SAN ANTONIO (AP) — David Robinson was 37 years old when he rode off into the NBA sunset with a fresh Lawrence O’Brien trophy under his arm and his legacy as the greatest player in San Antonio Spurs history firmly intact.
It’s been 10 years since Robinson left his team in the hands of Tim Duncan and a couple of precocious and unpredictable young guards named Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Now it’s Duncan’s legacy that is being debated as the Spurs battle the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
“I was fortunate to end my last game on a win. I’d love to see that for Tim,” Robinson said. “I don’t know if this will be his last year. If they win it this time, there’s nothing to say they can’t win it again next year.”
Duncan turned 37 in April, but that’s where the similarities end. Everyone knew “The Admiral” was on his last legs back in 2003. Robinson, who scored 71 points in a game in 1994 to lock up the scoring title with 29.8 points per game, averaged just 8.5 points and 26.2 minutes in his final season. But he was able to deliver one last forceful performance — 13 points, 17 rebounds, 6-for-8 shooting — to close out the Nets in Game 6.
Duncan is still motoring right along. He averaged 17.9 points and 9.9 rebounds this season to earn first-team All-NBA honors for the 10th time.
The two became friends when Duncan was drafted No. 1 overall in 1997. Duncan would tease Robinson about getting old, and now it’s the 47-year-old Robinson who sees his younger friend dealing with those same issues.
“I’ve not been so small as to come back at him,” Robinson said with a chuckle. “When he came in, every once in a while I’d have to warm up a little longer than him and he’d tell me how much of an old man I was. I’d have to go ice my knees down and jump in the hot tub. He’s experiencing some of those growing pains.”
When Duncan worked out for the Spurs before being taken No. 1 overall, Robinson famously told then-owner Red McCombs: “He’s already better than me.” So began the plans for succession, which aren’t always met with open arms by aging stars. But Robinson had yet to win a title during his brilliant career, and Duncan helped deliver the first one in 1999 against the New York Knicks.
That made it a lot easier for Robinson to swallow his pride and let the Spurs become Duncan’s team.
“It’s not tough when you want to win,” Robinson said. “You realize what your limitations are. When Tim came in and we started working out together, it was clear to me this guy could score and he was going to be a great player. So it would have been stupid for me to say, `No, I want to keep leading the team in scoring.’
“Who cares? As long as we win, that’s all that matters.”
Duncan had 20 points and 14 rebounds in San Antonio’s Game 1 win in Miami, but the younger Spurs like Danny Green, Gary Neal and Kawhi Leonard played bigger roles in blowing out the Heat in Game 3 to put championship No. 5 within reach.
“He sees his limitations starting to come up and says, `Hey, Tony can carry this team just as well,'” Robinson said. “We give him good support, we’re still going to win and we all get the credit. So I think we just have smart players. There’s only one agenda on this team, and it’s been that way for 20 years.”
Duncan learned from Robinson about sacrificing personal numbers for the greater good, which is why the leadership transition from him to point guard Tony Parker has been so seamless.
It’s also one of the main reasons he was able to get back to the finals 14 years after his first appearance.
“I don’t know that there was a point where we actually said, I’m stepping aside and this is your team or whatever else,” Duncan said of taking over for Robinson. “There was kind of an evolution of my game and his game. It is happening the same way now with Tony and Manu. I don’t think I’ve stepped aside or anything else. Our roles have just changed. And we’re all comfortable with that, as long as we’re working toward the same goal.”
Robinson was the one who started that all, and there still remains a special place in San Antonio’s heart for the 10-time All-Star and member of the original Dream Team. But time can dim anyone’s star, even one as bright as the Admiral’s.
When he walked into Wheatley Middle School on Wednesday for an NBA Cares event to dedicate a new learning and play center, Robinson took a seat and waited for his introduction. Emcee Ahmad Rashad listed his many accomplishments — the Hall of Famer and the face of the franchise for 14 seasons — and Robinson received a warm ovation from the children who sat cross-legged a few feet in front of him.
Then came Danny Green, the no-name role player in his fourth year who was cut twice but had just exploded for 27 points the previous night. The place went bananas, a thunderous ovation for the man of the hour.
“Most of these kids don’t even know who I am,” Robinson said with a hearty chuckle and a wide smile after reading a book to them. “It’s great. It’s been a lot of fun. Even to be just a small part of it right now is pretty cool for me.”
There’s no bitterness in his voice. No yearning for one more night in the spotlight, one more roar from the crowd.
It’s been 10 years since Robinson retired after winning his second championship with the Spurs. A full decade since he last laced up the shoes professionally and went to battle in the paint with 20,000 fans screaming his name and 14 teammates looking to him to make the big play in the big moment.
“I miss the locker room,” Robinson said. “That’s where you make such good friends, and the competing from day to day is a lot of fun. But I like raising my kids. I’ve had my fun. That was great. And I enjoy now being a part of it the way I am.”
Somehow, some way, the same three kids — Duncan, Parker, Ginobili — Robinson left to carry the torch are still together. Still winning. Still Spurs. They’ve won two titles without Robinson, who showed them all how to be pros.
“They’re about the last ones I recognize on this team,” he said. “It’s great. You see the new generations coming now. Obviously Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard playing phenomenal basketball. Gary Neal’s doing a great job. Tony’s still a young guy. They’ve got all the pieces to keep it moving.”