By Bob Socci
Originally published in 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship program.
David Robinson rejects a shot by Duke's Mark Alarie in the 1986 East Regional final in East Rutherford, NJ.
Several years ago, as a guest of an Annapolis, Md. radio show, former Navy basketball coach Paul Evans cracked a smile and recalled the night he paid a recruiting visit to the Northern Virginia home of Ambrose and Freda Robinson.
The Robinsons’ oldest child, David, was a teenager with an ear for Beethoven and an insatiable intellectual curiosity. His talents in math and science far exceeded any of the athletic skills yet to emerge during his brief high school career. He was mainly interested in becoming an engineer.
“What David was most excited about,” Evans chuckled at the memory of their meeting, “was showing me the television set he built.”
“I was a bit of an egghead as a kid,” Robinson joked, laughing as Evans’s line was recently repeated to him. “It was a big project. My dad and I were supposed to do it together, but he was away in the service. I felt pretty good that the thing actually worked.”
Robinson manufactured the large projection unit with parts of a kit mail-ordered from the Heath Company, whose customers included a young visionary named Steve Jobs. It showed that Robinson looked at life and saw a much bigger picture than the small world framed inside a basketball court.
That Evans was building a successful program at a service academy, one of the nation’s best engineering schools, didn’t escape Robinson’s view. Nor did the fact that Ambrose had what his son calls “a great experience” as a career Navy man.
But far more serendipitous than anything leading Robinson to Annapolis is what took place once he got there. He entered at 6-foot-6 and immediately underwent a growth spurt of seemingly mythological proportions.
The self-described ‘egghead’ became a legend known as ‘The Admiral,’ outstretching his 7-foot-1 frame to project a larger-than-life image. He led the Naval Academy on one of the most improbable and captivating journeys in NCAA Tournament history, before developing into one of the greatest pros of any generation with the San Antonio Spurs.
Along the way, Robinson, who was gifted with such good fortune, began to give back. Basketball may have ultimately made a career choice for him, but it didn’t stop Robinson from becoming an engineer.
He eventually went from assembling electronics to envisioning ways of educating children and connecting the components to lives lived more fully. The kid who once built a television decided to help others avoid the vast wasteland of missed opportunities.
Vernon Butler initially encountered Robinson during the winter of 1982-83. As a Naval Academy freshman, Butler was a linchpin of Evans’s efforts to make the Midshipmen consistent winners. Robinson was a skinny high school senior, playing his lone basketball season at Osbourn Park in Manassas, Va.
By the time they saw one another again, a year later, a remarkable transformation was underway.
“I first met David at a hospitality room we had set up for recruits after a game,” Butler remembers. “He was pushing 6-6 or 6-7. At one point, I looked him in the eye. The next time I saw him, I was looking up to him.”
Tall as he was, Robinson remained a long way from reaching his athletic ceiling, which was raised exponentially with every inch added to his height. He didn’t start a single game in 1983-84, but offered occasional glimpses of what he’d become. One occurred during a loose-ball flurry under the basket at Richmond.
“(David) grabbed the ball off the floor and rose for a vicious dunk,” Butler recently said from his office, as a vice president of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamlton. “I was standing next to him, and realized he was something special.”
Robinson’s skills continued catching up to genetics.
“He would work on a different move four or five times and have it down,” Butler explained. “His coordination and ability to adapt quickly were unparalleled. Another thing he had was impeccable timing.”
All of which enabled Robinson to glide across the court, combining the finesse of a soft left-handed touch with the power to rebound and reject shots with either hand, from any angle. Each performance was increasingly well-rounded. Much like the person himself.
“I thought he was a really fun-loving guy,” says classmate Doug Wojcik, who remembers Robinson’s engaging personality and easy laugh transcending the daily rigidity of Academy existence. “I describe David as a person with a great sense of humor and a lot of interests.”
“He had an ability to maintain balance with everything going on around him,” adds Butler. “David wasn’t one-dimensional, basketball wasn’t his life. He was a well-rounded person.”
As the country they had all sworn to serve was about to discover.
Robinson and Butler were perfect complements, as an inside scoring tandem on offense and anchors of a ‘2-3’ zone defense. Wojcik, who was promoted from Navy’s junior varsity to be its starting point guard in 1984-85, joined a deeply talented supporting cast.
And together they totaled 26 victories, won the ECAC South and marked Navy’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in a quarter century with a 78-55 rout of fourth-seeded LSU. But the Mids, seeded 13th, couldn’t maintain a late lead and narrowly lost to Maryland in the second round.
That summer, between his sophomore and junior years, Robinson could have left Annapolis without obligation to the Navy. Conventional wisdom suggested he transfer to eschew tours of duty and ensure the NBA riches he was likely to command.
Of course, Robinson didn’t see it the same way. As early as January 1985, he shared his insight with Sports Illustrated’s Jim Kaplan. Robinson spelled out the guarantee of a job upon graduation and the security of a possible military pension.
“I like the saying that’s in our home-game program: ‘Some college students learn what to do from 9 to 5,’” said Robinson, who would wind up as one of the game’s highest-paid players. “‘Midshipmen learn what to do from 22 to 47.’”
When Robinson joined the other four returning starters for 1985-86, Navy captured another conference title and rode a 13-game winning streak into the NCAA tourney.
The seventh-seeded Mids blew past the Golden Hurricane of Tulsa to set up a second-round rematch with Syracuse on the Orangemen’s home floor. In early December, Navy was beaten soundly inside the Carrier Dome, 89-67.
But with a berth in March’s Sweet 16 at stake, the Mids orchestrated a 34-point swing. Robinson thoroughly dominated counterpart Rony Seikaly, producing 35 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks in a 97-85 win.
