. . . And Here’s to You, David Robinson : San Antonio Spurs Begin Their Courtship of No. 1 Draft Choice in an Effort to Get the 7-1 Center to Say, ‘Yes’
The weekend before, John Paul II had toured the town. This visit, Angelo Drossos confided, was bigger than the Pope’s.
For Drossos, the majority owner of the San Antonio Spurs, the long-awaited arrival of David Robinson was a glimpse of basketball heaven.
“Hopefully, he will lead us to the Promised Land,” Drossos said.
This was San Antonio’s first chance to persuade the 7-foot 1-inch Naval ensign, who was college basketball’s Player of the Year, to drop anchor here, in the backwaters of the National Basketball Assn.
Under normal circumstances, that would be as simple as writing out a check big enough for a down payment on an aircraft carrier--the going rate for a No. 1 draft choice these days.
Most No. 1s would have no choice but to sign, unless they were willing to be a hired American gun in Italy, or pursue another line of work for a year, until the next draft.
But this situation is unique--for Robinson, the Spurs and the NBA. Before he can change from dress whites and spit-polished shoes to shorts and high-topped sneakers, Robinson must fulfill a two-year obligation to the U.S. Navy. Since he can’t play for pay, there is nothing compelling him to sign with the Spurs. If he waits a year, he could go back into the draft--a point disputed by the Spurs, who claim he would remain their property for two years under a league bylaw pertaining to military service.
And should Robinson not sign with anyone for two years, he would be a free agent, at liberty to become the object of what would surely be one of the most expensive auctions in sports history. Twenty-seven teams--the NBA will have added four franchises by then--would have the right to bid for Robinson’s services.
For the Spurs, of course, that is a worst-case scenario, which was why Drossos was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to make Robinson’s first impression of San Antonio--he had never set foot in Texas--a lasting one.
How extraordinary? For openers last Friday, Drossos chartered a private jet to fly to Washington to pick up David’s parents, Ambrose and Freda Robinson; his brother Chuck, and his agent, Lee Fentress of Advantage International. From there, it was on to King’s Bay, Ga., and the Trident submarine base, where Robinson works as an engineer, to pick up the guest of honor.
There to greet them at the San Antonio Airport were a mariachi band, a state senator who made Robinson an admiral in the Texas navy, and nearly 700 fans, some of whom were carrying “Say Yes, David” signs.
Drossos also flew in several Spur players, among them Alvin Robertson and Johnny Dawkins, for the sole purpose of taking Robinson out on the town.
The next morning there was a helicopter tour of the city conducted by its biggest celebrity, at least until Robinson signs. That would be the mayor, Henry Cisneros, who knows something about charisma--in one election, he drew 94% of the vote.
Then, it was into limousines for a trip to a posh country club, where Robinson played tennis with Spur assistant coach Lee Rose and golf in a fivesome that included Robinson’s father and Drossos.
“Water, water, everywhere,” muttered Drossos, keeping with the nautical motif, after plunking his ball into a hazard.
Dinner was served at a French restaurant, and the next morning, there was a round of meetings with Spur officials at the team’s new offices. Then one last press conference, at which Cisneros made an encore appearance. City business?
“What’s good for the city of San Antonio is the city’s business,” Cisneros said.
Obviously, this was more than a good-will gesture by the mayor, who has already convinced Sea World to build a theme park here and would like to see Robinson come aboard, as well.
Perhaps that’s why it sounded like the mayor was offering Robinson a post in his administration rather than the low post in the Spurs’ offense. If widening the San Antonio River to let a battleship sail through would help, Cisneros joked, he was willing to do it.
“I’m very impressed with the quality of young man David is,” Cisneros said. "(But) not only because of his athletic prowess and talent and intelligence, but in the areas of discipline his high values and character.
“I know those values would wash well in San Antonio.”
Drossos had shelled out an estimated $50,000 for the three-day weekend, and Robinson was impressed by the reception he received.
