The wait was well worth it for the San Antonio Spurs. The team was in the middle of an embarrassing stretch of six years without a winning record, but when David Robinson finally got to play during the 1989-90 season, that all changed.
Robinson, selected out of the Naval Academy with the first pick in the 1987 NBA Draft, had to fulfill two years of military service before joining the Spurs. The team was in dire straits, and owner Red McCombs was thinking about taking drastic measures. As an embarrassed rookie, Robinson saved the Spurs.
David Robinson was too good to pass up for the San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs had just gone 28-54 during the 1986-87 NBA season, and they had the top pick in the upcoming draft. Robinson was considered the best player in the draft, but if the Spurs chose him, they had to wait two years for him to complete his military duties. They selected the 7-foot-1 center, and their patience paid off.
The next two seasons were a struggle, something the Spurs were growing accustomed to. In the 1987-88 season, they went 31-51, and the following season they bottomed out at 21-61. When Robinson came on board, things quickly changed.
As a rookie, Robinson played all 82 games, starting 81. He finished the 1989-90 season by averaging 24.3 points and 12.0 rebounds per game. He was also a defensive force, putting up 3.9 blocks per contest. The Admiral guided the Spurs to a 56-26 record and a berth in the Western Conference Finals. At the time, it was the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history.
David Robinson was embarrassed by all the attention he was getting for saving the San Antonio Spurs
Before Robinson got to the Spurs, team owner Red McCombs was wrestling with what to do with the team. He knew the franchise would be worth more if he moved it out of San Antonio, but that was Plan B. He wanted to do whatever it took to make it survive in the city.
In November 1989, Robinson’s first full month as a starter for the team, McCombs had a goal of selling 10,000 season tickets that year. By opening day, he sold only about 7,800. If that goal wasn’t met by the end of the year, “then, yes, we have some decisions to make,” McCombs said, according to Sports Illustrated.
Was he talking about moving the team?
“I don’t want to say that yet,” he said. “Obviously, the team is worth more away from here, but I want to make it work here. Now! And I think we can.”
Robinson helped put seats in the stands with his play. They were one win from reaching the NBA Finals, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers in seven games. Robinson won Rookie of the Year and was an NBA All-Star for the first seven years of his career. As a rookie, however, he was embarrassed by all the attention.
“All the attention I’ve received is, well, embarrassing because I’m still trying to make my place in the league,” he said. “It’s easy to lose your priorities and your identity. Particularly when you don’t even have an identity.”
Robinson’s identity grew quickly with the Spurs
Robinson immediately turned the Spurs into contenders. They were a playoff team each year with their big man in the middle until the 1996-97 season. Robinson broke his foot early in the season and was limited to six games. Without him, San Antonio finished with the third-worst record in the NBA at 20-68.
Despite having two teams with worse records, the Spurs overcame the odds and wound up with the first pick of the 1997 NBA Draft. They selected Tim Duncan, another franchise-altering player. Robinson and Duncan teamed up to win their first title in the 1998-99 season. The Spurs defeated the New York Knicks in five games.
Robinson won another title with the Spurs in his 14th and final season in the NBA. For his career, he averaged 21.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks per game. He was a 10-time NBA All-Star and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.
In the end, Robinson was the Spurs’ savior. His immediate impact prevented McCombs from digging into Plan B.