If you’re under a certain age, you might only know David Robinson from his time with the San Antonio Spurs. But there was a time – we’ll call it the mid-1980s – when he was a star player for the Naval Academy.
Almost 30 years later, Robinson, 49, still can’t get enough of March Madness – and college basketball in general.
“Oh man, this is the greatest time of the year sports-wise,” the NBA Hall of Famer told Damon Amendolara, who was filling in as host of CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “I’m glued to the TV for those first two weekends, so it’s a blast for me.”
In 1986, Robinson led Navy – a 7-seed – to within one game of the Final Four. Navy lost to Duke in the Elite Eight.
“That was a great experience,” Robinson said. “We didn’t get as many opportunities to play against teams like Duke and Syracuse. In the NCAA Tournament, we knew that this was the big stage. This was our big opportunity. And for me personally, it was a chance to go up against the best players in the country. So it was always a big moment, and if you can step up in those big moments, it’s a good view into the future. It gave me a lot of confidence.”
Robinson was the first overall pick in 1987 – a time when the Spurs weren’t the NBA Finals regulars they are now.
“The reason we got myself and Tim Duncan is because we weren’t very good,” Robinson said. “We got an opportunity to add some key players, but when I came in, we were 21-61 the year before. So (Gregg) Popovich and R.C. Buford and Red McCombs – all those guys, Peter Holt – have done a phenomenal job of building a perennial winner so that people don’t even remember those days.”
The keys to the franchise’s turnaround can be summed up in one word: professionalism.
“I wanted guys to come into practice and come into games and be ready day-in and day-out,” Robinson said. “From the previous guys that were there before, probably that was one of the things that was most lacking. So we started to make that turnaround then. When Popovich came in, he brought just a great coaching mentality. He understood that we’re going to be a defense-first team. We’re going to make stops, and we’re going to pound the rock. That was his big thing. We’re going to pound the rock – day-in and day-out – until it breaks.”
Popovich, it is worth noting, served in the Air Force – which was huge for Robinson.
“I think having somebody up in that front office that thinks like you do – military guys, very focused, very disciplined – I think it helped me and allowed the team to really gel and believe in ourselves,” Robinson said.
The Spurs have played in the NBA Finals six times since 1999, winning five of them. The only one they didn’t win? A heart-breaking seven-game series to the Miami Heat in 2013.
One of the secrets to the Spurs’ success is resting their star players throughout the season. Some people disagree with that practice – or simply don’t like it – but Robinson said it’s important.
“It’s just a long season,” he said. “There’s a lot of games and you’re trying to build your team. It’s not just your top guys. You’re not just trying to gets statistics for your top guys. You’re trying to be the best team in the league – and that means your role players have to be ready to step up and do their jobs. The guys coming off the bench have to be guys that you know you can count on. When it comes playoff time, your rotation is going to go from 10 guys down to six or seven. So who are going to be those seven guys? You’ve got to find all those things out.
“Pop is not afraid to put assistant coaches in a position where they have to coach,” Robinson continued. “He’s not afraid to put payers in a position where they have to step up. I think he’s patient with players. Kawhi Leonard has really grown into a monster now. He’s incredible. So Pop is good at that. He understands the rhythm of the season. It’s a long season. People get upset because they want to see the stars, but you also want your team to be the very best team it can be.”