The Admiral on Leadership, Popovich, and Kawhi

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Photo by Joe Garcia

David Robinson is the perfect person to show love to San Antonio’s military families.

The Hall of Famer spent last Thursday night doing just that at Fort Sam Houston, speaking and signing autographs at a barbecue put on by the USO and Johnsonville Sausage to celebrate Military Spouse Appreciation Day.

“I know what it takes for the spouses of military families,” Robinson told the crowd, sharing stories about his own mother. “I know the energy, the effort, what it means, how you’re the backbone of the family. Thank you for your sacrifices for this country, for each other, and for keeping this country strong.”

Robinson isn’t just one of the best centers in history and a founder of this era of Spurs exceptionalism that has lasted for two decades. The NBA Community Assist Award is named after him, and for the past 30 years, he’s engaged with a city full of military families that he can uniquely relate to.

“My dad was missing a lot of the time as a young man, I used to spend a lot of time working by myself,” said Robinson, whose father also served in the Navy. “I know the price that people paid to serve our country. It’s a blessing to be able to come and encourage the families here that are paying that price for us.”

The Admiral, whose actual rank is Lieutenant, grew into a basketball prodigy at the Naval Academy. The Spurs took him first overall in the 1987 draft, even though he had to spend the next two years on active duty. The seven-footer with bowling balls for shoulders and biceps wasn’t going to fit in any submarines, battleships or fighter jets, so he served in the Civil Engineer Corps before making his pro debut in San Antonio.

“That was a stroke of luck, me being drafted here, and this being Military City,” Robinson said. “It fit who I am, it fit who Popovich is, it just worked out perfectly.”

When Robinson made his much-anticipated pro debut in San Antonio in 1989, the man who has become one of the greatest coaches in history was entering just his second year on an NBA staff.

“He was an assistant coach when I first got here, and you always have a different relationship with the assistant coaches. They can be your buddy, but the head coach can’t be your buddy, the head coach has gotta be the guy that kicks you in the pants sometimes,” Robinson said of Gregg Popovich. “That relationship changed a little bit when he became head coach, but the level of respect never changed.”

The two were cut from the same cloth, a perfect pair. Popovich graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1970, and the common ground between himself and Robinson was strong enough to be the foundation of a dynasty.

“Academies are phenomenal places, they’re leadership factories. They’re great places to be from, really hard places to be. Pop and I had that common ground, that common understanding, and I think a common expectation that there would be really no nonsense. We’re gonna get to work, we’re gonna figure out what the job is, and we’re gonna make it happen,” Robinson said. “That’s helped our relationship from the beginning.”

They were both molded by a culture that teaches not just discipline and problem solving, but leadership through selflessness and a total commitment to the shared goal.

“You’re always changing, you’re always adjusting to new leadership, new people. It gives you a real sense for the mission, you always focus on the mission and where you are. Are we all on the same team? We’re going in the same direction,” Robinson said. “It didn’t really matter who we had in our locker room, or who was out in the front office. We had a mission, we had a job, and we all strived to stay focused on that job, and I think they’ve kept that up over the years which has been a blessing.”

Pop and Robinson actually treated basketball like a military operation, and that approach produced the Spurs’ first ever title 20 years ago.

“I remember the journey, the struggle, trying to get to the top and figure out how to win it all,” Robinson said. “You never know what it’s gonna take to get over that hump. There’s always something, what are you missing?”

A second-year player named Tim Duncan certainly helped on that title run. Countless players, a few more Hall of Famers, dozens of coaches, and four more titles have come and gone since, but the culture and approach established by Robinson and Coach Pop remains unchanged.

Like most people with a vested interest in the Spurs, Robinson thought Kawhi Leonard was the model torchbearer for their legacy. Then the Klaw started ducking his calls, and we all know how it wound up.

“Obviously the whole Kawhi situation was kind of a nightmare situation for us,” said Robinson. “We felt like he was the perfect guy to follow up Tim, and to see that he really wasn’t happy here was surprising and disappointing. We felt like we were having to restart our gears a little bit.”

As someone who has been close with Gregg Popovich for almost his entire NBA coaching career, Robinson knows that this was one of his most challenging seasons yet. In the face of drastic personnel turnover, the Admiral is realistic but optimistic about the future of the franchise with DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, not to mention the young guys.

We still obviously have some things we’ve got to figure out. We’re not where we need to be yet, but we’ve got pieces, and that’s all you can really ask of a franchise,” Robinson said. “You’ve got to put your head down and keep plowing forward and figure out how to put the pieces together.”

Robinson very candidly said that he wasn’t sure that Pop was coming back this year after losing his wife, Erin. He went to the funeral at the Air Force Academy, where the two had met.

“Pop’s always been a rock for this franchise, he’s never flinched. I don’t care who you are that’s a tough thing to go through, you don’t know how people are going to react,” Robinson said. “I think it’s obviously been a great thing for him to coach, it’s a different sort of family for him, and I’m happy that he’s back. He’s fantastic.”

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