulls team had some time to mature, they went on to win 6 NBA championships, which could have been more like 9 or 10 championships if not for a couple premature retirements by Jordan.  Jordan became widely recognized as the greatest player ever to play the game and was arguably the most famous athlete in the world.  His successes were immense and much celebrated.

Yet there was another NBA player I took a liking to.  A superstar in his own right, David Robinson was an exceptional center for the San Antonio Spurs.  After fulfilling a two year commitment to the Navy upon finishing college, Robinson joined the Spurs and was instantly superb.  He won the Rookie of the Year award his first year in the league and followed that up with an MVP trophy a few years later.  Yet despite his significant personal successes, Robinson was unable to lead the Spurs to great success in the postseason until being joined later in his career by another superstar, Tim Duncan.  As Robinson recognized for the benefit of the team that Duncan needed to become the Spurs dominant player, he acted on such and allowed Duncan to pass him in the pecking order and was rewarded with two NBA championships near the end of his career.

So, Robinson finally won a couple championships but had to give up being the top dog to do so.  He would never be seen as a “Michael Jordan” who drove and willed his team to those championships.  In fact, before Duncan came along, Robinson was often criticized as being too nice, and that was blamed for preventing him from having ultimate success on the court.  Not that Duncan was a nasty personality of any sort (his temperament was actually similar to Robinson in many ways), but Robinson wasn’t viewed as being obsessed enough to lead his team to a championship and it took Duncan to come along to finish the job.

Yeah, David Robinson was a great player, and yeah, his team won a couple championships near the end of his career, but he just didn’t possess that killer instinct that some of the absolute greatest have had.  So he will always be remembered as a great, great player, but will also always be placed in an echelon lower than Michael Jordan and some other all time greats who seemingly did whatever it took to will their teams to victory.  Robinson achieved success in the game of basketball, but not to the extraordinary degree that Jordan had.

In the game of life, however, the story is a little different.  Yes, Jordan achieved greater success on the court and in the endorsement game and in the fame game.  But it is reputed that he often didn’t treat people very well in his drive to achieve that success.  While there is something to be said for being the tough guy or the bad cop in order to drive others to greater results, frequent stories are told about Jordan where he allegedly crossed the line into demeaning and abusive conduct toward others.  And as evidenced by his Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech, Jordan’s whole career was seemingly shaped around holding grudges against others and having to prove them wrong and exact revenge.  Jordan had a great need to demonstrate just how great he was at the expense of others.

David Robinson, on the other hand, while maybe being too “nice” to lead his team to a championship on his own, has left a legacy that is much broader than just having achieved fame as a great basketball player.  Ostensibly a family man, he has been involved in the lives of his three sons and remains married to his one and only wife for more than 25 years.  Many stories are told by those who know Robinson of the positive impact he has had on their lives and the lives of others.  And while many players will either support charities or even have one of their own, Robinson has seemingly been more deeply invested, both time wise and financially wise, in his charities and foundations and businesses giving opportunities to lower income communities than what is typically seen with most players.  From the narratives told, Robinson really cares about the well being of his charities and business ventures and the people involved.

Now I am sure Robinson has some skeletons in his closet, just like all the rest of us.  If we tried hard enough, I’m sure we could find some things to criticize him for beyond being too  “nice”.  But from my vantage point, I see a man who has done much to care for and reach out to other people and to treat them with respect and dignity.  A man who could have easily gotten caught up in his own fame and success, but had the humility to step aside and let someone else take his place as “top player on the team”, and throughout his life has maintained a focus on caring for other people and treating them right.  He has seemingly been successful in leading a life well lived.  And I believe this should be commended.

David Robinson achieved much success on the basketball court, yet he may have been able to achieve even more if he was only a bit more mean or nasty.  Michael Jordan had that mean streak and arguably achieved more success and fame than anybody else who ever played a game in a basketball arena.  But in the arena of life, I’ll take David Robinson’s “success” over Michael Jordan and many other successful basketball superstars.  Even though some types of success garner greater acclaim than others, some other types of success hold infinitely greater value.

As is said around here, “Make your own application”.

  15 Responses to “Kevin’s Conversations: A Different Kind of Champion”

  1. Always liked and admired David Robinson. Thanks for this Kevin!

  2. I will never forget the series in which Robinson was exposed by Hakeem Olajuwon. He was never the same after that.

  3. Josh,

    Yeah, it was the same year (1995) Robinson won the MVP. Robinson had the better regular season, but when it counted most in the playoffs, Olajuwon proved to be the greater competitor.

  4. I mean, he made him look lost out there. To that point in his career, Robinson had been dominant. I was amazed.

  5. All that said, I do like David Robinson, and Hakeem Olajuwon. Was never a Jordan fan, but now he owns the Hornets, so he’s good too.

  6. Yeah, I was quite disappointed because I was cheering for Robinson and the Spurs. Olajuwon took him to the woodshed. That’s why Olajuwon is probably placed in that top-tier of all-time greats, a level above Robinson.

  7. At my house, he will always be the Admiral.

  8. Not to bag on Robinson, bu I remember when he came out of the Naval Academy, him not having to serve the full five years was a dividing line for most NBA fans and watchers. I know they Navy said he was too tall, but it still divided NBA sheeple for a long time. Looking it back, I probably shouldn’t have cared too much either way, but I thought he did owe the country for his degree.

    Anyway, looking back, the entire Spurs team has been pretty boring in terms of negative publicity. I mean, what is the worst thing, Parker divorcing Longoria. Wow! In terms of negative pub, this team doesn’t even make the basement of the radar dept.

    And I think that is a good thing and the way Pop likes his team to be. Sure, they may not be perfect little angels, but compared to all the other teams in the big four sports and MLS, these guys go unnoticed for a reason.

    They just quietly go out and take care of business, which is rather refreshing for me, but boring for the news industry that always needs a villain or blood in the water to make the headlines.

  9. OCDan,

    Yeah I don’t know how much of Robinson’s shortened Navy commitment was about his height and how much was about giving him a break for his basketball career. I don’t know what the normal rules and policies are. But at the very least, the height thing does kind of make sense. I think it would be quite difficult for a 7-footer to serve in some of the cramped conditions on a ship. And since he didn’t qualify for the field, the official explanation given was that he qualified for a shortened commitment in more of an administrative role.

    (Robinson grew 6-7 inches while in college, so he may have met the height requirements when he originally enlisted.)

    As for the Spurs, because of the way the team has conducted themselves over all these years, with Robinson and Duncan leading by example, they have long been my 2nd favorite team in the league.

  10. Always a Duncan fan, since his days at Wake Forest. Though I was pretty surprised at what a great pro he became.

  11. Josh,

    The year Duncan came out the Sixers finished second in the lottery. They ended up drafting Keith Van Horn and immediately turned around and traded him for Tim Thomas. (Ironically, years later they made another trade to get back Keith Van Horn.) Oh, what could have been.

  12. Never draft white guys.

  13. Few years before that we drafted Shawn Bradley with the #2 pick. You may be onto something. 😉

  14. Charlotte always drafting white guys. I don’t have to go any further than Adam Morrison.

  15. FWIW – i had a very tall (very healthy) cousin who was turned down by the Navy because of his height… his brother was a couple inches shorter and served….

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