“I’m trying to stay neutral,” Robinson said before the roomful of TV cameras. “But it’s hard to hold back. It’s great to be wanted. It’s hard to hold back that smile and say, ‘Thank you.’ ”
But later, after a water taxi ride along the city’s River Walk, Robinson sat in back of the limousine returning him to the airport and made it abundantly clear that he had not yet decided that the Spurs were his most deserving suitor.
“Visiting a city is one thing,” he said. “Deciding whether I want to play basketball for the Spurs is another.
“This is one of those million-dollar guesses you take in your life. I’ve already had to make some tough hard decisions (choosing to remain at the Naval Academy after his sophomore year, picking an agent), but this one is fantastic. Either way, you can’t go wrong. This will turn out either pretty good or fantastic.”
Bob Bass, the Spurs’ general manager, has been in basketball for 20 years. He once worked for Charlie Finley, the maverick baseball owner who also owned the Memphis franchise in the old American Basketball Assn.
“I remember Charlie talking about his Oakland A’s teams that won three world titles and telling me every player he had wanted to play in either New York or L.A.,” Bass said.
That, of course, is the Spurs’ greatest fear, that Robinson will opt for one of the NBA’s more glamorous ports of call, especially Boston or Los Angeles.
“There are a lot of things that go into the equation,” said agent Fentress, who represented last year’s No. 1, Brad Daugherty of Cleveland--and the late Len Bias--and worked in Teddy Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1980.
“There’s the city of San Antonio, and the franchise itself. Will they be contenders and if so, when?
“They’re out of the mainstream of the NBA in a sense.”
The Spurs, who won five division titles in a span of six seasons ending in 1982-83, missed the playoffs last season for the second time in the last four. Their record of 28-54 was fourth-worst in the league, and represented a 25-game swing since going 53-29 in 1982-83.
Only the Clippers drew fewer people last season, when the Spurs’ average attendance was a franchise-low 8,009, almost 4,000 people a game fewer than their peak of 11,907 a game in 1978-79.
The team did not make a single appearance on network television last season and only two as part of the NBA’s cable-TV package with WTBS. And San Antonio’s local TV market ranks about 40th nationally.
“People back on the East Coast didn’t even know whether George Gervin was still playing,” said Ambrose Robinson, referring to the Spurs’ most famous player, who recently was hired to work in the team’s front office.
That’s not an attractive picture to someone with the marketability of Robinson, whose appeal will surely soar if he leads the U.S. team to a gold medal next September at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Already, Fentress has set up a trust fund approved by amateur basketball’s ruling bodies in the U.S. and internationally--that would allow Robinson to make endorsements and retain his amateur eligibility. A shoe contract and ball endorsement are in the works.
So, where does that leave San Antonio? Crossing its fingers.
“In terms of national marketing, if you’ve got a guy who’s real visible, they’re going to come to him, no matter where he plays,” Bass said. “They’ll find him and seek him out. You could put him in El Paso, and he’d still make commercials.”
Bass gestured at a framed picture of Julius Erving behind his desk. “David Robinson could end up being like that guy there,” Bass said. “I don’t care where he (Erving) played, people would go see him play, with the charisma he had.
“And you could put Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) in damn Laredo, and he’d still do something.”
There was one thing the Spurs could not offer Robinson last weekend--money. The moratorium on contract negotiations, designed to facilitate a new collective bargaining agreement, won’t expire until Oct. 1. Drossos, a lifelong resident of San Antonio, instead chose to talk about quality of life. Robinson’s choice, he said, was to be a big fish in a small pond or a big fish in a big pond, and he just might find the smaller pond more desirable.
“Obviously we’re different from New York and L.A., and he’s going to be well compensated regardless where he’s playing,” Drossos said.
“And after the first $150,000, what’s the difference? Then, the quality of life becomes more important than making more money.
“There was a time in my life, if someone had offered me $15,000 to go to Lower Slobovia, I would have gone and kissed them on both cheeks. Now, I wouldn’t go to Lower Slobovia for all the money in the world.”
There are billboards throughout the city proclaiming the Spurs’ new theme: “Say Yes, San Antonio, to the Future of Your Team.” The Spurs are gambling the credibility of their franchise on Robinson being a part of that future.
