On top of his game, Robinson grows accustomed to fame


February 10, 1991|By Bill Glauber Brad Townsend of the San Antonio Light contributed to this article.

None of it registered with David Robinson. Not the packs of kids who followed him through shopping malls asking for autographs, not the frantic security men who formed human wedges to pull him through crowds of fans that milled around hotel lobbies, not even the applause that rained down each time he was introduced in arenas from Atlanta to Washington.

Fame was the four-letter word he refused to consider. Fame is for players like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, guys who ooze charisma from every pore, performers who play the Stadium and the Forum like Sinatra once played the Paramount.

Then came the call. Robinson arrived home after a practice, flicked on his telephone answering machine, and heard the voice of a personal hero, jazz musician Grover Washington Jr.

Grover for David. Fame.

"He's like my favorite," Robinson said. "I sit there listening to his tapes all the time trying to play him on my horn. I called him back and talked to him. I was just shocked that he knew who I was. He said, 'I love your work,' and all this stuff. It just never ceases to amaze me. I don't really think that what I do is all that great. I have fun doing it and everything, but it's so wild when other people know who I am."

Robinson is growing accustomed to his status as a celebrity. He is three years removed from the Naval Academy and 1 1/2 seasons into a National Basketball Association career with the -- San Antonio Spurs. He is not yet a Michael or a Magic, but he is fast closing the popularity gap. His image, made up of equal parts brains and brawn, is being parlayed into millions of dollars in off-court endorsements.

What makes Robinson's popularity remarkable is this: he is a 7-foot-1 center. He is Goliath. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the great centers of the NBA's past, were athletes to be feared and loathed. They were winners and villains. People paid to see them lose. Abdul-Jabbar broke out of that mold in the final years of his career, when he was viewed as an elder statesman.

But Robinson is different. He is the center as hero, a new phenomenon in the NBA. His play is captivating. He is a big man with the quickness of a guard and the touch of a violinist, an enforcer who protects his turf cooly, politely, effectively. He already has won the league's Rookie of the Year award, and is an MVP in waiting, the center of the '90s, say no less than three authorities named Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Pat Riley.

Robinson's image is Teflon-coated, certified by his four years at the Naval Academy and two years of active military service. He is a thinking man's star, a student who scored 1,300 on his SATs, a would-be scientist temporarily sidetracked by slam dunks, a budding musician exploring the intricacies of the electric keyboard and the saxophone.

"I've always said that David is a better person than a player," Navy coach Pete Herrmann said. "NBA people said the money would change him. It hasn't. For the past month, he has been the best player in basketball."

That Robinson, a lieutenant in the Naval reserves, could be called back to active military duty at any time during the war in the Persian Gulf provides a terrifying edge to his play world. Robinson's stoic, patriotic stance -- "I'll go and serve gladly" -- broadens his appeal while reinforcing his heroic qualities of duty and honor.

"David is Mister Robinson," Orlando Magic general manager Pa Williams said. "He is the naval officer, helping to defend our country. David is an educator and a motivator. He stands for goodliness. How can you attack that? He may be helping defend us against the Iraqis. Mister Robinson is who every family wants their son to become."

The image sells.

The Spurs, once one of the NBA's third-world franchises, have become a league superpower on and off the court. They waited two years for Robinson to fulfill his active military obligation, and now they're reaping the rewards of patience. Robinson ignited a 35-game turnaround in his rookie season last year, and average attendance climbed from 11,207 to 14,723 at the HemisFair. This season, the Spurs are averaging 15,896 fans a game.

Sales of officially licensed Spurs' merchandise also climbed last year, from 22nd to 13th out of 27 NBA teams.

In fan balloting for today's NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte, N.C., Robinson led all Western Conference players with 695,519 votes, 30,000 ahead of runner-up Magic Johnson.

Even Robinson's "Q rating" deserves a bullet. In the advertising world's rankings of recognition and likability, Robinson is fifth among active NBA players, behind Jordan, Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas.

"David Robinson is at the cutting edge of a new generation of endorsers," said Matthew Grim, sports marketing columnist for Adweek's Marketing Week. "He can act. He can play music. He is smart. He is an officer and a gentleman."

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