Fellow upstart Cleveland State awaited in The Meadowlands, where Robinson grabbed 14 rebounds and rejected a startling nine shots. But it took the last two of his 22 points, delivered in the final six seconds, to lift Navy to a 71-70 victory.
One game and one team, Duke, separated the Mids from the Final Four. The tightly-knit group of young gentlemen soon to be officers were adopted as America’s Team.
None attracted more attention than the erudite seven-footer in his service dress blues. And yet no one seemed less affected. Robinson wasn’t thinking about making basketball history. Something more important was on his mind.
“It was another momentous step for me in becoming a man and making my own space in the world,”Robinson says 26 years later from San Antonio, where he and wife Valerie raise their family. “Having three sons, I know my boys want to get out of my shadow and create their own space. I just wanted to live up to what my dad had done.”
He certainly did that; no matter that the Blue Devils, not the Midshipmen, advanced by virtue of a 21-point win. Navy finished 30-5 and Robinson was voted All-America. He averaged 22.7 points and 13.0 rebounds per game, while blocking a Division I-record 207 shots.
Individual acclaim continued the following season, as the Navy team confronted a grueling national schedule. What seemed a farewell tour for Robinson included a visit to No. 1 UNLV and a matchup with Kentucky on Super Bowl Sunday.
As consensus player of the year, Robinson and the Mids secured a No. 8 seed and were paired with Michigan in the NCAA’s first round. It was Robinson’s final collegiate appearance. Memories of his grand exit — highlighted by 50 points and 13 rebounds — easily outlast any other details of a 97-82 decision.
More than 2,600 points, 1,300 rebounds and 500 blocks after after entering Annapolis, he was drafted first overall by the Spurs. But before ever playing a pro game, Ensign David Robinson reported for duty at a submarine base in Kings Bay, Ga.
Two years later, in 1989, he was allowed to join the Spurs. And two decades later, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. An All-Star in 10 of his 14 seasons, Robinson celebrated two NBA championships. He was also a three-time Olympian, helping the U.S. to a 23-1 record, two gold medals and a bronze.
For anyone else, it would truly be an amazing legacy. For Robinson, it’s anything but. Understanding his true legacy requires one to consider the overarching lesson of his time in Annapolis.
“The Academy taught me about service, and what service means,” he says. “The idea of laying your life down for your country, and how great this country can be.”
Robinson made what he calls his “first foray into education” in 1991, at the urging of his mother, Freda.
“My mom pushed me to consider this community, especially giving to children in San Antonio,” Robinson said. “She helped me to focus.”
Inspired by New York philanthropist Eugene M. Lang and his “I Have A Dream” Foundation, Robinson made a pledge to 94 fifth-graders at San Antonio’s Gates Elementary school. Anyone finishing high school would earn a $2,000 college scholarship. On David. In 1998, when 50 of those students received their diplomas, David was on hand.
About the time Robinson delivered his promise to the kids at Gates, he decided to deepen his spirituality with a well-chronicled religious re-birth. Guided by faith, and mindful of helping hands who touched his life, he sought more ways of reaching out.
“People helped me along the way,” says Robinson, who has since entered the ministry. “I just want to fulfill whatever God’s calling is for me on earth. It’s being spelled out step-by-step.”
In 2001 he founded The Carver Academy, an independent elementary school named for George Washington Carver. Originally accommodating a culturally-diverse body of 60 students, enrollment today exceeds 100. Virtually everyone is on scholarship, requiring Robinson to raise more than $44 million since its inception.
“Watching the school grow, and watching children grow is one of the great joys of my life,” he says.
Robinson is more than a benefactor. Many of his own loves — of foreign languages and classical music, for example — are incorporated into the curriculum. A big man with a broad outlook wants students to realize just how small the world is, after all.
“It’s not just being exposed to languages, but other cultures; the world is smaller than you think it is” says Robinson, who’s also a self-taught musician. “It’s been proven that music helps you learn in other areas. I know how it makes me feel when I play.”
He’s trying to instill in the children of Carver what his parents gave him, and his Annapolis experience reinforced.
“I want to produce the next great generation of leaders,” he says. “There’s a foundation of values that isn’t going to change. The world may change around you, but you’re always going to be able to come back to (those values)…They keep you grounded.
“It’s great to see what it’s meant to the kids. Not just the education part, but the relationship part. Kids represent our deepest hope. There’s so much there; the whole world awaits.”
Coinciding with Carver’s success, Robinson co-founded The Admiral Capital Group and The Admiral Center. The former is intended to create social impact via private investment. The latter partners with large corporations and celebrities, ranging from actors to athletes, to do what Robinson has done with Carver: sustain a project to benefit a community.
It’s no surprise for those who knew the Admiral when he considered himself an egghead to see Robinson involving so much of himself to help so many others.
“Every time someone mentions David’s name, they say what a great person and what a great role model he is,” Butler said. “He’s still seen as a gentleman’s gentleman.”
“David didn’t expect to be a superstar,” says Wojcik, the former head basketball coach at Tulsa. “It doesn’t surprise me that he turned (fame) around to help others, especially children. He’s somebody I’m proud to consider a friend.”
He’s also somebody who’s just getting started.
“(The future) is unlimited,” Robinson says in a rich baritone. “I’ve been given ridiculous favor. When you’re in a position of influence, with access, you can be a voice. I like to say, ‘If you have a strong voice, don’t whisper.’”
As longtime radio voice of Navy football, Bob recently called the Patriot League men’s and women’s basketball championships for CBS Sports Network. For samples of his broadcasting work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.