And perhaps the credibility of a city as well. Cisneros has dreams of making San Antonio a big league city, which is why he’s pressing so hard for a new domed stadium to be built downtown on the site of the Alamo Iron Works. Robinson’s presence would help.
“He will be playing his critical years in the 1990s, and San Antonio has big plans for the 1990s,” Cisneros said. “He can be good for San Antonio and San Antonio can be good for him.”
For now, the Spurs’ alternatives, etc., are two Laker rejects--Petur Gudmundsson, who did not play at all last season because of a back injury, and Frank Brickowski. It’s no wonder, then, when the mayor praised Spurs’ Coach Bob Weiss for his magic tricks, that Weiss shot back: “I proved last year that magic doesn’t work. We need players.”
Bass said the Spurs have no intention of trading Robinson’s draft rights.
“We made a commitment last December that we needed to rebuild this club,” Bass said. “That’s the reason we traded Mychal Thompson and Artis Gilmore and the reason we played our young players when at times it hurt us.
“We don’t need stars from another team. We have a nucleus of six or seven young players, and David Robinson is another piece of the puzzle. It’s extremely important to this franchise to sign him.”
Even if it means rolling the dice with that franchise?
“We’re always willing to take that risk,” Bass said. “When the league expands by four teams, think how many teams will have centers 6-foot-8 or 6-foot-9. There won’t be enough big people to go around.”
Robinson’s best basketball is still in front of him Bass said, noting that he didn’t start playing until his senior year in high school.
“He wasn’t on the playground at 12 or 13 like Magic Johnson was, or taking 300 shots a day like George Gervin,” Bass said.
Weiss can wait two years, if it means having Robinson.
“When he came here I wanted to know whether he had an open mind or had made his mind up,” Weiss said. “He definitely has an open mind. I’m very optimistic.”
Long odds, apparently, don’t faze folks around here. Remember the Alamo?
The Lakers’ scenario: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar plays two more years, then bows out. Does Jerry Buss abandon ship? Hardly. David Robinson, fresh out of the Navy, signs with the Lakers, Buss deeds him half of Marina del Rey, gives him a swimming pool big enough to float a destroyer, and the dynasty continues.
David Robinson stretched his legs in the limousine and smiled.
“I’ve heard that before somewhere,” he said. “Half the little kids in the country want to grow up playing for the Lakers, but I never did. But that sounds good.
“To the people of San Antonio though, it sounds good if I’d play for them in two years.”
Robinson acknowledged his reservations about playing for the Spurs.
“You look at the Spurs on paper and that’s a lot of trouble,” he said. “Losing seasons, the attitude is down, and you think you don’t want to get into that. And then you look at the Lakers and you see it’s wonderful, they’re in the finals every year. It would be a great situation to win 60 games a year.
“But behind the scenes, you never know what’s going on. You really don’t. I talked to a couple of guys on the L.A. team, and they seemed pretty happy. But I knew some good teams in college that were not happy playing together. To me, that’s important.”
Robinson, who said he derived a great deal of satisfaction in building Navy’s program, sees a similar opportunity to do the same for the Spurs. At the same time, he recoiled from the idea of being burdened with unreasonable expectations like Patrick Ewing has been in the two years in which he has failed to turn around the New York Knicks.
“I think he’s a great player and I don’t think he’s deserved all that bad publicity,” Robinson said.
“I don’t want to be put in a situation like that. I have confidence in my ability. I believe I can become a very very good player. But I don’t want people to expect I can come down here and move mountains. It’s not that easy.”
For now, Robinson said he feels no pressure to make a decision.
“There are obvious disadvantages (to playing in San Antonio) if you have a lot of other interests you want to get into. If you’re going to work in a small pond there are sacrifices you make.
“I just want to be a great basketball player. That’s my main goal.
Where will that goal be fulfilled?
“You appreciate some people here and the city,” Ambrose Robinson said. “But it’s still up to Dave. He has to make that decision. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”