How David Robinson’s Navy Days made him a basketball legend

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Anyone who’s ever followed basketball knows that Hall of Fame center and two-time NBA champion David Robinson is one of the titans of the game. But Robinson — also a 1994 NBA scoring champion and 10-time All-Star — says his time in the military and at the United States Naval Academy made him the player he was.

“The Naval Academy challenges you, and it’s not the place where you don’t want to be a leader,” said Robinson, who graduated in 1987 and served at the Naval Submarine Base in Kings Bay, Georgia, before being drafted No. 1 in the NBA was chosen. “The Navy really shaped the way I played basketball and how I got into the locker room.”

With the 121st Army-Navy game scheduled to take place on Saturday, December 12, Robinson has partnered with the game’s presenting sponsor, USAA, to provide fans across the country with no live fans ahead of the game’s first meeting inspire.

Yesterday I spoke to Robinson, also known as “The Admiral” in basketball circles, about his time in basketball and how crucial his time at the Naval Academy was in his development as a person and as a player.

Andy Frye: The Army-Navy Game is this weekend. Talk about the importance of this game to military families and grads.

David Robinson: It’s one of the best examples of quality rivalry in all sports. There is no question that military service is special. I think knowing when you’ve served gives you (with other veterans) a really unique bond. I keep in touch with a lot of people I’ve played with, but also people I’ve ministered with. I’ve been in finance and private equity for about 15 years now and I’m always looking for opportunities to do business with them and reconnect with them. There is another level of commitment and responsibility to one another that we share. It’s an incredible family.

With fans unable to come to the game this year, we’re trying to ensure Army and Navy fans continue to connect around the game. Everyone follows the game can connect and send picturesand vie for tickets to next year’s game, and also get involved in what I think is one of the most important events in college sports.

AF: You definitely excelled in basketball known in college (like many) known for football. What was the dynamic?

David Robinson: When I got into the Navy, football was king. So the whole brigade was excited about football and the games and we had to build some kind of basketball culture there. I remember lifting weights with the soccer team as a freshman. I was very skinny and I think I gained about 60 pounds in the first two years with them.

It was fun building the basketball program there. And as a midshipman, I became part of a culture that was very narrow and built around serving a higher cause.

AF: You’re one of a handful of military NBA players. How did the Navy help David Robinson become such an influential player?

Robinson: The academies are there to educate leaders, and they do that — and they do it just as well as any institution in the country. They put us in a situation where we are stressed but make us understand the responsibility as a leader. You take responsibility, you don’t apologize, you move on.

The experience made me question: was I willing to take responsibility for helping others achieve their goals and strengthening my team? I think over the long run it has allowed me to improve my team and my NBA franchise as much as possible.

AF: Speaking of leaders, Gregg Pop0vich is a respected coach with his own style. How did you work to help Spurs blossom into multiple championships?

Robinson: Pop is amazing, and part of that is that we’re cut from the same cloth. [Note: Popovich is an Air Force graduate.] I think that’s why we understood each other. He’s no nonsense, with a “let’s get the job done” mentality.

In a small market like San Antonio, you have to have a bigger goal. If all you want as a player is to make money, go to a bigger market. But if you’re interested in building something like an entire culture, like I was a part of at Navy, then you have to dig deep and do it with fewer resources than a big franchise will have. I think Pop accepted that responsibility and was really looking forward to that challenge. I think he and (Spurs CEO) RC (Buford) have done a tremendously good job of maintaining high quality with fewer resources than a Laker team or a New York team could have.

AF: Each generation brings a different dimension into play. How would David Robinson fare in today’s NBA?

Robinson: Wow. I would like to think that my game was flexible. I would ram the ground, (but) I could definitely walk with the boys today. I like kicking the ball but I like dipping it better than shooting it so I don’t know how I would fit into that group. (Laughs) Many of today’s players would rather shoot it than dunk it.

I always thought defense was the most important thing we’ve done on this floor, and I think that’s taken a bit of a backseat with the current crop. I’d like to think I’d do well today, but the big men might seem a little less valuable because of the style of a lot of teams. But if you want to win championships, you need good men.

Read along with Frye’s interviews Shaq, Scottie Pippen and Anthony Davis.

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