David Robinson (left) celebrates with Tony Parker after winning the 2003 NBA Finals. Robinson won two championships and a league MVP award with the San Antonio Spurs. (James Nielsen/AFP/Getty Images)

In the NBA playoffs, the two-time defending champion Miami Heat are taking on the San Antonio Spurs in a rematch of last year’s finals. David Robinson is a man who knows more than a little about appearing on the NBA’s biggest stage. Over the course of 14 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, Robinson won two NBA championships. He also earned the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and MVP awards and was an All-Star 10 times.

Robinson joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game to discuss his career and the 2014 NBA Finals.

BL: Let’s start with your early days in the league. In 1987, you were the top pick in the NBA Draft, but as a graduate of the Naval Academy, you were scheduled to serve two years in the Navy. When you made your NBA debut in 1989-90, you were dominant and earned the Rookie of the Year award. What did you do to stay “basketball sharp” during that two-year period?

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DR: Well, I got a chance to go down to Florida. I was based out of a little base in southern Georgia, a submarine base, a brand-new base, so there wasn’t a lot of folks down there. But I worked out with the team at the University of Jacksonville for a little while, and that was about the only contact I had with basketball until the Olympics in 1988.

BL: That was one of the three times you had the opportunity to represent the U.S. in the Olympics.

DR: Yes, I played in ‘92 with the original Dream Team, and then again in ’96 with what they labeled “Dream Team III.”

BL: In 1994, you scored 71 points in a game against the Clippers on the last day of the season and clinched the scoring title. At the time you were the fourth player to score 70 or more in a game. Did that game have a different feel from the opening buzzer?

DR: It did. It was the last game of the season. I was in a race for the leading scorer in the league, and I think I was maybe a couple of points ahead of Shaquille O’Neal. My coach was John Lucas, and John is a very enthusiastic coach, so he made it a point at the beginning of the game. He said, “Hey, we’re gonna put up a number that’s gonna blow his mind today,” and then he said, “I want you to shoot every single time you touch the ball.” He told the guys before the game, “No one else shoot the ball.”

From the beginning of the game, you know — I wouldn’t have kept up with it if I had been missing shots, but I did actually make a bunch of shots in the first quarter. I think I scored like 20-something points in the first quarter. So we were having fun with it, and the guys on the team were encouraging me. And, you know, it’s something that I wouldn’t have set my mind out to do, and I was glad that the coach pushed me to do it because it’s something I’ll always remember. But all I ever really cared about was winning. You know, the individual stats, that stuff is fun, but it doesn’t last. Somebody else is gonna come along and break your records. But the memories that you take are forever.

BL: You had played eight seasons in the NBA when the Spurs used another No. 1 pick to land Tim Duncan, who’s still with the team today. How did it change your game to suddenly have another big man capable of scoring lots points on the floor beside you?

“The individual stats, that stuff is fun, but it doesn’t last. Somebody else is gonna come along and break your records. But the memories that you take are forever.”
– David Robinson
DR: Oh, it was outstanding. It took a lot of the pressure off of me. When you’re the lone big guy in there, they can double-team you or they bring help from all over the place, they can really focus on you — especially around playoff time. Playoff time, if you’re the main scorer, they have to really work hard to either deny you or make you give the ball up. But with Tim on the other side of the block, there was nothing they could do. Between the two of us we represented a healthy threat for them in the low post, and both of us could make shots from anywhere around the floor, too. So that took a lot of pressure off my game, and it just made the game a lot more fun.

BL: The success of the Spurs over time has lots of people praising Coach [Gregg] Popovich. At the level the Spurs and the Heat have reached, how much of a coach’s job is it to just stay out of the players’ way?

DR: Well, I wouldn’t say stay out of the players’ way — that’s not exactly how I’d phrase it. But I think in the NBA, the coaches are managers. In college, they’re more teachers. You know, you’ve got to take a raw kid and turn him into a real player, so you spend a lot of time developing players.

In the NBA, I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily true. Players have to be more responsible to improve their physicality and improve their skill level on their own. In the NBA, you’re taking a bunch of different talents and you’re managing them. You have to give them a system, you have to give them a belief. That’s why coaches like Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich are so great because they gave the team confidence in the system and in their ability to execute night in and night out.

And so that’s really the key to being a great coach, and Popovich is that. He’s a phenomenal tactician, studies the game extremely thoroughly, knows what to do in given situations, but also puts you in a situation where you can be successful. You can see that with guys that weren’t necessarily highly drafted; we’d bring in these guys on the bench, a guy like Kawhi Leonard or Manu Ginobili or even picking up guys off the street — Patty Mills, who nobody even heard of before he came to San Antonio — and put them in a situation where they can really be effective and have a high level of confidence. Popovich is outstanding at doing that.

BL: You were a peer of Michael Jordan’s, and, for better or worse, Miami’s LeBron James is constantly compared to Jordan. But what stands out to you about how James plays the game?

DR: You know, I see a lot of similarities in their dominance, their mentality. LeBron’s dominance and his focus reminds me a lot of Michael. Michael, to me, he was an assassin. He was one of those guys that prepared himself extremely well and was relentless in his attacking. And there are a few guys who have that mentality. I think Kobe Bryant has that type of mentality, and LeBron has that type of mentality. They’re just attacking you all the time. You have to marry that with the talent level, marry that with the toughness, the edge, the ability to hit big shots at big times, and I think LeBron has a lot of that.

BL: When NBA players are honored with the Community Assist Award for public service they receive the David Robinson plaque, which was named for you in 2003. How did giving back come to be such an important part of your career and life?

DR: I mean, clearly that comes from mom and dad. You know, just being raised in a home where my mother, from as early as I can remember, always taught me to be thinking about other people first, basically that our service was going to be the measure of our success. And you know, it didn’t matter how much money you make — that was never a focus in my house, to go out and get a great job so you could make money. My dad was enlisted in the Navy; my mother was a nurse. It just was never a thought process. It was just go to the best school you can go to, do the best you possibly can do and be the best person you can possibly be, and I think our faith had a lot to do with that.

BL: Do you have a favorite memory, other than the winning itself, from either the 1999 or 2003 Finals?

“People criticized me a lot about my faith because some of [my teammates] felt like it was more of a weakness than a strength.”
– David Robinson
DR: Seeing our team come together, especially in ’99 when we had all of these different personalities. My personality was one where I felt like, hey, if I’m coming into this locker room and I’m being the leader, I’m gonna bring who I am into this locker room and not be ashamed of it. So you know, my faith was a big thing, and so people criticized me a lot about my faith because some of the guys felt like it was more of a weakness than a strength.

But my best memory was after we won the championship and we were going out to celebrate. There was 40,000 people in the Alamodome, and we were getting ready to go in and have a great celebration, and one of the guys on the team who really wasn’t that happy with me bringing my faith into the locker room stopped us before we went in and said, “Hey, before we go out here, let’s pray together.” So to me, that was a great moment. It was just a personally satisfying moment after a lot of criticism, then seeing it become such a strength of our team. And I think over the years it really has been a blessing.

BL: Finally, and I think I know the answer to this question because of the way you’ve been using the pronoun “we,” but who do you like in the Finals? The Heat or the Spurs? 

DR: I do like our chances. The Spurs have played very well this year on a consistent basis. They’ve proven that they’re the best team. Now the question is, does the best team always win? No. And I think that Miami, as a returning champion, deserves a ton of credit and a ton of respect. But if you’re just asking me who I think is going to win, I’d think we would win in a seven-game series.